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Changes in the American Nuclear Family

written by: Olivia Emisar • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 9/11/2012

American culture continues to evolve and so does the composition of what we consider a nuclear family. Legally, there are more choices available in modern times than we had in the past, but essentially, a conflagration of economics, divorce rates and lifestyles account for its diversity.

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    Historical Background

    Nuclear family The accepted conservative notion of what constitutes a typical American nuclear family has been two biological parents and their offspring. For many families, the typical family unit would also include the grandparents since families tended to live together as a matter of necessity and convention.

    The Gold Rush transformed traditional families by making grandparents part of the extended family when Easterners moved towards the West to seek their fortunes. This image of family persisted all through the 1970's.

    In reality, the nuclear family has always had variations to the theme due to abandonment, divorce, death and reconfiguration of household members that included remarriage. The 1950's stigma of divorce did nothing to curve its rates, but may have had a great deal with encouraging second marriages to maintain propriety and ensure children from a previous marriage had a male figure in their life as well as financial support, while perpetuating the widely accepted role of women as homemakers.

    With the end of the Great Depression and World War II, the 1940's saw the greatest increase in marriages and a sharp increase in family size that continued all through the 1960’s. The offspring of this generation are what we refer to today as the "baby boomers." Families from this era commonly had an average of 3 to 4 children.

    In the1960's and 1970's, women shed their identity as the primary caregiver and gave themselves permission to pursue their passions in higher education and in careers previously held by males. With the subsequent opportunities obtained through higher education, women were able to postpone marriage and child bearing as well as deciding whether to have children or not. The wide distribution and availability of birth control, coupled with the consistent message from the women's movement that women could be more and do more widely resonated with a new generation of women, and allowed men the freedom to be more than just breadwinners.

    The baby boomers flourished as independent thinkers that restructured conventional acceptance about the composition and meaning of what constitutes a traditional family. They also changed the financial landscape of the country and gave rise to a consumer society that was in sharp contrast with the conservative spending habits of their parents and grandparents. This economic boom and excessive materialism influenced the composition of the nuclear family once again.

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    Economic Influences

    Travel The ease of the availability of contraceptives from the 1960's forward, not only allowed women to control the size of their families, but also made it possible for women to enjoy a freedom that was exclusively relegated to men. Women could work without the interruption of a pregnancy and support themselves without depending on someone else's income for their daily existence.

    This newfound financial freedom saw a rise in childless couples whose nuclear family consisted of just the two of them or couples with just one child. According to Richard A. Easterlin studies on the nuclear family, there is a direct correlation between increased income and smaller family size, and the 1980's and 1990's saw times of economic booms in the United States that revolutionized technology and changed the working landscape drastically. Americans traveled out of the country more and companies relocated employees more often to set up subsidiaries in other states.

    Greater financial resources and new lines of work made it necessary for some lifestyles to become mobile. Single people relocated easily and frequently and postponed getting married or having children. Even those who chose to have children had fewer children than the past generation in order to strike a balance between family responsibilities and career fulfillment.

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    Lifestyle and Sexual Orientation

    Hippie memorial peace sign The 1960's have been referred to as "The Sexual Revolution" where a younger generation felt unencumbered by restrictions from religious or antiquated social mores. The active voices against the Vietnam War and marches against discrimination allowed other individuals, whose sexual orientation was viewed as taboo, to find a voice of their own. Gays and lesbians became freer to live their lives openly, and the call to be part of a family of their own, once again, changed our concept of the nuclear family.

    When it comes to a traditional mix of adults and children, the biggest change in the nuclear family comes from the fact that gays and lesbians have made strides towards equal rights under the law. Achieving marriage equality in several states is allowing more acceptance and recognition that families are whatever we decide our family is.

    Adoptions and in-vitro fertilization have made it possible for same-sex couples and infertile couples to have a nuclear family that includes raising biological and adopted children. The same can be said for single individuals who choose not to couple, but want to fulfill their dreams of being parents.

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    Modern Times

    A familyGrandparents  today can easily be composed of a single adult with young children due to personal choice, divorce or the death of a spouse. Quite often, grandparents become the central figure in the ever-evolving nuclear family definition.

    Hippy grandparents have made a comeback as the main caregivers and providers for their grandchildren. Divorce and economic hardships have seen an increase of children becoming the center of attention in a nuclear family where grandparents assume the role of parents once again.

    In essence, the traditional American nuclear family has evolved through the ages based on finances, changes to lifestyle and the examination of ideal values that no longer fit in well with today's needs and people's desires. We can safely say that the meaning of family does not reside in a dictionary but in the individual hearts of the diverse members of the household.

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