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Fast Family Facts

"The endurance and universality of the concept of family testify to its strength and vitality. Family patterns vary and compositions alter, but the need to belong to something larger than oneself is innate and compelling. This need is demonstrated over and over again by groups that refer to themselves as 'family.'... Children play 'family,' and elders reinvent it when it does not exist."

Margaret Mahoney

  • Over the last 300 years, and especially during the last forty years, the family system has adapted to tremendous changes. The early 18th century emphasized the functional family, a well-ordered, patriarchal, hierarchal system. In the mid-18th century, the idea of the "companionate" family emerged with an emphasis on the emotional relationships between members. Comfort and the pursuit of happiness became part of the goals of family. By the mid-19th century, the Victorian family emerged with rigid gender roles, an emphasis on personal privacy, and an ideal of comfort and nurturing within the home. After World War II, spurred by a desire for comfort and order, the modern family of the mid-20th century was an extension of the Victorian model. Then the civil rights and women's movements, along with other social, economic, and political changes, resulted in the more flexible family structures we see today.

  • In addition to the traditional nuclear family (two married adults with children), there are a multitude of other family configurations -- including single-parent families, common-law parents, gay/lesbian parents, divorced parents, stepfamilies, adoptive families, foster families, grandparents raising grandchildren, multiracial families, interfaith families, and multigenerational families (i.e. three or more generations living in a single household).

  • Based on the 2000 US Census, the total number of families with children in the household is 37 million. 69% are married-couple families, 26% are single-mother families, and 5% are single-father families.

  • There are approximately 12 million single-parent families in the US (10 million single-mother, 2 million single-father).

  • 1 in 2 American children will live in a single-parent family at some point in childhood.

  • Of the 10 million American single-mother families, 34% have a family income below the poverty level.

  • 1 in 6 American children lives in poverty.

  • The US divorce rate has climbed steadily since as far back as the Civil War. Recently, it leveled off. Approximately 43% of first marriages today end in divorce.

  • Today, an American at birth is expected to live 76 years compared to 47 years in 1900 -- an additional 29 years. Increases in longevity coupled with decreases in fertility (see below) have changed the way the family looks. For most of human history, families looked like a pyramid, with few older members at the top and many young members at the bottom. Today, families are shaped more vertically, like a beanpole, with a more equal number of members in each generation.

  • In 1976, the average number of children an American woman gave birth to was 3.1; that figure had declined to 1.9 in 1998. Over the course of the last generation, the number of children per family has declined by half.

  • The grandparent/grandchild relationship is second in emotional importance only to the parent/child relationship. There are about 70 million grandparents in the US today, and each month 75,000 Americans 45-69 years old join the club. The number of grandparents is expected to grow to 80 million by 2010. Fewer than 50% of adolescents in 1900 had two or more grandparents alive; that figure has now grown to over 90%.

  • Nearly 4% (3.9 million) of all American households are multigenerational; that is, consisting of three or more generations in the same household.

  • 3.2 million American grandparents live with grandchildren for whom they are not primary caretakers and an additional 2.3 million live with grandchildren under 18 for whom they are responsible. Of the 2.3 million grandparents raising grandchildren, nearly 1.5 million are grandmothers.

  • Because of divorce and remarriage, many American children have 6 to 8 adults in the "grandparent" role in their lives. Between 20% and 25% of grandparents will be stepgrandparents either through their own or through their adult children's divorces and remarriages.

  • The transition to parenthood is a stressful period, even for competent couples with uncomplicated pregnancies and healthy babies. In one study, 65% of mothers and 37% of fathers reported that the first month of their baby's life was more difficult than they expected. In another study, it was found that when daughters become mothers they often find themselves with a new need for their mothers.

  • Approximately 80% of all women are mothers. In 1998, there were 35 million American mothers 15-44 years old.

  • According to a 1999 survey, the median age for a first-time mother in the US is 24.5 years old. 10% of all women 15-19 years old are teen mothers, for a total of nearly 1 million teen mothers. 1% of all women 40-44 years old gave birth in the previous year, for a total of 117,000; 29,000 of these women were first-time mothers.

  • More than half of all American mothers with school-age children work outside the home.

From Mother's Day Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2003

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