- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

LEVITTOWN, Pa. (AP) - When Sherwood “Woody” Summers was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s - shuffled between three foster homes and two Catholic orphanages - all he wanted was a normal family like other kids had.

He wanted a sober, hard-working dad, a sane mother, and brothers and sisters under one roof.

When he became an adult, he got it. He went to work, got married and had two kids - a boy and a girl. It was the normal family he always dreamed of.

But it wasn’t working. He and his wife weren’t happy, so they divorced.

It was the late 1970s, and Summers’ traditional family wasn’t the only one that was breaking up. Couples across the country were getting divorced.



Pope John Paul II stopped in Philadelphia during his first apostolic journey to the United States, in 1979; the families that lined the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to see him were changing. It was the beginning of a big shift in the way Americans viewed marriage and family.

The nuclear family - mom, dad and kids - is still the ideal for the Catholic Church, which will hold its World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia Sept. 22-25. But when Pope Francis visits the U.S. this week - and concludes his trip in Philadelphia next weekend - he’ll see many different kinds of families than his predecessor did 36 years ago.

“This is a pretty distinctive period. It’s a period in which marriage is less central to family life and alternate ways of forming families are acceptable,” said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “It’s also a period where the middle of America has disappeared. . The people who can make a go of it economically still choose marriage and are able to make a go of it better than their parents could.”

Cherlin, the author of “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today,” said there is now “a diversity in family forms that we haven’t seen before.”

The way we were - for awhile

When many people think of family, they think of the traditional family depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings. They think of 1950s sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” They think of pretty little houses with white picket fences, inhabited by a hardworking father, a pretty mother who stays home and cooks and cleans all day, and two or three kids who occasionally get into some good, wholesome - and certainly never criminal - trouble.

And that’s what many families were - for about a decade.

“The 1950s was kind of the heyday of married families with children,” said Valarie King, a professor of sociology, demography, human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. “The 1950s was kind of unusual. I don’t think people realize how unusual that was.”

Americans had finally recovered from the Great Depression. World War II was over. The Cold War and the Space Race began. Companies developed new technologies. Business boomed.

With men home from the war and with their wallets full of cash for the first time in decades, Cherlin said, “We had a cultural turn toward marriage. In the 1950s, it didn’t matter what you believed or how much money you had, you simply had to be married.”

And if you were married, you might as well have two or three children.

By 1960, 72 percent of American adults were married and only 5 percent were divorced or separated, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Approximately 73 percent of children in the U.S. lived with their two married, heterosexual, biological parents who were in their first marriage, Pew data indicates. Fourteen percent of children lived with two married, heterosexual parents, one or both of whom was in their second or third marriage. Nine percent of children lived with only one parent.

Men married at a median age of 22 (half were older and half were younger) and women married at a median age of 20. Only 2 percent of marriages were between people of different races or ethnic groups, Pew found.

The structure shifts

In the 1960s and ‘70s, society changed.

The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established. More black people and women went to college and more joined the workforce. And more people waited longer to get married. The Immigration and Nationality Act was passed in 1965. It allowed more people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America to move to the U.S.

With all those changes, attitudes toward the old structures changed.

“Marriage went from an economic arrangement to one where it’s based on the choice of the partners and love and companionship,” King said. “That’s less stable. If you fall out of love, maybe you don’t stick together as much.”

From 1965 to 1975, the divorce rate doubled.

Reta Paul’s marriage was ending in the late 1970s.

The Quakertown woman, who’s now 64, had spent much of her life pretending to be straight - for the sake of her husband and children and the rest of her family. She said she drank and used drugs to cope. Then, she reached a point when she couldn’t do it anymore, so she divorced her husband.

She was not alone in seeking a divorce.

By 1980, 62 percent of adults in the U.S. were married, and 9 percent were separated or divorced, according to Pew Research Center data.

Approximately 61 percent of U.S. children lived with two married, heterosexual, biological parents who were in their first marriage, Pew Research Center data indicates. Sixteen percent of children lived with two married, heterosexual parents, one or both of whom was in their second or third marriage. Nineteen percent of children lived with only one parent.

“If you had asked me in 1979 about the high divorce rates, I would have said it’s going to continue,” Cherlin said.

As the U.S. became more diverse, who married whom also was changing. In 1980, 7 percent of marriages were between people of different races or ethnic groups, Pew found.

The way we are now

These days, young, white, heterosexual men and women still marry their high school or college sweethearts, have traditional families and most often stay married. But there’s a difference.

“What we’ve seen since the 1980s is a split in married lives,” Cherlin said. “People with college degrees have a different set of experiences…. College-educated families look like families did several decades ago, though the woman is working outside of the home. People without college degrees have much more instability.”

Brian Sherfesee, 37, of Medford, Burlington County, had always dreamed of having a traditional family - and he got it with Jamie. The two met in high school in 1996, fell in love, continued dating while they were at college, married in 2005 and remain married today. They have two young children.

“Jamie and I have had a connection since the day we met,” Brian said. “That wasn’t based around religion or children or anything. There was a connection that was hard to explain.”

That connection keeps them together, they said, but so do their children and their Catholic faith.

“I know it sounds cliché, but when I see how much Brian loves our kids, it’s like I fall in love with him all over again,” Jamie said. “That, to me, is a completely selfless act. Our kids are our glue.”

But the Sherfesees still aren’t quite Ward and June Cleaver. Brian and Jamie both work outside the home; they have to do so if they want to keep their modest house and cars. An au pair helps with the children.

Traditional families like the Sherfesees make up a smaller portion of the population than ever before.

In 2013, 46 percent of U.S. children lived with their two married, heterosexual, biological parents who were in their first marriage, Pew found, compared to 73 percent in 1960. Thirty-four percent of children lived with only one parent these days. And 15 percent of children have two married, heterosexual parents, one or both of whom is in their second or third marriage.

Reflecting the country’s increasing diversity, more than 15 percent of marriages are between people of different races or ethnic groups, Pew found.

Summers blended his family when he married Fran Robinson in the 1980s. Robinson had a daughter from a previous marriage. And Summers and Robinson had three children together. They unofficially adopted another. And their kids kids grew up and had kids of their own.

The 63-year-old Bristol Township man extended his family when he and his wife obtained custody of his stepdaughter’s children a few years ago.

“It (was) the right thing to do. There’s no other way to look at it,” he said. “Granted, they aren’t my blood grandchildren, but they are my grandchildren.”

Summers said he didn’t want the kids to be put in the foster care system and go through the tough times he experienced.

“We have the room, the ability to take care of them. We have a home - not just a house to live in, but a home,” he said.

Home come in many forms.

Paul, the Quakertown woman who left a heterosexual marriage and stopped pretending to be straight, now shares a family with her partner, Erin Rush.

Paul and Rush have been together for 18 years. During that time, they adopted two teenage girls. One of the girls had a son and they adopted him when he was an infant. Edward is now 5.

Rush works and manages the couple’s finances; Paul stays home to raise Edward.

Paul said her life with Rush is a lot like the life she had in her traditional marriage: “You get up in the morning, you have coffee, you go to work, you bring money home, you pay your bills and you cook dinner at night and you do the laundry. And you have a partner who goes with you to family events and children’s events. . It’s just typical family stuff you do. The only thing that’s different is that we’re gay.”

Paul said they are close to her ex-husband and his new wife; they spent the holidays together in Tennessee until they moved to Quakertown a few years ago. And the couple’s adopted daughters remain close to their birth parents.

“We’re more into inclusion than exclusion,” Rush said. “That’s always been such an important thing.”

Family structures beyond the traditional have become more common in recent years.

Some couples live together - with or without kids - but never marry.

Some couples (heterosexual or homosexual) live together or are married, but don’t have kids and don’t intend to. They’re known as DINKs (Double Income No Kids) in some circles.

And there are people who become families by choice: folks those who live together or near one another, support each other and share financial responsibilities, but are not related through blood, marriage or romance.

Pat Gessner and Marilyn Cook, of Doylestown, are one example of a family by choice.

The two women met in 1993, when they worked in a property management office. They quickly became friends and then roommates.

“Sometimes, you get trapped in a job because you can’t afford to switch,” said Cook, 68. Having smaller bills - because they shared them - gave each woman the ability to quit jobs they didn’t like and try something different. It also gave each of them a little more pocket money.

From the beginning, the two vacationed together, celebrated holidays together and went to family gatherings together. Neither can remember a time when she didn’t feel like the other was a family member.

“She’s my best friend. It’s great to have somebody to share the day’s events or complain and whine with,” Gessner said about Cook.

And Cook said she couldn’t ask for a better friend or roommate than Gessner.

“We’ve gone through lots of different things in the last 20 years and she’s always been there for me. I’ve tried to do the same for her. If she suddenly wasn’t in my life, there’d be a very big hole that has nothing to do with my finances,” she said.

The way we could be

“We’re not at the end of family change,” said Cherlin, the sociology professor from Johns Hopkins. “We’re still experiencing it.”

And Cherlin doesn’t believe Americans will return to the traditional family model - mom, dad and kids - of the 1950s.

“I don’t think there’s any chance we’ll go back to the ‘Leave It to Beaver’ model. Nor do I think we want to,” he said. “Nobody really wants to go back to the 1950s, except a few men who want to boss around their wives and children. The rest of us will laugh at the reruns, but not want to go back there. Women are in the workforce to stay and men want them to be in the workforce so spouses can pool incomes.”

Cherlin and King believe the diversity of U.S. families - in structure, gender and race - will continue.

With the legalization of same-sex marriage earlier this year, more children could grow up in families with homosexual parents.

And more children could grow up in families with parents of different races. In 2008, 15 percent of new marriages were between people of different races or ethnic groups, according to data from the Pew Research Center. That’s a dramatic increase from 2 percent in 1960.

The number of interracial marriages could grow as more people come to America from other countries. A 2009 report from the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the Hispanic population will more than double between 2000 and 2050, and the Asian population will increase by 79 percent.

“We don’t know what the family will look like if another pope comes to Philadelphia 20 years from now,” Cherlin said. “We can predict that it will look like families today, but we will probably be wrong.”

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Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, https://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com

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