It's usually the mother. After 17 years of marriage and three children, I was divorced in 1975. It was hardly the fashionable status at the time and I can remember being grief stricken, humiliated and frightened. My church, friends and relatives were totally unprepared to deal with me or my divorce. I entered the work force for the first time in 13 years, so my children, aged 11, 10 and six, were left with no father at home and a mother gone most of the day. The children were also grieving and embarrassed.
My ex-husband and I had the most civil divorce possible. We shared the same attorney and decided between us the terms of the divorce. Neither of us was involved with anyone else. After the divorce my children's father moved out of town but we all got along and I saw to it that we even spent holidays together. We were close and good friends for many years.
That being said, my children, who are now in their 30s, will probably never recover from the divorce. But they are not dysfunctional or criminals, either. Being a single parent is frightening because it's so much responsibility not shared with another adult. It's frightening because we are so afraid our children will do something that will reflect on us as single parents. Having only one parent at home is more of a social disgrace than anything else -- children quite often benefit from a more peaceful environment or the absence of an abusive parent.
I do get tired of the stigma of the single parent or ''broken'' home however. Several weeks ago a young boy who won a geography bee obviously had a step-parent. One year 50 percent of the top ten students at Galesburg High School were from so-called ''broken'' homes. Every day students are recognized for achievement who have single parents or are living with a step parent.
In the ideal world, children have two biological parents who are mature enough to make their marriage work and aren't poverty stricken.
But social historians say that the only decade of what we consider ''family values'' was in the 1950s and that many social issues were not pleasant. The teenage birthrate was almost twice as high in 1957 as today, according to an article in Modern Maturity magazine, but most young men could afford to marry. Problems such as alcoholism, battering and incest were swept under the rug. Women became almost ill from the expectations of society that we not use our unique abilities or be individuals. Even though divorce rates and the number of unwed mothers were at an all-time low, more children lived in poverty than today.
Discrimination was rampant against ethnic groups, political dissidents, women, elders, gays, religious minorities
The social stability of the decade was due less to the family forms than the the unique social and political climate.
''The high rate of unionization, heavy corporate investment in manufacturing and generous government assistance in the form of public-works projects, veterans' benefits, student loans and housing subsidies gave young families a trememdous jump start, created predictable paths out of poverty and led to unprecedented increases in real wages, '' says the magazine article. It points out that by the time the ''traditional male bread winner'' reached age 30, in both the 1950s and 60s, he could pay the principal and interest on a median-priced home on only 15-18 percent of his income. Segregation and other social issues were kept on the back burner.
According to the article, the highest point of health and nutrition for poor children came in 1970, a period that coincided with the peak years of the Great Society, not the high point of the 50s family.
Since 1973, says family historian Stephanie Coontz in Modern Maturity, corporations have abandoned the communities that grew up around them, seeking cheap labor overseas or in non-unionized sectors of the South. Involuntary part-time work has soared. Time magazine noted in 1993 that predictable job ladders of the 50s and 60s have been sawed off. ''Companies are portable, workers are throwaway.'' Long term commitments are not part of the modern corporation.
Decaying wage and job structures, not changing family structures, have caused an overwhelming income redistribution so that the gap between the rich and poor is the largest ever.
According to Donald J. Hernandez, PhD, formerly with the U.S. Census Bureau, if every child in America were reunited with both biological parents, two-thirds of those who are poor today, would still be poor.
The American family has always been vulnerable to society and economic change. One solution may be to not demonize those who have different family structures, but to solve the deeper economic problems that put such tremendous pressure on adults of all ages.