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Smell the Coffee: 'Normal' family no longer the norm

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was impossible not to overhear the conversation from nearby tables at the restaurant.

To the right were two women, clearly a couple, though not overtly. They were together in gentle looks and finished sentences and the way they anticipated the needs of the other -- handing across just the pepper, not the salt, without being asked; stopping the waitress to ask for extra tartar sauce even though it wasn't she who ordered the fish; swiping her partner's pickles without getting smacked.

With them were two very young children -- one African-American, the other likely from China. They were chattery, dimpled giggleboxes, but well-mannered, behaved.

It was easy to tell that theirs was a happy little family.

One that Bob Bigot and Joe Intolerant, also seated nearby, couldn't abide. In loud voices, they talked of calling Child Protective Services to save those poor kids from what was certain to be a lifetime of depravity and sin. They commented how the women were too homely to have attracted men. Suggested the children would've been better off aborted.

The little ones were too young to recognize the fountain of ugliness that was spilling so close to their table, and if the mothers heard, they didn't react.

All were finishing their meals when an older couple approached the family's table. The husband and wife appeared to be in their 70s, meaning they came from a world when family meant a working father and stay-at-home mom, with a son and a daughter and a dog and a cat, and meatloaf and mashed potatoes every Sunday night. That was the American way.

The husband stopped to tousle the little girl's hair.

"You have a gorgeous family," his wife said.

"Enjoy every minute," said the man.

It was heartening how accepting that older couple was, how they grasped the beauty of the way two women had cobbled together a family, and how they understood that a family is something to value, regardless of how wildly unconnected the parts of it once were. And they didn't waste time begrudging others for being different.

The traditional American family has been undergoing a profound transformation. In 1960, married families made up nearly three-quarters of all households, but by 2000, the same accounted for only 53 percent of the population.

"The typical American family does not have the same structure as a generation ago," said Dr. Susan Brown, Bowling Green State University professor of sociology and co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research.

"Social and economic dynamics have contributed to greater complexity and diversity in today's families," Brown said. "A household headed by a married mother and father who are both the biological parents of their children is no longer the most common version of today's family."

When I think of the families I know personally, I realize what used to be thought of as normal isn't the norm anymore. I know grandparents with custody of their grandchildren; a woman who, on her own, is raising the son of her ex-husband and another woman. I know families patched together with half, full and step siblings. Couples with "fur babies." Families who foster, adopt, inherit and just plain old open their door to stray kids.

My own family jokes about being made up of in-laws, ex-laws and out-laws.

The late Erma Bombeck once described family as being "a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it ... loving, laughing, defending and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together."

More and more, families in this country are becoming the physical personification of America itself. A mishmash of people who are free to worship and free to vote. Free to work for a living or free to be supported on the backs of those who do. Free to bear arms, free to speak.

And free to make a family with whomever, and however, they choose.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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