The New Normal — Just What is Family These Days?

Posted on January 8th, 2013 By Anthony Riordan

The other night I was channel surfing for some mindless intellectual diversion from fiscal cliff coverage (more on that phenomenon at a later date) and I stumbled across the new NBC sitcom The New Normal. To say this show is a depiction about nontraditional family is an understatement. Here is the NBC series trailer.

In short, it is the story of an unwed young single parent mother (Goldie) and her precocious young daughter who flees small-town Ohio for California to start a new life after her philandering boyfriend has an affair. To fund her law school dreams she decides to become a surrogate mother for a prospective couple. She is ultimately interviewed and selected by a gay male couple, David and Bryan. To add spice to the cultural stew- the show also features a xenophobic abrasive grandmother who follows Goldie on her pilgrimage, who spars with a fiercely outspoken African American professional assistant of one of the male partners. As in many sitcom formulas of art attempting to imitate life, the portrayal of cultural diversity creates characters that have a caricature quality. Nonetheless, it does bring many of the elements of the waves of social change to shore in our increasingly diverse society.

In many ways there is a perfect storm of transition occurring for the family unit in our culture. In these past November elections- voters in three more states approved legalizing gay marriage. The Supreme Court will soon take up the issue. For the first time (WSJ/NBC poll), a majority of Americans (51%) now favor same sex marriages in a rapid shift of cultural mores since 2004 when only 30% approved.

At the same time a multiplicity of new family unit variations are growing. The recent Pew Research Center report The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families notes that only 52% of adults are now married. In 1960, 72% of adults were married. The full report is a compelling read of our changing family definitions and structures and our views on this evolution.

The Center for Youth and Family Solutions (CYFS), as a professional child and family service agency serves the total array of family configurations:

  • Single Parent Families
  • Married Families
  • Step Families
  • Blended Families
  • Cohabitating Families
  • Civil Union Families
  • Adoptive Families
  • Foster Families
  • Same Sex Couple Families
  • Grandparent Families
  • Extended Families

Has this increasing expansion and diffusion of the definition of family diminished its importance in our lives? The Pew Research Center study states a profound and possibly unexpected conclusion — Family is still critically important to each of us in all of its iterations.

pew-research-3453In fact, it remains the most important element for 76% of respondents, and one of the most important for another 22%. So, for 98% of people it is a defining component to their existence.

So what is a normal family these days? Actually that may not even be such a relevant question anymore. When I was teaching Marriage and Family Therapist trainees I used to tell them that family is really whatever a person tells you it is for them. As a sociologist and family therapist for three decades I have seen most of the research, and what I can say is that no single family configuration named above assures one’s success or failure. Each configuration presents unique challenges, some more than others, but there are successful parents, and fulfilling partner relationships, and thriving children in every family scenario. Actually one could make a convincing case that socioeconomic status has as much or more to do with family and child success as any other factor.

One thing I am convinced of in our human community — we all are more alike than different. We all have the same hopes and dreams for ourselves and our children. We want attachment and to love and to be loved. We want trusting secure relationships. We want partners and family members that work together effectively to help us navigate life issues and to manage life changes. We want our children to have meaningful and productive lives. We want to pass on our knowledge, our culture, and legacy. Yes, family is still critically important as we all strive to meet our individual and relationship needs.

Ultimately, supporting and strengthening all families in all of its forms for the well-being of our children and communities might be our best investment as a society-rather than expending resources in debating or engineering which is better, or normal, or the ideal.

In fact, other relevant findings of the Pew Research Center study would address concerns that all of this new family diversity is a burgeoning societal crisis. 76% of all people say they are Very Satisfied with their family life and another 19% are somewhat satisfied. Also, 66% state that the new increase in family configurations is a good thing or makes no difference. Finally- 85% say that the family they now live in is “as close or closer” than the family they grew up in. Quite simply- family is the most important thing in most people’s lives, it usually is meeting their emotional and attachment and functional needs, and it remains a resilient institution in our culture.

At CYFS we are committed to partnering with every family with respect and dignity. We accept each family unit as how they effectively define it for themselves. We see each as having strengths and even when struggling, we believe they are trying to do their best. We celebrate differences and we assist each family with finding solutions and to achieve their hopes and dreams. One cannot predict how the family unit will evolve over time, but it is truly enduring in all of its forms and remains the central defining element of our existence.

At this holiday time of renewal and celebration we wish you and YOUR family peace in the coming year.

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About The Author

Anthony Riordan

Tony Riordan, MS. Ed., LMFT, is Chief Operating Officer for The Center for Youth and Family Solutions (CYFS). He has been a social worker, licensed marriage and family therapist, trainer, and administrator in community based nonprofit child and family service agencies since 1978.

One response to “The New Normal — Just What is Family These Days?”

  1. Judy Glancy says:

    Dear Tony;
    Excellent article about the diversity of people at the present time. I know you and my son, Tim work very diligently to improve the lives of many.
    God bless you and all you do for others.
    Judy Glancy

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