For a long time the ideal family resembled something out of “Leave it to Beaver”. The mother was in the home, baking homemade goodies and awaiting the father’s return from a hard day. Women were expected to reproduce. Children played outside, and never dared question their parents. If an accidental pregnancy happened outside of wedlock the girl was sent away to have it, or she and the father were forced to marry. Teenaged girls were more likely to get pregnant, despite the stigma that would be placed upon her. This is a far cry from the modern family, what it looks like and how it was formed. Various ideals of what a family looks like now abound; no one thinks twice about a single mother or grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. These family types have become mainstream, and accepted. From use of birth control, reproductive technologies, single-parent families, divorce and same-sex couples, little about the modern family resembles the old ideal.
The use of birth control has had an undeniable impact upon the modern family. Parents are now waiting until they are older and more established to reproduce because they have control over when they can reproduce. For instance, in 1980 the average age of a women giving birth was 22.7 years old, while in 2013 the average age was 26 years old and still climbing (Kincaid, 2016). That is a 3.7 year difference in age in a short span of time. This is because less teens are having children, and more women are waiting until their thirties to have children (Kincaid, 2016). These changes are because women have the choice of contraceptives. In fact, in the United States 99% of women who are of child-bearing age are on some form of contraceptive (Gibson, 2015). Before the advent of modern birth control, men would pull out before ejaculating; in some countries strange mixes were used as either a topical ointment or for the women to drink before sexual intercourse (Gibson, 2015). These methods were far from effective, and oftentimes were more detrimental. Now women can choose from condoms, pills, intrauterine devices (IUD’s) and implants. It is easy to control when a child is made as a result. This has allowed married couples and single women alike to take control of their reproduction.
Another unique change regarding reproduction is the modern reproductive technologies available. Families who were unable to have children naturally used to either have to choose to adopt, or go without children. That is no longer the case. Now, there is artificial insemination, In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), and surrogacy. There are two types of surrogacy. One is where a surrogate women is inseminated with the fathers sperm and carries the child for the couple; the other has an embryo implanted in her using IVF and the egg is from the biological mother. These technologies have allowed women who could not conceive to do so, and has also allowed women who are older and therefore would normally have a harder time conceiving to do so. Not only have these allowed married couples who once would not have been able to have children to do so, it also allows single parents or same-sex couples to do so as well. For instance, two men who wanted to have a child could hire a surrogate mother and use their sperm to artificially inseminate her. Two women could use sperm from a sperm bank with the same results. This has led to a different definition of what family looks like since it is no longer necessarily the traditional mother and father with children.
The differences in modern family expectations has also led to a higher rate of single family homes, or unmarried couples living together and having children. For instance, in 1990, 72 percent of births were to married women while 28 percent were to unmarried women (Livingston and Cohn, 2010). This changed quite a bit by 2008, when 59 percent of births were to married women and 41 percent were to unmarried women (Livingston and Cohn, 2010). This indicates several changes in families. First of all, more women are having children whether or not they have a husband or significant other. Also, more couples are choosing not to get married before moving forward with their lives together. It also is indicative of the shift in women’s role in society and the expectations placed upon them.
Divorce has also helped to redefine what family looks like. A family with divorced parents can begin to branch out in a unique way. For instance, if a divorced male with two children marries a divorced female with two children all four children now have one stepparent and two step-siblings. If the divorced male’s ex-wife re-marries then another step-father enters the picture, along with more step-siblings. This can begin to be a large blended family that defies the traditional idea of two parents and two children. In addition, it creates unique interactions between parents, stepparents and children as standards are created for the children’s pecking order and who the dominant adult is. This family dynamic is so far from the traditional dynamic that it is hardly recognizable. To have multiple parents and children who all are tied together by marriage is undoubtedly a modernized family trait.
Another unique shift in families is that of same sex couples. While same sex couples are not new, their ability to marry and adopt is still fairly new. While television once would have never featured same sex couples having children, shows such as “Switched at Birth” and “Modern Family” have begun to show them and helped to normalize this idea of a family. Of approximately 595,000 same-sex couple households, around 115,000 of them have children (Lifelongadoptions.com, 2016). Around 94,500 of those with children are married (Lifelongadoptions.com, 2016). Same-sex couples often use technological means to have biological children, but they are also far more likely to adopt than couples if the opposite sex (Lifelongadoptions.com, 2016). No matter how one might feel about the subject of same sex marriage, there is little doubt it is now part of what one must consider a modern family.
As time goes on, the definition of family changes. Our current, modern family definition exists due to many social and technological changes. The advent of birth control has empowered women to control when they get pregnant, therefore reducing teen pregnancies and increasing the age women choose to have children. Same sex couples and women who once could not conceive now have options like IVF and surrogacy available to them. People are marrying at a lesser rate, increasing the amount of unmarried women having children. Also, the stigma of single-motherhood is not so bad, and more women are having children without being in a serious relationship. There is also the matter of same sex marriage being legal, and therefore having children in some way, whether through adoption or other means. All of these changes have redefined a modern family to be almost any kind of household with an adult and a child within it, where the adult is clearly the child’s caretaker. The idea of modern family has almost been changed to a point where it can no longer be redefined any more without losing the meaning of family in its entirety.
Gibson, M. (2015). The Long, Strange History of Birth Control. [online] TIME.com. Available at: http://time.com/3692001/birth-control-history-djerassi/ [Accessed 26 Apr. 2016].
Kincaid, E. (2016). American women are waiting longer than ever to become mothers. [online] Business Insider. Available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/average-age-of-mother- having-first-child-going-up-2015-6 [Accessed 26 Apr. 2016].
Lifelongadoptions.com. (2016). LGBT Adoption Statistics | Gay Adoption | Same Sex Adoption. [online] Available at: http://www.lifelongadoptions.com/lgbt-adoption/lgbt-adoption- statistics [Accessed 26 Apr. 2016].
Livingston, G. and Cohn, D. (2010). The New Demography of American Motherhood. [online] Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. Available at: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/05/06/the-new-demography-of-american- motherhood/ [Accessed 26 Apr. 2016].