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Beyond the Family

During the mid-20th century, a standard for the American family developed that would affect American cultural life for generations. Among several hundred million people, exceptions obviously occurred, but the cultural norm called for a working father, a mother who worked tirelessly to keep up the family home, two children (a boy and a girl), often a dog or cat. During the Second World War, men entered the armed services, and women worked in their place, but as soon as that great event ended, the family bought a suburban home and played out traditional roles. If the couple were, in fact, unhappy with each other, they remained married and suffered. Divorce was a shameful thing, not even discussed. When the children grew, they would move out of the house and repeat the process. The family would be active in civic affairs and religion, and would socialize actively with other, seemingly identical families.

In many cases, of course, even then, women worked, divorces occurred, single mothers raised children on their own, people had homosexual relationships, married couples remained childless, and people lived together without getting married. In many other cases, the suburban ideal was not financially attainable. The ideal persisted in popular culture for decades after the 1950s, but it is no longer strong today. Too many exceptions now exist. Divorce affects more than half of all marriages, and has led to the development of the “blended family,” in which spouses live with or care for children from each others’ previous marriages. Also, “extended families,” involving related adults of different generations living together (as in the case of a widowed woman living with her child and the child’s spouse and children, or a married couple living with one of their parents), are on the rise for economic reasons.

The single parent household has also seen a large increase. In the majority of cases, this involves a single mother who has been divorced or who does not marry in the first place. The number of single father households is on the rise, however. In families under stress, grandparents may well end up becoming the major care providers for children.

It is a certainty that homosexuality existed even in the idealized family era of the 1950s, but homosexuals of both genders are more open about their lifestyles now. In some states, they can legally marry or engage in civil unions, but all over the United States, they do form households, and, more and more, raise children in a two-parent family setting. The issue, of course, is controversial. Gays and lesbians strive for the right to run families as do heterosexual people. Some non-gay people accept this as a reality, others call it an impossibility, while still others think it is wrong from a social or religious standpoint.

Today, a strong trend in family life is actually the non-family, the prevalence of single people, either those who do not get married in the first place or those who divorce and do not remarry. Single people, by no means a unified mass, have their own needs and their own methods of running their households.

As mentioned previously, immigrants to the United States tend to bring strong family values and customs along with them, but as they and their children become absorbed into American life, they are not immune from the pressures the American family faces today.

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