RE: The Changing Face of Families

Dear Ms. Seale,

Your article, "The Changing Face of Families," in the November 1991 edition of the INSITE Magazine is one of the best-written and most insightful articles on the family in contemporary America that I have ever read. Your in-depth research shows in your concise and vivid presentation of the changing family structure.

Having worked as a Board-certified Family Law Specialist, as well as a Juvenile and Family Court Judge, I have long had an interest in the sociology of families and the problems they, and in particular, the children, face in contemporary times. That your article was the featured story in INSITE Magazine demonstrates just how aware the public is becoming of the problems posed by the social changes in our families. Thank you very much for all the hard work you put into this article.

Sarah Ryan
Judge, County Court at Law No. 2
Sales Representative, Lone Star Gas
Brazos County, Texas

The Changing Face of Families

by Allison Seale

Cover of Issue
It’s 5:30 a.m. when the alarm clock blares. Slowly, the sleepy occupant of the room rises. Over the next two hours she manages to shower, make breakfast for her two toddlers, get them both dressed and fed and taken to their respective day cares. On a good day she manages to make it in to her 8-to-5 job by 8:30 a.m.. She wishes she had help -- a companion for herself and a male influence for her children.

The same morning, two blocks away, another family is beginning to rise. The couple takes turns showering, then they dress for another workday; each takes responsibility for a child. Over breakfast they plot strategies for picking up the children from child care that evening. She has to stay late for work tonight; he’ll have to solo. A plan agreed upon, they each load a child in a car and head off to separate day care locations and separate jobs. She’ll take some time during lunch to visit her eldest son’s school. She wishes she could be a homeroom mom like her mother had been for her, but they need the income her job provides.

On another day, a man drives 20 miles to pick up his children for their every-other-weekend visit; he wishes he could spend more time with them. He picks them up from the house they share with their mother’s new husband. It hurts knowing that another man is seeing them grow, watching them change and sharing their little accomplishments. It seems like only yesterday when they were a family.

Family. The word conjures up all sorts of warm, fuzzy images. Most commonly, it brings to mind a Cleaveresque clan made up of a housewife, a bread-winning dad and two well-adjusted children.

But gone are the days of the work-a-day daddy and stay-at-home mommy that characterized families of the Beaver Cleaver generation. In place of the "traditional" family of the 50s are dual income families; single-parent households, usually headed by a divorced or unmarried mother; and blended families, made up of couples who each have children from other relationships.

But each of these family types have something in common: the parents are raising their children in ways that bear little resemblance to their own upbringing, and none of them knows how it will turn out.

Simon Says

Tres Watson knows something about what it’s like to grow up in a broken home. His parents divorced when he was 14.

"It bothered me, but there really wasn't much I could do," he said. "I wish it wouldn’t have happened, but it wasn’t in my control."

Watson said that he remembers having been very involved with football and baseball before his parents split up, but gave them up for rodeo because he could travel out of town. "It was a way for me to escape – to be out on my own."

At 26, Watson is still single. He says that perhaps his parents’ divorce has made him, at least subconsciously, afraid of marriage.

"You’re strongly against divorce when you’ve been through one," he said. "You want to be sure it’s right when you do marry."

Jeff and Susan McDowell, of College Station, seem to be two of the lucky ones. They’ve been married 14 years and point to their love of mutual sports and a strong friendship as the reason their marriage has survived longer than many of their friends’ marriages. Like many couples today, they made the decision to put off having children. However, last year they had a change of heart that led to the birth of their son, Chase.

Apart from taking two months maternity leave, Susan has continued to work full time, as does Jeff. They divide the tasks associated with getting their son to and from school: Jeff has the morning shift and Susan makes the evening run.

"There’s a void that Chase fills that we didn’t know existed before," Jeff said. "We were missing something.

"We might have had a child a bit sooner if we had known how rewarding it could be. There’s something special in knowing you’ve created another human that might have an impact on the world."

Jeannie Goss, the coordinator for the Parents as Teachers program, knows plenty about the joys of parenting and the miracles children can create. Her job is to teach new and expectant mothers good parenting skills, but as a divorced mother of three, she said her job often helps her at home, too.

Her children, who range in age from 11 to 5 years old, now belong to a blended family. When they draw a picture of their family, the two eldest draw a picture of their traditional family, while the youngest, Calli, includes her father’s new wife and her two step-sisters.

"The concept of a nuclear family is foreign to Calli," Goss explained. "Life with a single parent is the only life Calli has ever known." One night Calli commented to her mother that when she grows up and is a mommy and her boyfriend comes over, she is going to cook him dinner.

"The traditional ‘nuclear’ family is not traditional anymore," Goss added. "The average family is either blended, single, or has two parents working."

Too many people think that just because these systems are non-traditional, they are not a strong system, says Goss. They treat them as a problem.

"I didn’t ask to be a single parent, but I am and want to be accepted and respected – not looked at as a failure. I am a much better parent now. If you are happy with yourself, you will spread that happiness to those you touch.

"Take whatever system you are in and make it the best it can be. Say to yourself, "This is my family, and it is complete."

Pinning the Blame

So what’s happened to the American family in the last 40 years? Trying to pin down an all-inclusive answer would be like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree, but there are some trends. Topping the list is divorce.

Over the past 20 years, a rapidly rising divorce rate, coupled with a rising rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing, has dramatically increased the number of children in single-parent families. Divorce and separation are the major causes of single parenthood in the United States. Indeed, nearly half of all marriages fail, giving this nation the highest divorce rate in the world.

Perhaps the most dramatic social change of the past 20 years is the number of mothers entering the work force, according to a study released by the National Commission on Children. Increasing economic pressure on families has dictated to many a necessity to check their children in day care and start punching a clock. In fact, the percentage of women employed has increased from 34 percent in 1950 to 55 percent in 1987. Of those, almost half have children under the age of three, and their numbers are growing every year.

"The new family structures you see are out-growths of societal changes," said Dr. Sue Lucas, of Texas A&M’s Student Counseling Service. "All of these changes have occurred with no kind of role models about how to do this."

Dr. Lucas, who did her dissertation on dual career families, said a problem that often arises is that employers still assume that employees belong to traditional family structures and are not always flexible to special needs of working married and single parents.

Responding to Change

The current trend, however, is moving toward a renewed interest in the family. Maybe this is because so many people think that the American family is in trouble. National opinion polls of Americans from all walks of life, whether raising children or not, show that they believe there is something terribly amiss with children and families.

And why should they? Divorce, adolescent crime and adolescent suicide rates have all soared. Salaries have failed to keep up with increased costs, and more and more children are born into poverty without adequate health care. And without that care, they are more prone to learning disabilities and health and behavioral problems that will almost certainly affect their performance at school.

Pretty bleak, huh? Local statistics point out that families and children in the Brazos Valley are faring better than their national counterparts. The infant mortality rate in the Brazos Valley is less than half the national rate and 75 percent of our children live with two parents, compared to 50 percent nationally. Innovative programs such as Parents As Teachers, JOBS (Jobs, Opportunities and Basic Skills) and WINGS (Winning Independence and Gaining Success) have been designed to target our at-risk parents to help them break the cycle of poverty.

Locally, both public school systems have established extended day care programs because of the concern in the community for "latch key kids" – children who return from school to an empty home – and the availability of afternoon day care.

Another program, passed by the state legislature two years ago, provides that school buses may take children either to their home or a day-care site. Previously, a child had to be picked up and dropped off at the same site.

In the private sector, many employers are starting to look at ways to support families. Large employers like American Airlines and Baylor Child Care Center in Dallas and the Spring Branch School District have opened on-site child care for their employees to use. Scott & White in Temple and the University of Texas expect to open similar facilities this year.

We think it’s going to help us with retention of employees," said Don Nelson, director of public affairs at Scott & White in Temple. "It will make it a lot easier for working parents to have their children nearby." Nelson said they expect to open their child care facility in Temple this march.

Texas A&M University System’s College Station campus looked into establishing on-site day care two years ago for its faculty, staff, employees, and students. After polling the users and providers of day care services, the University concluded there was "adequate, available, and generally affordable child care in the Bryan/College Station area."

Texas A&M is not the only employer locally that has looked into providing specialized child care services for their employees and the community. In 1988, St. Joseph Hospital & Health Center looked into providing "sick child" care to the community. Essentially, they reached the same conclusion A&M had.

"A lot of people," Lou Miller, project analyst for St. Joseph said, "either had a family member already in town or they had a strong feeling that if they had a sick child, the last thing they wanted was to drop them off at a place they were unfamiliar with."

While St. Joseph decided against providing the "sick child" service to the community, they do offer it to their employees and believe it has helped to curb absenteeism.

Texas A&M decided that the most prudent course of action would be the establishment of a TAMUS Child Care Council and a child care data bank/referral service that aids those in search of child care in selecting a provider.

This type of referral service is something both large and small employers are doing to aid their employees and families. Other ways include "flex-time" programs, which allow employees flexibility in their work day schedules based on family needs, and "pre-tax salary reductions" that allow an employee to have monies for child or elder care deducted from their pay checks before taxes are calculated. This system benefits both the employee and the employer because it reduces the amount of taxes employers pay.

Dr. Carol Nasworthy, with the Texas Work and Family Clearinghouse in Austin, said that what most employers who initiate some of these programs have found is that productivity goes up, morale goes up, absences are fewer, and there is less turnover.

Slowly, government, too, is beginning to hear the screams from the domestic front. The Family Support Act of 1988 took steps toward reforming the welfare system to encourage economic self-sufficiency among low-income families and mother-only families. There have also been recent pro-family reforms of the federal income tax policy. But will the help that’s needed get there in time?

It's Your Turn, Right?

So, we bump around in the dark with this experiment we call the modern family. We look to books, friends, magazines, and support groups for advice on how to guide our lives. And like a child’s precarious game of pick-up-sticks, about the best we can hope for is that as we pick up each new piece of our lives, nothing else falls out of place. Whatever type of family system we live in, each of us is hoping that the fragile supports that hold our lives together don’t give way and send the family’s structure tumbling down.

NOTE: This article also contained several sidebars and a chart. Click here to download a PDF copy of this article.

* This article won an award in the IABC 1992 Brazos Bravo Awards competition.