“If you didn’t feel societal constraints, what family would you create?” That is the provocative question New America asked on Twitter earlier this month as part of its promotion of an article by New America California fellow, Mia Birdsong.
In the piece entitled, “Single Family Homes, But No Single Family,” Birdsong writes: “What if we disaggregated the roles we attach to family, and marriage in particular, and thought of it as something more flexible and fluid? What if we accepted that what we need in our 20’s is not necessarily what we’ll need in our 50’s? What if a spouse didn’t have to be a romantic partner, roommate, co-parent, and best friend all in one person?”
At the end of the article, she asks: “If you could throw out all the conventions and constructs and limitations of our current understanding of family, what would you create for yourself?”
In response to that question, one woman enthusiastically tweeted, “I’d create 2 legal statuses, 2 share adult burdens, rewards: ‘partner,’ ‘sibling.’ Marriage, family, romance [would] be individual, cultural choice.”
As a child of divorce who was raised by a single mom, I too would like to weigh in on Birdsong’s question. Without any reservations, the family form I would create is the one I never had as a child: a married mom and dad for every child in a world where marriage is supported and encouraged.
I realize my answer may not be as popular as some of the other responses Birdsong received, or what she wanted to hear when she asked the question. But it’s something that needs to be said because, despite increases in cohabitation and unmarried parenthood, the married-parent family remains the “gold standard” of family forms for child well-being.
Research, of course, backs me up on this. Children raised by their own married parents are significantly less likely to experience poverty, family instability, and a host of other negative outcomes. Married-biological families are also safer for children (and women) than other family forms, especially single mom and cohabiting-parent families. And kids raised by married parents are more successful in school than kids in other family forms, as new IFS research has shown.
Princeton University Professor Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur summed up the superiority of the married-parent family in their 1994 book, Growing Up With a Single Parent, writing:
If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. Such a design…would not only ensure that children had access to the time and money of two adults, it also would provide a system of checks and balances that promoted quality parenting. The fact that both parents have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child, and it would reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child.
While the social science evidence for the benefits of the married-parent family is impressive, my views on marriage were shaped more by the fragmented family life I experienced as a child. Like many children today, I transitioned through a variety of family forms during my childhood and adolescence. I’ve lived with my single mom alone; with my mom, aunt and grandmother for a time; and with my remarried mom, stepdad, stepbrother, and two half-siblings. I also spent summers living with my father, stepmother, and three half-siblings.
Not all of these family experiences were bad (for example my grandmother, aunt, and mom taught me about how to be a strong woman in a world where men too often relinquish their family responsibilities), and I never for a second doubted my parents’ love for me. But much of my childhood was chaotic, family relationships were fleeting, and the men in our world were often irresponsible, dangerous, or simply not around enough to make a difference. Even in the good times, when we had enough money for food, gas, and housing and our home life was more stable, I still felt half-empty. I ached for more time and attention from my father, who was remarried and raising a new family, and I longed to know what it was like to be raised by both my parents in one home.
Just because families come in a variety of forms doesn’t mean we should stop striving to repair and rebuild the one family form we know is best for as many children as possible.
While Birdsong raises an important point in her article—that not all families today fit the “nuclear family ideal”—she fails to acknowledge the real suffering experienced by many men and women who were raised outside of a stable, married-parent family—suffering that’s been detailed on this blog by David and Amber Lapp (see: here or here), and can also be found on story-sharing communities like I Believe in Love. The often silent suffering that many of us endured as a result of family fragmentation deserves to at least be acknowledged.
To be clear, my desire for a world where the married biological family thrives is not meant to denigrate the variety of other family forms that exist, including the family form in which I was raised. I have the deepest respect for single parents like my mom, who do the hardest job in the world every day, and for the grandparents, adoptive and foster parents and others who are doing their best in challenging circumstances to build stable families. But just because families come in a variety of forms doesn’t mean we should stop striving to repair and rebuild the one family form we know is best for as many children as possible.
I’ve witnessed the fall-out from the breakdown of marriage in my family—including poverty, child abuse, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, and incarceration. I’ve also personally experienced the grief that tends to linger when the two people who made you can’t or won’t stay together to raise you. Because I know what happens when marriages crumble or disappear, I want something better for my children; in fact, I want the “gold standard” family form. That is why, even though it’s not easy and we have very few role models, the married-parent family is the one my husband and I are working hard to create for our children. It’s also why we are teaching them that married parenthood is still the family ideal worth fighting for and preserving for future generations.