Courts and Families of the 21st Century

Many people have a mental picture of family life that looks like Ozzie and Harriet, but families of the 21st century come in all shapes and sizes.

The nuclear family – Dad at work, Mom at home and two kids in school – is now the exception that does not prove the rule. Today, divorce, remarriage, out-of-wedlock parenting and a variety of other variables have reworked the face of American family life. Fifty years ago, two biological parents raised their children at home, often with the support of an extended family nearby. When Mom had doubts about her parenting, she had only to turn to her Mom for a confidence boost. Today, for better or worse, that traditional, nuclear family moves to the Endangered Species List. Even in nuclear families, economic and cultural pressures on homemaker Mom and breadwinner Dad have transmuted the family so that it is impossible to define and designate an “average” family because the stereotypic breadwinner and homemaker roles rarely exist. Most households struggle to get by on the income of two full-time wage earners.

Today, personal mobility, which is prized by Americans, scatters families to the four corners of the country, and individuals no longer enjoy the support network parents once had. Once, extended family members lived close to one another, if not under the same roof. Today, grandparents flock to Florida or Arizona for the Golden Years while young adults pull up stakes in search of greater career opportunities anywhere they can. Thus, fewer and fewer families enjoy the built-in support networks of communities, where extended family members not only served as mentors and role models but often as a sounding board or emergency caregiver. In this routine, parents and grandparents were respected and looked to for guidance during tough times, and as a society, children learned and admired and respected their stories of endurance and survival. Elders served as role models who inspired hard work and perseverance. They weathered economic challenges, marital troubles and a myriad of other circumstances associated with their times.

Today, community recedes to the vanishing point. Neighbors are essentially strangers. When people drive 30, 60, 90 miles to work in nearby cities, they lose the connection with people who live next door and further diminish the sense of community and the support network people once took for granted.

Today’s families come in hundreds of shapes and sizes: single mothers, single fathers, grandparents raising grandchildren, multi-generational households 
because broken and blended families are now the norm. Even stepfamilies come in a variety of forms: everything from two partners with custody of their respective children to households where one partner has children and the other does not.

Stepfamilies in particular need encouragement and insight to help them recognize the inevitable hurdles before them. Custody arrangements following separation and divorce are almost as unique as snowflakes, says life coordinator Angie Blackwell. No two are the same. Legal and physical custody are no longer automatically awarded to the mother, and more and more, children ricochet back and forth between two households on a weekly basis.

Family educators and coaches help struggling parents meet the changing demands of family life as they grapple with major transitions – moving forward and balancing work and family life. A family coach helps parents in aligning personal goals and values and priorities. Coaches address a wide range of issues, from parenting toddlers to teenagers, childcare and elder care, and resources and referrals to connect to existing community services.

The culture changes far more rapidly than the law can catch up, and family law courts now grapple with the changes in American life and culture. Family law courts now routinely address disputes between unmarried parents, stepfamilies and third party caregivers, many of whom go into court without attorneys or pro se.

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