Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The American Family, Kate & Allie, and Co-Parenting

I recently bought my father the first season of Kate & Allie, a show he (inexplicably) loves and that focuses on two divorcees raising their children together in New York City. It was a present for Father's Day or my parents' anniversary or something of that sort, and rewatching it - along with the reruns of Kate & Allie that are forever playing on the WE Channel - while reading Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life by Dolores Hayden seems to have left some subliminal messages in my head.

Because when I was listening to yesterday's Talk of the Nation today (via podcast) about Geoffrey Canada's organization Harlem Children's Zone, something clicked. The thing that clicked is this: Canada said,
I was raised by a single mom, and it is so hard to raise children by yourself. There are so many obstacles, and yet we have this crisis in the country. There are lots of families that there's only one adult raising a child and they're trying to work and take care of the child at the same time. And the country has not made the kind of investment to help families who really have no other support. You know, when I grew up, my grandmother lived three or four blocks away, so we could stay with her and still be in sort of the loving confines of a structured family environment. Many families don't have this today, and so one of the real challenges is to make sure that we encourage fathers to stay with their children, support their children, stay with their spouses; and mothers to really make sure that you're forming relationships that will last for this child. So that these young people come up with two parents.
What clicked is that we as a culture are so focused on the ideal nuclear family, and that may not always be the absolute best possibility. I was with Canada up and through "encourage fathers to stay with their children, support their children". But I don't think that fathers (or mothers) have to stay with a spouse in order to continue to support the children, and that in many cases, there is a valid reason why the romantic (or sexual) relationship responsible for creating the child in question ended. Canada goes on to say,
It doesn't matter what the family looks like; there just needs to be two adults always focused on this child to maximize the chances.
And I agree with him.

I was raised in a two parent home, but I wasn't raised by two parents. More specifically, I was raised by a lot more people than just my two parents. My father has three best friends, two of whom have wives and one of whom who has an extremely doting mother. My mother has one best friend. My father has a sister, and had his parents - along with a fairly large extended family. I was the first child born in my generation, and for a long time I was one of the centers (or close to it) of almost all of these people's lives. They were frequently present, to the point where one of my uncles came on vacations with us and had his own room in our condo. My birthday is used for pin numbers and passwords, both for the people I'm related to and the people I'm not. I had (and have) a structured family environment, even though I'm not biologically related to a great deal of that support system.

Which brings me to Redesigning the American Dream, a book about architecture and community planning, and how America's development boom after World War II both reinforced gender norms and our isolated society. In it, Hayden explores why Levittown became the American Dream, as well as other, more innovative and diverse, housing projects in America and around the world. Some of the ideas in the book seemed alien while I was reading and after I had finished reading, like the Danish housing project Tynngarden, where "each family gave up 10 percent of its allocated interior square footage to create a shared neighborhood center for ten to fifteen families" and whose courtyard " contained mailboxes, the washing machines and dryers, a community kitchen, and a large two-level space for activities planned by residents". Seemed alien, until I started thinking about housing, how expensive it is, how expensive electricity is, and how expensive and time-consuming maintaining the ability to afford a residence is, especially when there are children.

Canada's program does an awesome job for low-income children, but I started wondering, sitting bored in my little cubicle, if his organization and countless other communities could be helped if we started rethinking our vision of housing and our idea of what constitutes a family, and what it means to be a community. Which is where this circles back to Kate & Allie. Kate and Allie had it slightly easier. They were childhood friends. But in today's world of internet access and social networking sites, there could be some sort of Harmony or Match.com for single parents (or even singles, low-income or otherwise) that could match up similar parenting philosophies or needs. There could be apartments buildings constructed with these kinds of created families, this kind of structured family unit, in mind. Apartment buildings that had adequate - if not huge - living spaces, that could support two co-mingling, co-parenting groups, or three, or more. If we stop thinking about the romantic couple in the nuclear family as the absolute most solid support system for a family, if we start accepting that mothers (and fathers) can form other types of relationships, platonic relationships that will last and be good for the child, then other ways to mitigate poverty and inadequate child care/supervision could develop, as another way to make a parent's and partner's absence less devastating.

This is in no way an attempt to prove fathers useless. I think fathers are important. My father is one of my favorite people, and I am who I am because of him. He has been my greatest cheerleader, my favorite sparring partner, my book buddy, my best friend, my confidante, my history teacher, my ethics teacher, and when I was younger, also my playmate and my song and story man all in one 6'2" package. I think Canada is right, other organizations are right, to push for fathers to remain in their children's lives even if they are no longer in their children's mothers' lives. But that doesn't change the fact that fathers do disappear, and working to make it less acceptable for them to do so is only half the battle. The other half is providing for those children and partners left behind.

12 comments:

mikhailbakunin said...

I think most kids who are raised in single-parent households do just fine.

But, in general, kids who grow up in two-parent households do better (in pretty much every measurable way) than those from single-parent households -- even when you control for a range of other factors.

If couples simply can't cohabitate, it may be better for the kids if the separate. But I think parents have some responsibility to at least try to stay together and create a stable, two-parent home environment for their children.

Would you agree with that?

MediaMaven said...

Mikhail is right. Studies have shown that it's better for the child to have a stable, loving environment with one parent than one that is hostile and fractious with two.

Good post, Pet. It reminded me of an article that generated a good deal of controversy when it was published by the NYT Magazine back this winter, which profiled a set of women who rejected partnerships and set about adopting children on their own, raising them largely in a cocoon of other women. The story alarmed me greatly (I wrote a draft that was never finished and so never posted), precisely because it seemed they were rejecting all male influence from their daughters' lives. I know that it is increasingly common now to find single women of means who go out and adopt children because they really wanted children and found themselves unmarried, and while it certainly can be viewed as a positive trend, it worries me on a number of levels, mostly because I feel very strongly that it is extremely hard to raise children alone and that it is better all-around for children to have two parents.

You were very lucky to be raised with such a large, devoted, and (geographically close) group of people, and I think that's pretty rare today. Other factors in American life--like the cost of living, and specifically, housing--would make sharing space an ideal for many, but those ideas smack of hippie communes, even if they aren't meant to be, and a lot of Americans, with their large house and personal property obsession, wouldn't go for it.

petpluto said...

Would you agree with that?

You seem to have missed part of the point of the post, which was about how to create the stability of a two (or more) parent home if and when there is a single parent household, and how we envision "two parent" in the first place.

If there are two (or more) single moms living together and parenting each other's children, a la Kate & Allie, aren't those children being raised in a two-parent home? If they're not, why doesn't that second parent count>

I also think a very large factor that goes unaccounted for, something that Canada mentions, is how tough it is on the single parent to be a single parent. A supportive partnership between two adults, especially when there is stressors like children and providing for them, is also better for the adult. What I want to know is why that stable, two-parent, supportive adult home environment always and forever is pushed as having a romantic pair at the center of it, and what would happen (would we make it better, easier, more economically feasible for these kids and adults to succeed) if we acknowledge that other factors go into a family. And as long as there is a stable family structure - as long as the two single parents make a commitment to raising their children together - then there may be the same or a comparable level of measurable betterness.

Like I said, I'm fully in support of fathers. But that doesn't mean that fathers don't leave and that doesn't mean that even when fathers are still present in their children's lives, the single mother doesn't have issues with parenting their child - or simply economic issues. A way to mitigate that would be good.

I feel very strongly that it is extremely hard to raise children alone and that it is better all-around for children to have two parents.

Those women in the article, did they serve as each other's co-parenting unit?

I definitely see some issue in not having fathers; but I don't have problems with single women adopting. I think it is probably better if there is guy influence - in the shape of a grandfather or an uncle or what-have-you, but creating a community of women raising children is, I think, better that doing it all on your own - if only for the women in question's mental health!

mikhailbakunin said...

I'm not attacking your argument; I'm just asking if you agree with me.

There is a lot of discussion -- among academics and policymakes -- over whether children do better when they have two parents who are biologically related. It's one of the most contentious issues in debate over gay marriage.

I'd like to look into the research at some point.

MediaMaven said...

It's a worthwhile read, Pet, especially since it brings up a lot of the things you wrote. The women have a form of co-parenting, in that they belong to close-knit groups of other single by choice women with young children, and they often travel and hang out together. However, they don't physically live together, or even in the same building or co-op.

petpluto said...

I'm not attacking your argument; I'm just asking if you agree with me.

I didn't think you were attacking my argument; I was a bit confused, since this post isn't about that at all. It is about what we think of as families, and what we can do to help people (especially those who exist below the poverty line, like the majority of the children Canada has had success with) after the 'traditional' family has changed for whatever reason.

There is a lot of discussion -- among academics and policymakes -- over whether children do better when they have two parents who are biologically related. It's one of the most contentious issues in debate over gay marriage.

I find a lot of that discussion disingenuous, because no one fights to keep heterosexual couples from adopting even though the same issues of nonbiological ties would be at work.

As for my own feelings, I think biology matters much less than other factors. I think the most important thing is to have people consistently around who are responsible for the children (which includes loving the children), and who the children are, in some ways, responsible to. I think love and expectations, along with time spent, is pretty much the same regardless of whether or not there are biological ties.

As for this:
think parents have some responsibility to at least try to stay together and create a stable, two-parent home environment for their children.

I don't know. I have a lot of friends with divorced parents, and none of them want their parents together.

I also have a lot of friends whose parents got divorced late, and a father whose parents never divorce.

In each of those circumstances, the environment was in some way stable - mostly economically - but all of them were pretty peeved their parents waited so long to divorce, and my father bemoans the fact that his parents didn't divorce.

And I think that as much as people need to put their children first, they also need to take care of themselves. A child isn't going to be well-cared for in an environment where the adults aren't happy. So, for my money, it is more important for a child to not be in a home where the parents aren't happy with one another and don't love one another than for a child to be in a two parent home where the parents are hell bent on "working things out".

It's a worthwhile read, Pet, especially since it brings up a lot of the things you wrote.

Cool, I'll try to find it to check it out.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Great post... I was also raised by a large extended family (including my parents' circle of musician-friends) that I took mostly for granted, until I was raising my own kid and realized how impoverished we were by comparison...even though I was in a solid couple of much-ballyhooed TWO parents, I felt we really NEEDED that extended network and didn't have it. What is unfortunate is that other social networks (i.e. church, school, neighborhoods, whatever) don't put as much effort, time and love into these other group networks as they do their own blood kin, further adding to the impoverishment.

The nuclear-family uber alles atmosphere is to blame for that also.

petpluto said...

I felt we really NEEDED that extended network and didn't have it.

I know what you mean. My extended family has been rapidly dying off, and a lot of people have moved farther away from the centralized location, so I feel like my sisters - 7 years younger - didn't quite get (and aren't quite getting) the same amount of care and familial extendedness as I did. When I was 16 and they were 9, there were still more stays and more family time. Now, not so much. Which also sucks for my parents, because I think it is just as helpful to have all of these extra people around for the parents as it is for the kids - and perhaps it is moreso.

What is unfortunate is that other social networks (i.e. church, school, neighborhoods, whatever) don't put as much effort, time and love into these other group networks as they do their own blood kin, further adding to the impoverishment.

Totally. I highly recommend Redesigning the American Dream for an analysis of the neighborhood part of that, and suggestions for a (long term) fix. But I do think that in the short run, there really does need to be more villages around stepping up to help out.

MediaMaven said...

How can we get schools, neighborhoods, churches, etc, to step up?

One of the reasons mom blogs have become so popular is because they have become the extended network that many young mothers need--though, being virtual, it has its limits.

It's all well and good to try to belong to a local school or church, but if you don't fit in, feel belonged, or have the time to invest it in, then it may not be easy.

Anonymous said...

i've often wondered about this too - humans were living in small extended family groups, with lots of "alloparents" for a looooong time before the two-parent nuclear family arrived on the scene.

If society really wanted to promote social parenting (which also benefits, I think, people's commitment to active productivity and care of elders), it seems that not only housing, but also some kind of institutionalized financial system would stabilize family groups. Our taxation system is now heavily invested in accommodating and benefiting heterosexual couples. Society could institute some sort of tax system where the corporate assets of the group are given tax advantage, and individuals get tax benefits from the number of dependents in the group(children, elders) that they are incorporated with.

Rosa said...

The problem with building an extended family after you have kids - or trying to reform a dysfunctional or distant extended family into one that is a support for your kids - is that it's just as much work as keeping a romantic relationship strong. Maybe more, because there's less social support.

The time to do it is before you have kids, but that would mean either really intentional life planning, including have The Talk with your close friends, or institutional planning for cohousing (like Hayden documents - sometimes I daydream about living in the WWII worker housing complex she talks about, sometimes about Bellamy's utopian apartment complexes from Looking Backward)

petpluto said...

The problem with building an extended family after you have kids - or trying to reform a dysfunctional or distant extended family into one that is a support for your kids - is that it's just as much work as keeping a romantic relationship strong. Maybe more, because there's less social support.

I agree, which is one of the reasons why I think we need to, as a society, start rethinking what constitutes a family, what constitutes a community, and what constitutes desirable housing.

I doubt very much that single parents - especially the ones most helped by a functioning multisupport system - have many of the resources (time, money, etc) to get this sort of thing set up individually - and while much of that stems from other things, I think your last point, about the lack of public support, is really a killer as well.

But I kind of want to dream big, too. To say, "Why not?", you know?