Nontraditional Families Becoming More Traditional

Filed under: Divorce & Custody, Relatives, Celeb Parents, In The News

Grace Kelly and Family

The traditional family may be going the way of men in suits and women in pearls. Photo: Getty Images

A generation ago, the average, traditional family was composed of a father, mother, and at least two children. Divorce rates were low, homosexuals had no hope of raising their own children, and surrogacy was something out of a science-fiction novel. Today, all of that has changed, leading us to contemplate what exactly is a traditional family.

Michael Jackson's death has brought this issue front and center. Who will now raise his children, Prince Michael, Paris, and Blanket? All three were raised from birth exclusively by their father. Jackson's ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, publicly gave up all claims to Prince Michael and Paris shortly after their births; however, Michael Jackson's death has led to a custody hearing, set for July 20, to declare a temporary guardian for the children. Rowe plans to attend this hearing, even though she is not legally required to be there and has said she has no interest in suing for custody. Should she have a say in who raises them? Furthermore, since Rowe was not named in Jackson's will as a potential guardian, so does she really have any business getting involved now that Michael is gone?

Some nontraditional families come together for other reasons. The late Byrd and Melanie Billings, who were tragically murdered in their Florida home last week, were such people. The Billings were a modern-day, magnanimous sort of Brady Bunch -- each had two children from previous marriages. During the 18 years they were married, they adopted 13 special-needs children, whose disabilities ranged from autism to Downs syndrome.

"Their children were perfect to them," said Ashley Markham, their adult daughter, when she appeared on the Today Show. "They had more love than anybody could ever imagine giving one person, much less seventeen." Markham will be carrying on her parents' legacy by raising these kids, with help from family and friends.

Parents who have gone the surrogacy route have an interesting task of explaining the facts of life and what constitutes their family to their kids. These parents also have the decision of whether or not to include the surrogate parent into the family, which creates more discussion of who exactly is part of the family.

There are so many parents these days trying to figure out exactly what they will tell their children about their birth stories that social workers have begun to offer counseling to assist parents on this task.

"What kids want to know is that they're in the family they were meant to be in -- that they belong to their mom and dad," said Judith Kottick, a licensed social worker in Montclair, N.J. Children's books like "Hope & Will Have a Baby: The Gift of Surrogacy" by Irene Celcer, provide parents a way to begin the discussion with their kids.

Anchorwoman Joan Lunden, who has two sets of twins via surrogates, has become somewhat of a celebrity spokeswoman for surrogacy. Although she feels her children, ages 4 and 6, are too young to understand the complexities of petri dishes and embryos, she does have a metaphorical explanation ready for them.

"It's almost like we can't cook the cupcakes in our oven because the oven is broken," Lunden said. "We're going to use the neighbor's oven."

More recently, Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick welcomed home twin girls, Marion Loretta Elwell and Tabitha Hodge. From early on, the couple talked with their 6-year-old son, James Wilkie, about how his siblings came into their family. In May, before the girls were born, Parker told Access Hollywood, "I've been pretty candid with him. I kind of chartered my own course with him because we wanted to keep this quiet and so I wanted to be very careful about telling him so he wasn't burdened with a secret."

Given Ashley Markham's new role, the Jackson hearing, and the myriad of varying family situations out there, it's clear that society must be open to the ever-growing nontraditional families of the present and future. The fact is, the nontraditional family has become the traditional family.

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