A Rant: Painting the New American Family Landscape

Here’s a crazy image for you: picture a hay wagon, careening along a bumpy road, strewing bits and pieces of straw in its wake. On one side of the truck, you have a stepfamily — the father and stepmother tersely yelling at each other to hang on tight and make sure Little Timmy doesn’t go flying off the side into a ditch. Starboard, you’ve got a single mom and her younger son, also hanging on for dear life; tense, tired and hoarse from raising their voices over the engine.

Behind them is a reporter; running, wincing from the dust, aware of the jiggling pen coming untucked from behind his ear. And since this is the 21st century, he’s also got his iPod and snazzy, digital MP3 recorder tucked into a messenger bag slung over his shoulder, along with a laptop that damn, sure could stand to be lighter.

Like I said, he’s running, but he’s not running fast.

His brain is used to instantly calculating the loose cost/benefit equation of deadlines, pay, and expendable energy, which often saps his motivation. He’s not too eager to get close to the squabbling, drama-filled mess that is the two “families” on the squeaky truck — and he needs to pace himself anyway, if he’s going to be stuck covering them over the long haul.

Sadly, if the reporter could just muster the oomph for a temporary sprint, he’d actually find one, two, or even three adults eager to extend a hand and help pull him up onto the hay wagon.

There, he could catch his breath, take a rest, and lo and behold… find out what the hell is going on with these people — because these people represent the average American family — and he represents the mainstream media.

The mainstream media is totally clueless about American families today.

Make that Western families in general.

Can you say 15 years behind? I know I can.

Check it out (regular readers may have heard some of these before):

  • Only 20% of American families today are nuclear families. Twenty percent.
  • Up to 1300 stepfamilies form EVERY DAY in the U.S.
  • 75% of remarriages involving children end in divorce. Three out of four.
  • 46 out of every 100 marriages today is a remarriage for one or both partners.
  • By 2010 (or 2012), there will officially be more stepfamilies than any other kind of family. Actually, the Census Bureau doesn’t count a stepfamily if it’s not the primary residence for the child. They also don’t count unmarried stepfamilies — so you do the math and tell me whether we need to wait until 2010 for that elusive tipping point.

We are at a crisis point in American families.

We are in dire need of catching up on the family development timeline, to where we actually ARE on the spectrum. Sure, we’ve all got the divorce meme down. We all know about the hassles and heartache of nasty custody battles, child support and visitation issues, vindictive exes, the damage done to kids, etc.

But what about what comes AFTER?

What haven’t we caught up to is the fact that the majority of us are living the next step — which is a sea of stepfamilies and single-parent families. You’re either in a stepfamily, or you’re dealing with one on the periphery, because your children are part of a stepfamily

Why aren’t we talking about THAT?

Who’s weaving the big picture together and spitting it back out for us so that we all GET IT?

Take a look online and you have these isolated groups of voices, these vortexes of energy, struggle, and yet communal generosity, with folks doing their best to solve some pretty overwhelming problems. There are the divorced dads. The first wives clubs. The stepmoms.

And, oh yeah — the kids. Forgot about them….

But no one is saying, Whoa, everything is changed now! We’ve got a totally different family paradigm!

And a new paradigm means that a completely new perspective is required, with a collective understanding of the now common, average problems and challenges for most families — and some ideas for how to succeed and still create love, support, and a solid foundation of emotional health.

For example….

Stepmothers
If stepfamilies are now the predominant family unit, why are there no stepmom magazines out there? This is insane! We have scores of major magazines for working women, working mothers, glamorous women, athletic women, feminist women, stay-at-home moms, single women, teens. Where are all the magazines for the stepmoms?

StepMom Magazine is excellent and yet can only be found online, which is a total insult. Why isn’t Hearst, Time-Warner or Conde Nast approaching them and scooping up what could only be seen as, if nothing else, a great financial opportunity?

Where are all the articles helping the moms to deal with the stepmoms? With an extra-tricky marriage? Where’s the parenting help? (Positive Parenting Solutions is a recent find and is a highly recommended, clear overview of the basics, perfect for all the adults.)

There’s still an amazing amount of stigma attached to being a stepmom, there’s too much disrespect, too much too much confusion about their role.

Moms
And moms need more support to understand why they feel and behave the way they do — which is one big reason there’s so much animosity between moms and stepmoms, and even the two exes.

I asked the stepmothers at our support group the other night a question: How would you feel if you had to share your husband with another woman every other weekend? It was someone he really loved and hey, they still had close ties and of course, he had chosen you as his wife, so there shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Wouldn’t you feel horribly insecure? Wouldn’t you feel hurt and angry and weirded out? Wouldn’t you worry that another person in the picture would shine a light on all your flaws and shortcomings and take your partner away from you, even if subtly?

It’s the same gut feeling that moms have about their children. Bizarre analogy perhaps, but just as primal, just as fraught and difficult.

Dads
Where are all the websites for the dads, helping them figure out how to deal with demands from two different women, while being stuck in the middle with their kids too?

So many stepmoms complain about their husbands not backing them up when it comes to discipline. She wants order because she has every right to expect consistency and peace in her home. But if he helps impose the order she’s asking for, then he implicitly feels like he’s taking sides between her or his kids — and there’s already a ton of guilt there about the divorce. He ends up being wishy-washy so he doesn’t feel like he’s betraying his own children, but then inadvertently puts his second marriage in peril.

Stepdads
Like the stepmother/father relationship, the stepfather also has to sidestep volatile, open-ended questions, such as the primacy of the marriage versus the mother’s loyalty to her children, issues of authority and influence, a potential for built-in rejection from the stepkids, and financial muddy waters.

Stepfathers are often the silent players in a stepfamily, since most of the focus seems to be on the two women or the two exes. They’re often left to fend for themselves or expected to just go with the flow, since they’re not the “real fathers.”

Kids
And where are all the books helping stepchildren figure out how to navigate this brave new world of divorce and remarriage? Sure, there are a few books out there if you dig around, but why don’t we know of any famous titles off the top of our heads?

It’s criminal, but I can’t think of one single web site for kids dedicated to helping them move through these issues — with going back and forth from house to house, with different rules and consequences, with powerful undercurrents of simmering resentment and victimhood between the adults.

How many kids and teens are out there, burdened by the illogical, but nevertheless pervasive and crippling, subconscious assumption that the divorce was still somehow their fault? They helplessly absorb the conflict between households and in the process, absolutely pulverize their own hopes for a happy marriage and family life, later on.

So why does it matter so much that our culture hasn’t caught up to the current reality of family life?

Because people are not getting the help they need, that’s why!

It matters because huge numbers of people are unnecessarily suffering. It matters because we could be heading off a lot o

f these problems at the pass with more information, education and the next generation of tools for conflict resolution.

We need to bring all the separate pieces of this new American family to the table, so that we begin to comprehend the concerns, fears and needs of each other.

It’s like we’re all still stuck in the 50′s, where nobody talks about how alcoholism and how its actually a destructive, shameful force-field in a family that destroys love, trust, security and the day-to-day connections that sustain intimacy. Family members think it’s all their fault that they’re miserable and can’t figure out how to make things work better… when in fact, they’re wrong.

We can undo some of the damage of divorce — and heal ourselves and our children. Families need all the help they can get today to not only survive, but thrive.

Can’t we help them do it?

I challenge anyone with the power to shape our collective consciousness to raise awareness over this lapse in our understanding. To get the word out. To paint the big picture. To get the cart rolling and the horse moving.

Oprah, are you listening?

Or The New York Times?

Michelle Obama?

Somebody? Anybody?

Help that reporter hop onto the truck.

And give a kid a chance to have his or her own version of a happy nuclear family when they grow up, twenty years from now.

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

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Comments

  1. Jennifer,
    Not too long ago I contacted the Arbinger Institute about parenting strategies for stepfamilies and if they were going to incorporate remarried families in their parenting program. They don’t make the distinction, either.
    My husband and I recently attended a weekend marriage retreat called “Strong Bonds” and it’s the program sponsored by the Department of Defense for military couples and families – and with military families more apt to divorce and remarry, nothing is focused on the issues remarrieds face. This is one area where my husband and I think we can affect change – because he runs the Strong Bonds program in our state.
    Great post!

  2. Hmmm, interesting about the Arbinger Institute. I wonder why they don’t feel the need to address the changing demographics of their audience! I mean, I know conflict is conflict, but just in terms of referencing common problems, seems you’d want to be using the right language with your audience, you know?
    And that’s very cool about your husband’s role and his ability to influence the “Strong Bonds” program. As a military brat myself, I can relate to the need for an update. :-)

  3. Can’t wait to see you and Carol on Oprah ;)

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