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Evolving Family Structures

Title Screen shot for The Brady Bunch TV Program from ABC

When we speak of "blended families" we tend to think of this being a term coined after the spiking divorce and remarriage rates in the mid-sixties to nineteen eighties in the US thanks to the establishment of "no-fault divorce." It was easier to get divorced and more couples did, and then remarried.

But this should not be seen as a modern day phenomenon, as remarriage was quite common in Colonial America. And now family structures are evolving to mean more than a combination of families a la "The Brady Bunch" of 1970's American pop culture.

According to an article on Ancestry by Sandie Angulo Chen (link below), the average length of marriages in the Colonial Era was twelve years due to high mortality rates. The average age of death for a man in Virginia was 48, and 1/3 to 1/2 of all children in Colonial America had lost at least one parent by the time they were 21.

Getting "married" in Colonial America was often not possible due to the lack of ministers, but cost a lot of money when they could find one. This is one reason why you may not be able to find a marriage record for your ancestors. People announced their intentions to be coupled by publishing "banns," so be sure to check any available newspapers for those notices.

If a spouse and parent died leaving a family behind, the Christian rule of marriage as lasting "until death do us part" led to the acceptance of remarriage as the right thing to do for a family unit in Western cultures.

colorful peace symbol from the 60's

Before the free-wheeling, free-sex hippie glory days of the 1960's, couples cohabitating without marriage vows were viewed as "living in sin" and having a child outside of wedlock was scandalous. But a recent study out of Europe showed that in some countries a majority of the children born are born to people who are NOT married or in a legal civil partnership!

Map of European countries with birth rates outside of marriage

There have come to be 6 different recognized family structures:

1. Nuclear Family - Traditional mom and dad and at least 1 kid. A study done by British writer Anne Karpf found that that as of 2005, only 63 per cent of American children were being raised in the care and residence of both biological parents.

2. Single Parent Family - A mom or a dad raising children by themselves. Pew Research says that one in four children is born to a single mother.

3. Extended families - 2 or more adults who are related somehow, along with other relatives such as children, siblings, cousins, and parents all sharing duties and expenses.

4. Families without children - Again, according to Pew Research, 44 percent of non-parents under age 50 report not planning to ever have children, and this includes committed relationships.

5. The stepfamily, or blended family - Over half of all marriages end in divorce, and people remarry and try to raise their children together. I say "try" because over 60% of 2nd marriages fail.

6. The Grandparent family - Grandparents are caring for their children's children for a variety of reasons. One in ten children lives with a grandparent, and about one in five is raised by their grandparents.

What does all of this mean to the genealogist? Let's consider cases such as someone desirous of joining The Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution. The US Federal Censuses of 1850 - 1950 have always been acceptable documentation of marriage and parentage. These relationships were "inferred." The 2020 US Census was the first census to count married couples, cohabitating couples, single adults with or without children, and non-related adults in the household. What about the censuses from 1960 - 2020? Can we "infer" these relationships? How will we know who was his, or who was hers, or who was theirs? In the cases of single or surrogate parents, will we ever know who the biological parents were?

Electric blender with blue glass

And we cannot ignore the other growing type of "blended family" arising due to still (!) evolving views about interracial marriages. Until 1967 it was illegal for interracial couples to marry in several states, and some of those laws are still on the books but considered unenforceable after the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia in 1967 (link below).

Loving v. Virginia was still cited in the recent recurring struggles for same sex marriage rights, some fearing that the right to interracial marriage could be taken away by default if same sex marriages were disallowed. On December 13, 2022, President Joe Biden signed H.R. 8404, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, into law, guaranteeing marriage equality for same-sex and interracial couples under federal law. The law passed both houses of the U.S. Congress with bipartisan support, and the signing took place two weeks after the U.S. Senate voted 61–36 to approve it.

Besides interracial marriages, we have seen the rise of interracial or transracial and international adoptions over the last two decades. According to the "Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) in the U.S Interracial adoption grew significantly from 1999 to 2005 where it reached its peak year at 585 adoptions to the United States. Following 2005, interracial adoption into the US declined with 288 adoptions in the year 2011. From 1999 to 2011, there have been 233,934 adoptions into the United States from other countries across the globe. Of the total adoptions, 39.4% (92,202 children) were under the age of 12 months.[5] Also, 63% (146,516 children) were female. Overall, children from China were the most common to be adopted. 66,630 were from China and Russia was the second largest country with 45,112 children."

Colorful DNA double helix molecule

We should talk about DNA and half-siblings, shouldn't we? Full siblings usually share around 50% (32 - 54%)of the same DNA. Generally half-siblings will share about 25% (18 - 32%)of the same DNA or about the same as an Aunt/Uncle, double first cousin, or a Grandparent. When looking for that elusive parent of the born out of wedlock grandparent, the shared DNA is even smaller! Be sure to double check the birthdates to keep the generations separate in your tree.

You don't have to remember these figures, get a copy of this chart from The Genetic Genealogist and thumbtack it!

The Shared cM chart showing genetic relationships

Note to Self: The changing family system of yours, mine, and ours makes estate planning a necessity to avoid future fights about what IS yours, mine, or ours when one or both parents passes away. What goes to the surviving spouse and which family heirlooms are important to wh

Promotional photo for TV Show "Modern Family" on ABC

ich family members should be clearly identified in a will.

The family structure has certainly evolved from the rosy almost fairy-tale of the "Brady Bunch" blended family to that of

the more recent "Modern Family" with a gay couple that adopts an Asian girl, one nuclear albeit dysfunctional family, and a blended, interracial, intergenerational family.

I have been in a nuclear family, a single mother family, a blended family, a no kids family, and then into a stepfamily of grown children. How about you? Do you have similar experiences?

There are only 45 days until Christmas, and about half of that till the first day of Hanukkah from this date of publishing, Nov. 9! If you are planning on a genealogy related gift, your time is running short! DNA tests are on sale, their gift memberships are also on sale. tests are on sale as well, has the usual DNA test and a gift membership sale, as well as a cute looking gift called "The Family Discovery Kit" on sale for $59 down from $199.00.

Hope your research is going well! Let me know if you might like some help, there is always a free quote for you!

Best regards,

Leslie Ryan

“World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

No compensation is received for any links or referrals herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

Further reading:

Colonial American Life

"Blended Families and Other Euphemisms" Ann Karpf

US Interracial marriage and the Supreme Court


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