I grew up in a home with a mom, a dad and a brother…a traditional nuclear family. As the dominant family structure of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, this was the case for most of my friends, and probably most of yours too. But today, the definition of a “typical” American family is much more broad and complex.
So what does a modern-day family look like? According to the Pew Research Center, four-in-ten births today occur to women who are single or living with a non-marital partner and less than half (46%) of all children are living in a family with two married parents who are on their first marriage. And a child’s family structure often continues to evolve throughout their life due to changes like cohabitation, divorce or remarriage. Add to that the sprawling size of many modern families to include multiple moms and/or dads, step-parents, siblings and stepsiblings, plus extra aunts, uncles and grandparents.
Let’s face it: Being a parent is hard work. And while it’s great news that people have the option to direct their lives as they want, it means that we must adapt in huge ways during what is arguably the most challenging phase of our lives. For parents, this uncharted territory brings extra challenges. We humans still learn from those around us, and we all learned how to build and manage a family from our parents and our friends’ families. That historical knowledge-sharing gave me a framework for parenting as an adult, but my family structure today is drastically different from the nuclear family of my childhood. That blueprint just doesn’t fit.
Women are also increasingly busy—more of us work full time jobs while still managing home and kids—and our kids’ schedules get fuller every year. And all of those parenting challenges we face, from navigating their education to managing media time to getting them to pick up their dirty clothes, can be overwhelming.
As I’ve gone through divorce, to single mom-hood, to being in partnership with another adult and ex-spouses, I’ve struggled to figure out how to parent, how to make decisions, and how to juggle the morphing roles and emotional landscape. There’s no playbook for this and every non-traditional family is unique. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve consulted my resources—my friends, my partner, my mom, my therapist—only to find that no one has a “when I went through that” kind of solution for me. So I wing it, I follow my heart, and I often put my emotions on the back burner in favor of logic (at least until my next therapy session).
Today, I co-parent my son and stepson primarily with my partner and my partner’s ex-wife. It is complex and sometimes a little messy, but we all work every day at putting our kids first. And because of that our boys have a crack team of adults, all with different strengths, looking out for them and working together to make those tough decisions. They also have extra parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to shower them with love and support. And let’s face it, our Christmas tree is pretty packed with presents every year.
It has been a new landscape for our kids to navigate too, as they figure out how to frame their relationships with not just mom and dad, but with extra parents and relatives. And they’re learning their own framework for “family” each day from us. One that includes extended family participating more fully in their lives. One that includes collaboration and partnership between households. One that hopefully gives them more possibility and options for making things work.
As a mom, I’ll continually question whether something I’ve done is good enough or the right decision. Let’s face it, we’re human and will choose the wrong path sometimes. But as long as I continue to put our kids first, take care of myself and make every decision from a place of love and logic, we’ll surely all turn out okay in the end. And one more thing: It looks like Hillary Rodham Clinton was right. It really does take a village.
Amber Ukena formerly ran global PR and marketing campaigns for business and tech clients. Today she co-owns a content marketing agency based in North Carolina, where her cat serves as office manager. She lives in a house full of boys who treat her like a queen (most of the time) and is mom to a 10-year-old social butterfly who hails from Ethiopia and step-mom to a 7-year-old train enthusiast.