Commentator Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–New U.S. Census data show that the American family is becoming more traditional.

A startling statement? Not if you view the family through the long lens of history. The Census Bureau announced that nuclear families have dropped below 25 percent of all households and that multiple family forms are now the rule in American society, not the exception.

This means that American families are becoming more like they were a century ago–or two centuries ago, rather than in the recent past. The Census report brought the usual wail of dismay from the conservative Family Research Council, saying that we need to “regain” the importance of marriage as a social institution.

But if the family of our past is more complex and varied than the nuclear family, and if complexity held sway for most of our history, can it be so bad?

The big difference is that in the past, death was the prime architect of family structure, followed closely by economics. Today personal choice has taken death’s place, with economics still a powerful force. Many people today choose alternate family forms in the pursuit of happiness–or at least in an effort to avoid misery or abuse.

In the pre-modern era, fully half of all children could expect to lose one or both parents to death. Serial marriages were common for men, who often lost wives in childbirth. And a way of life that was largely agricultural meant that households were often made up of many people–not just kin but others who came to help work the land or maintain the household. “The Brady Bunch” would have been perfectly understood by our colonial ancestors, for whom blended families were the norm.

The rosy, “Norman Rockwell” portrait of the American family in the past that many of us carry around in our heads is largely a fiction. The true story is much more complex. For example, we tend to regard the Puritans as beacons of family virtue. But it was not uncommon for Puritan parents to send their children away for others to rear, because they feared their own moral rectitude was not strong enough to save their children from hellfire.

Puritan Families Were Not Paragons of Moral Virtue

In the Plymouth colony, the characteristic feature of the family was that people who were not related lived in the household. Children whose parents had died went straight to another household. Idle and even criminal persons were sentenced by the court to be live-in servants for more upright citizens. In towns in rural Maine, the mentally ill were dealt with by auction. Families would “buy” such people and their children, providing food and shelter in exchange for their labor.

As for the superior moral virtues of families of the past, which conservatives often extol, the historical record does not bear this out. In post revolutionary Concord, Mass., one-third of the babies were born out of wedlock. And the diary of an 18th century New England midwife noted that 38 percent of the 814 birthings she attended were the result of extramarital conception. (Her story was chronicled by Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in “A Midwife’s Tale.”)

The law required that midwives obtain from an unmarried woman in labor the name of the father of the child, since the court wanted his identity so that the town would not have to support the “bastard.” One young man noted in the midwife’s diary was an illegitimate child, acknowledged and financially supported by a prominent judge, who was a married man. And the midwife heard from the lips of one pregnant woman whose child she was delivering that it had been fathered out of wedlock by the mother’s own son. Illegitimacy and sex outside of marriage, it seems, were not invented in the 1960s.

The present-day diversity of family forms in the United States reflects a host of economic and demographic trends. People are marrying later, so more people are living alone, at least for a time. The divorce rate is leveling off, but has left many middle-aged people rearing children on their own. Women’s greater earning power has enabled them to support children, and the rate of male single parents who are heads of households is rapidly growing. The number of cohabiting couples is up 6 percent from a decade ago and the number of gay and lesbian couples is on the rise.

Studies Show Most Children Not Scarred by Divorce

Many of these families are thriving. While a small and very flawed study claimed that children of divorce bear lifelong scars, larger and much better-designed studies show that most children emerge from divorce with few emotional scars, especially if they have the warm parenting of at least one parent.

Research shows that children reared by lesbian mothers and gay fathers are as likely as children reared in heterosexual, two-parent families to achieve a heterosexual gender orientation. Other studies find that other aspects of personal development and social relationships are within the normal range for children raised in lesbian and gay families.

A major 1999 survey by researchers at Yeshiva University finds: “A variety of family structures can support positive child outcomes. We have concluded that children need at least one responsible, care-taking adult who has a positive emotional connection to them and with whom they have a consistent relationship. Moreover, that parent can be a father or a mother.”

While conservative family advocates claim that any family form other than heterosexual marriage causes harm to children, social science data refutes such claims. In fact, the factor most positively related to a whole range of good child outcomes is socio-economic status. Conservative family advocates too often confuse the effects of poverty with the effects of family structure.

Unfortunately, American political debate has been centered around an outmoded idea of “family values” which takes the 1950s as a model. But the fifties were an atypical era, with economic forces very much unlike those operating in the present day. Sociologist Judith Stacey, author of “In the Name of the Family,” says that the current debate over families reflects what she calls “sitcom sociology.”

She notes that “an improbable alliance of academic and political networks” produces political ideas that are increasingly divorced from current realities. Both Republicans and New Democrats, she says, have become enamored of a narrative about “a prodigal society returning to conjugal family virtue after suffering the painful consequences of self-indulgent rebellions.” That story bears little relationship to the real historical record–it’s a fairy tale.

This fairy tale exaggerates the stability and virtue of the past, and demonizes the present. It can in no way be the basis for public policy in such a critical area as supporting real-life American families.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.