Ask a simple question: “What defines a family?” and you won’t get a simple answer. Our faculty experts tell us today’s families are crossing borders and breaking boundaries. No longer bound only by blood, Americans are now identifying family by community and kin, necessity and opportunity.

The ambiguity of the ‘typical’ American family

Within today’s families, we’re seeing an increase in diversity of family forms—reflected in the fact that American families come in many different sizes and gender make-ups, says sociology professor Ellen Berg. And since 1965, fathers have doubled the hours spent on housework and tripled their hours of childcare.

“Men are more involved as parents—I think that’s key,” says social work professor David Nylund. But on the other hand, when it comes to responsibilities like kids’ birthday parties, clothes shopping, even illnesses, he says, it’s still Mom who’s accountable.

According to Berg, our work now lies in changing our views of men’s roles in families—and our views of masculinity in general. “Traditional views of masculinity are very limiting for men as individuals, as partners AND as fathers,” she says. “We need to allow men the same broadened scope of ways to ‘be men’ as we are slowly allowing for women.”

Ellen Berg

These changing parenting models can also be tied to morphing economic structures in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Institute, countries with low levels of income inequality and child poverty (for instance Norway, Denmark and Sweden) tend to have more available childcare and financial support for children—and the U.S. has one of the most unequal income distributions in the developed world.

This is where education comes into play.

“Research shows that education can lead to increased knowledge and skills that enrich our lives and relationships, lead to greater employment opportunities, and enhance our health, wellbeing, careers and civic engagement,” says Ann Moylan, a professor of family and consumer sciences. While this may result in great opportunities for personal development, it can also put us in conflict with our families, who may have a different worldview, understanding of events and issues and set of values, she says.

“Families tend toward homeostasis—maintaining patterns and relationships as they currently are, maintaining the status quo. But if one person steps outside the mold and starts being honest with the reality of the situation, he or she can give the family an opportunity to change and grow.”

David Nylund MSW '87
Social Work

Changing cultural norms and expectations are also allowing couples more flexibility to choose not to have children or for single parents to raise children on their own, says Berg. And because today’s parents are also raising children from multiple relationships together, we now have a blended subgroup of “multi” families: multiethnic, multiracial, multilingual and also multigenerational, as the life expectancies of grandparents continue to increase.

But gay parents may very well be the most noteworthy addition to our nation’s family. Today, more than 115,000 same-sex couples are raising children together.

The evolution of the ‘nuclear family’

Though the children’s rhyme may advise, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage…,” family structure in 2015 is rarely so cut and dried—or final.

“We want love for everybody, but that depends on what love means to us,” Moylan says. “There’s lots of fantasy out there on what love should look like. This can lead to discontentment, which can lead us to questioning relationships.”

And while the right to marry has been expanded in recent years, divorce rates continue to rise—all of which is impacting families.

Ann Moylan
Family and
Consumer Sciences

“One of the dangers is that when relationships end, there aren’t enough structures and rituals in place for how to move positively forward, so the demise of a relationship is informed by adversarial and legal struggle—affecting kids in particular,” says Nylund.

To him, putting kids’ needs first is key to maintaining familiar bonds during the divorce process, which can help bring forth a collaborative way of ending a relationship.

“Some of our ideas on loss and grief are useful, but also problematic,” he says. “To me, when you lose a loved one through death, your relationship with that person still continues in a different way. Same with divorce—things don’t end, the relationship just changes.”

Interestingly enough, the divorce rate in America has declined to just above 40 percent for first-time marriages, partly due to the increase of college-educated women.

“One of the biggest ‘revolutions’ in the American family is women’s increasing education level, increasing presence in the paid labor force and their increasing levels of independence,” Berg says. The traditional “calculus” of the 1950s, where the income-dependent wife stayed home to care for the children, has changed dramatically. “A big part of that is female access to higher education.”

Living longer, together

Donna Jensen MSW '96

Changes in the caregiver dynamic also extend to extended family.

With the largest group of caregivers in America being family members, adults are actively caring for their own children, their parents and even their grandparents.

“There is certainly an economic and social component to grandparents’ involvement in their grandchildren’s lives,” says gerontology professor Donna Jensen. “If I’m a single parent and I can’t afford daycare, I’m going to first look to my family members for caregiving.”

More than 2.5 million grandparents are raising grandkids in the U.S., and grandparents residing with grandchildren are up by a third from the previous generation, with about 8 million children living with a grandparent.

Sometimes the grandparents find themselves in a direct parenting role for grandchildren in need of a stable environment.

“Because of the rise of awareness on domestic violence, women are now leaving abusive relationships,” says Nylund. “Often, grandparents get involved as the primary custodial parent because one of the biological custodial parents is struggling with drugs or has perpetrated violence.”

At the same time, more elderly adults in the U.S. are engaged in their own lives and communities—or are still in the workforce—than ever before. Jensen in part attributes these changes to our evolving perspective on aging now versus 25 years ago.

“About 60-65 years old used to be the benchmark for older adulthood,” she says. “But today, because of the number of people aging—and the way that we’re aging—we don’t perceive that age as ‘old’ anymore.”

“Because people are living healthier, longer lives, we have grandparents and older adults who just don’t have time to be caregivers. They may even have more active lives than their children and grandchildren,” she says.

The more things change…

The lesson: there is more than one way to be a family and that won’t change any time soon. “Human beings are amazingly adaptable creatures, which manifests in how families have changed for the better,” says Moylan.

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