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.