"Clearly American families have changed, especially when we use the
'Leave It to Beaver' family as a benchmark," said Angela Wiley,
assistant professor in family studies at the University of Illinois.
"The two-parent, single-earner family made up only 7 percent of
American families in 2002."
It's not just the number of families
with two working parents or the rise in the number of single-parent
households -- now 31 percent of all U.S. families. The average age
of first marriage has risen to age 25.1 years for women and 27.8
years for men, and women are increasingly postponing or not having
According to the U.S. Census, the number of cohabiting couples
increased 72 percent between 1990 and 2000. Government statistics
reveal that 41 percent of American women age 15 to 44 have lived
with a partner outside of marriage at some point in their lives,
"At the National Council of Family Relations meeting two years
ago, there was a lot of discussion about what's happening to
marriage," Wiley said. "Researchers asked: Are we seeing a change in
the way couples get together? Is marriage becoming almost passé?"
There are many voters for whom "family values" is a compelling
issue, but Wiley believes that many people have gotten trapped in a
"Even in the 1950s, many families did not fit the 'Leave It to
Beaver' mold," she said, citing historian Stephanie Coontz's book
"The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."
"But for some reason, we believe there's a set of American values
that were somehow purer, safer, morally better, and there's a sense
that we're diverging radically from that."
Ironically, just as many Americans are opting out of traditional
marriage, gay and lesbian couples are clamoring to make it their
"Marriage in the United States is a gateway to social legitimacy,
economic benefits and legal security; that's why many gay and
lesbian couples want to marry," said Ramona Oswald, an associate
professor of family studies at the U of I.
"In my mind, same-sex marriage is very pro-family," she said. "It
would allow gay and lesbian couples to protect and provide for each
other. It would protect the rights of children if parental death or
In most states, same-sex couples who have done as much legal
documentation as they can possibly do -- they have powers of
attorney, wills and own a home together -- still face challenges
that heterosexual married couples don't.
"If one partner is ill, a hospital doesn't have to honor the
medical power of attorney the other partner has; and that power of
attorney ends the moment the sick partner dies," Oswald said. "The
surviving partner doesn't even have the right to make funeral
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Perhaps nothing worries "family values" advocates more, though,
than the children being reared in such nontraditional families. What
is the outcome for children of gay couples who become parents or for
children of heterosexual couples who live together without marrying?
"That depends on so many factors, including whether both parents
are committed to the child and whether the parents' relationship
involves excessive conflict," said Wiley.
Oswald said that two decades of research have consistently found
few differences between children of gay and straight parents.
"Differences that have been found seem rather positive," she said,
citing findings that children of lesbian mothers may have slightly
better social skills and feel less confined by gender stereotypes.
Need for tolerance, respect and good social policy
Wiley worries that family values battles pitting "us versus them"
are tearing at the fabric of community that supports a healthy
society. "American society was built on the notion of religious
tolerance and respect for differing points of view," she said,
noting that research shows spirituality is an important component of
"And religion offers added benefits beyond spirituality -- a
supportive religious community and practices that give the
believer's life meaning," she said. "We know, for example, that
ritual is important in managing stress.
"But when members of a religious group try to convert others to
their beliefs, they risk violating another person's boundaries. It's
important to respect people's right to their own way of thinking."
In light of the changing composition of the American family,
Wiley calls for domestic partner recognition and benefits for
unmarried couples; supportive policies and benefits for single
parents, including improvements in child-care options and
availability; and improved diversity training in the workplace,
including religious diversity and tolerance.
Oswald believes that we need to distinguish between our personal
values and good social policy. She challenges people who oppose
legal rights for gay and lesbian families to really think about what
that lack of rights means.
"Is it OK with you if a parent can't enroll his child in school
because he has no legal rights? Is it OK with you if a hospital can
block a partner from seeing her dying spouse? That's where the
conversation needs to be," she said.
University of Illinois]