When the Census released its latest snapshot of the American family last week, some pundits described the picture as "alarming" and "disturbing," not the kind you'd want to paste into your favorite album. The American family is changing--shifting away from a traditional nuclear structure toward a variety of reconfigurations, and a big reason is a 25% increase since 1990 in the number of single mothers raising children. (The number of single fathers raising children is also up--a whopping 62%--although they are still vastly outnumbered by single mothers.) And for the first time, the number of traditional families--a married mom and pop with children--has fallen below 50% of all family households.
I've played a part in the disturbing statistics. When my daughter and I sat down at the kitchen table last year to fill out the Census form, we reported as one of the 7.2% of American households headed by a single mother. I've been a single mother for so long that I've stopped thinking about it, but now that the numbers are out, the backlash has begun. We are dysfunctional. Our home is broken. We are at risk and vulnerable. America is going to hell in a handbasket, and we are holding the basket--confounding the eternal American happy snapshot of what a family is supposed to look like.
But here is what it is like on the inside. On the inside, this family feels whole. It feels as if it works. My single parenthood is probably like the experience of millions of others--we have kids, pets, homes, jobs and ex-spouses in our lives. When we say, "Hi, honey, I'm home," it is to the baby sitter, the neighbor or a relative who has come over to help with child care. We don't go out much. We don't travel much. We cobble together work, meals and outside activities. Financially, we don't do as well as married parents, but we cling to the consolation prize of fiscal independence. Without a marriage to tend, we give our children all our energy, and much prefer their company to the occasional blind dates we force ourselves to go on. We don't like the way bitterness tastes in the back of our mouth, so we swallow it.
My closest friend is also a single mother, with two children. Together we've formed a new kind of extended family that takes up the slack left by our collective losses. I go to her children's football games and band concerts. She comes to my daughter's plays and piano recitals. On Sundays we get together for a family dinner. Sometimes her ex-husband joins us. We play games and music. We talk about school, sports and movies. I take my friend's son out for driving lessons in my jalopy. My friend challenges my daughter to a game of badminton. We watch home movies together, and when I see my dear friend's kids as toddlers, I have a hard time believing that I wasn't always there, somewhere just beyond the reach of the camera lens. We watch each other's back, lend each other money and love each other's kids.
Even though we're single, we don't feel alone, and even though our families may be somewhat "bent," they hardly feel "broken." Yet, we note, whenever people talk about "family values," they're not talking about us. But come by on Sunday nights and take a look at our rickety family--the one pieced together from leftovers--and it will seem as healthy, happy and "normal" as any in the "married with children" column in the Census.