The XX Factor

Non-Traditional Families Are The New Tradition

Traditional families like the Obamas are in the minority now.

Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

Christmas is a time of nostalgia for Victorian imagery, ‘40s-style crooner songs, and the idealized 1950s family image of two parents, two kids, and a dog. But if watching the inexplicably famous Holderness family celebrating the corny joys of the nuclear family Christmas is the sort of thing that makes you want to pour a little more bourbon in your eggnog, take comfort in the fact that history is on your side. A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that the majority of American kids under 18 are not being raised in a “traditional” family, defined as two parents in their first marriage. Only 46 percent of kids have the Leave It To Beaver lifestyle; the rest are being raised by single parents, cohabitating parents, stepparents, or even grandparents. That’s down from 73 percent in 1960.

Defining the nuclear family as “traditional” is somewhat misleading, as report author Gretchen Livingston told Jessica Goldstein of ThinkProgress. “In a lot of ways the 1950s and 1960s were an anomaly in family structure; the birth rate was uncommonly high, people married young,” she explained. “So even though people think of that as the traditional image of the family … it was actually [an] anomaly.” (Still, as she pointed out, these numbers had even changed a lot since 1980, when 61 percent of kids were being raised in a stereotypical nuclear family.) The takeaway is that the image of a “traditional” family is a figment. Family life is always changing in response to economic and social change. 

These are the sorts of numbers that tend to get conservative hands a-wringing over the supposed problem of “out-of-wedlock” births, which have been rising alongside the number of kids being raised outside of nuclear families. As the report notes, “the share of children born outside of marriage now stands at 41%, up from just 5% in 1960.” But if you dig into the numbers a little, it becomes clear that the supposed scourge of bastardy isn’t the primary reason for this shift. Only 34 percent of kids are being raised by single parents, many of whom were once married but are now divorced. While researchers didn’t measure the pasts of the polled families, just their present status, the only way we could get to the numbers we have now is if a substantial chunk of that 46 percent of traditional families started off as the dreaded “out-of-wedlock” births and just got married sometime after the first baby was born. Even W. Bradford Wilcox, in a piece for Slate condemning giving birth while single, did concede that many women who do so eventually get married.

Not that these realities will quell conservative lectures about the near-magical properties of giving birth with a wedding ring on your finger. Younger women who give birth while single tend to be less powerful and less Republican than divorced people are, making them an easier scapegoat. But for the rest of us, this research is a bit of cheer before the holiday. If your family has a second Christmas at Dad’s house, or you’re fretting about the etiquette of stepparent gifts, or you live in a family where “Santa” is not mom but grandma, don’t despair. You’re not weird, as it turns out. In fact, you’re the new normal.