What does the modern family look like?

First aired on Ontario Morning (5/8/11)

non-nuclear family.JPG

Love and marriage, love and marriage

Go together like a horse and carriage

This I tell you brother

You can't have one without the other

Frank Sinatra seemed pretty sure about how the world works, but according to author Judith Stacey, love, marriage and family don't always have to go together. She spent 10 years talking to people who live in stable, supportive relationships that are quite unlike our North American idea of a nuclear family. Her new book, Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, clearly shows that "family" has many different configurations.

Stacey is keen to expand the contemporary North American definition of family. After all, the nuclear family is a relatively modern construct, and one that began imploding as soon as it was the dominant family model in western cultures. "The idea of the nuclear family, which is just a married heterosexual couple and their children really is a 19th and 20th century phenomenon," Stacey explained to Ontario Morning guest host Mike Ewing. "It didn't become statistically the majority until the middle of the 20th century."

Stacey's research focused on three groups, all of which have a strong sense of family but are completely different: gay men raising children in Los Angeles, several families in South Africa, the only country in the world where both gay marriage and polygamy are legal, and the Mosou Buddhist community in western China, where marriage doesn't even exist and children are raised by their mother's extended family. In each of these communities, Stacey found loving, supportive, non-traditional family models that demonstrated family doesn't need to be defined by marriage and that if children are loved and supported, they will flourish, regardless of their family structure.

While the nuclear family was the dominant model in North America throughout the middle of the 20th century, it is declining in popularity. Rapidly. For the first time in several decades, the majority of North American households are not managed by married couples. Instead, you see more gay parents raising children, more blended families and step-families coming together, and more extended families living together and raising children collaboratively. The definition of "family" is becoming increasingly diverse, and this is something Stacey welcomes. She just wishes that political policy would catch up with the decisions people are making about raising children and creating families.

"We still have enormous resistance to that idea and our political arrangements have not caught up in any way to the variety of families in our midst," Stacey argues. "I would like to diminish the significance of marriage as the only way to recognize and give credit to families."

Do you agree with Stacey's argument? Is your family structure non-traditional? Let us know in the comments below.

UnhitchedUnhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China
by Judith Stacey

Buy this book at:
Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

"Built on bracing original research that spans gay men's intimacies and parenting in this country to plural and non-marital forms of family in South Africa and China, Unhitched decouples the taken for granted relationships between love, marriage, and parenthood. Countering the one-size-fits-all vision of family values, Stacey offers readers a lively, in-person introduction to these less familiar varieties of intimacy and family and to the social, political, and economic conditions that buttress and batter them."

Read more at New York University Press.

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