The New Family Network: More Than Ever, It Takes a Village

Melanie's husband died suddenly at 35, leaving her to care for their three sons, ages 8, 4, and 10 months. She had no family nearby. Turns out, she had something just as valuable: A network of friends.
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Melanie's husband died suddenly at 35, leaving her to care for their three sons, ages 8, 4, and 10 months. She had no family nearby. Turns out, she had something just as valuable: A network of friends. Friends who really stepped up to the plate in the wake of Melanie's husband's death. These friends would offer to babysit, show up at Friday night Shabbat, and invite her to holiday dinners and on vacations. They'd reach out to her sons, with the men among them taking the boys on picnics and teaching them "dad" things, like how to throw a baseball and how to tie a tie.

They'd help even without being asked. Melanie remembers the time she was trying to call her oldest son in to dinner. He persisted in ignoring her. Until, that is, Melanie's next-door neighbor -- a sweet, protective older dad -- walked out onto his porch. "Bruce Addison!" he yelled to the boy. "Get your tush in gear! Your mother's calling you!" For years, the network continued to look out for Melanie, her boys, and one another, filling in when someone wasn't able to fulfill a promised duty. In this way, they created a new, but increasingly common, sort of family -- what I like to call "collected families," a vital new form of extended family that calls on "nonofficial parents" to help raise kids with a sense of community, security, and diversity.

To be clear: Good fathers and mothers, in the traditional sense, are vital to a son's and daughter's development (abusive parents are better if not around). Studies show that boys and girls benefit -- socially, emotionally, academically -- from having a caring and involved father and mother on site. But these days, there are a lot more single mothers than fathers. The Census puts it at 83 percent to 17 percent. That's not a statement of value. It's just a fact. There are various reasons for this. Most single fathers get children through divorce -- usually when the mother doesn't want to be the custodian, or she is judged incompetent. Interestingly, the number of single fathers is growing by 6 percent a year, double the percentage for single mothers. Two-mother and two-father families are becoming if not commonplace, at least unremarkable.

The Census tells us that more than one in four families with children under 18 are headed by a single parent; three out of four of those are headed by a female. And there are other circumstances that may prevent boys and girls from forming strong relationships with their fathers, including divorce, remarriage, illness, or occupational or financial need that may have Dad working long hours or in a different city, state, or even country. The fact is that, by chance or by choice, more boys and girls are growing up without fathers, or consistent fathers, in the home.

Which is one reason we need to see a rise in these collected families. The terms we use to describe our families are changing as fast as families are. Meanwhile, as families combine, split, and recombine, they create spiraling relationships as complicated as DNA. Collected families, meanwhile, grow organically and naturally through situation and circumstance. They are built on affinity, affection, and need, and so don't need to depend on blood or even marriage ties. In that sense, they are often more stable and dependable. And they are beneficial not just to mothers and fathers who can find extra help or support from the people in these constellations, but also to their sons and daughters, who can find love, comfort, and education from a wide variety of personalities and talents.

There's a French expression -- On choisit les amis, on subit la famille -- that means, "We choose our friends and endure our family." These days, you can choose your family, too. Here's how to start.

Collect people. When it comes to family, more is better, and not worse. People from all parts of your life -- blood relatives, friends, coworkers, neighbors, coaches -- can act as role models, teachers, confidantes, and friends to your sons and daughters. The late Lawrence Kohlberg, a pioneering psychologist in the field of moral development, theorized that a child understands how to deal with people in authority by engaging with a multitude of adults and learning from their relationships. The more people involved in a child's life in a caring, consistent way, he wrote, the more successful and moral they will grow up to be.

NCAA coach Mike Krzyzewski attributes his success to his mom, Emily, who gave him unconditional support and love while allowing others to have their own impact as well. "She had confidence in my teachers and coaches," he told me in an interview. "She never, ever would question a teacher or a coach. She allowed other people to teach me. She had confidence that I would learn from these people and adjust to good people. I think it was because of her that I never feared failure." In the end, the structure of our formal connections doesn't matter so much when it comes to raising strong boys and girls. It's intimacy that counts, and the responsibility that intimacy engenders.

Don't discount Dad and Mom -- your dad and mom, that is. As more women and men raise boys and girls alone, the fathers and mothers of those women and men can fill in the missing pieces in ways that no one outside the family can. When my own father died, my grandfather -- a man who'd burst through our front door with energy, good cheer, and gifts -- moved to a very important place in my life. Looking back now, I can clearly see how he helped, at a very critical time, shape my sense of how I fit into the world.

Grandfathers and Grandmothers have the wisdom of life experience; they have the family gravitas to teach and, when necessary, enforce values. They are a link between generations. What's more, recent studies show that involved grandparents can counter the threats in households at risk from dangers like poverty and drugs.

Emily, a single-by-choice mom I encountered in my own research, told me that she began thinking about male role models for her son as soon as she learned she was having a boy. "I can teach a boy to be a good person," Emily said. "But I can't teach him everything he needs to know to be a good man. But I had my dad. I knew he would fill that gap. And that was a great confidence-builder for me."

Embrace a "cafeteria lifestyle." When it comes to finding role models for your son and daughter, take some of this, add some of that, throw in a little bit of this, and come up with a combination that is fulfilling. Different personalities, skills, approaches, and temperaments add up to different parenting strengths, whether a person has a biological connection to a child or not. By mining all areas of your life for role models, you'll expose your sons and daughters to a greater variety of opportunity.

Stephanie and Nessa, mothers to 10-year-old Nathan, made a point of surrounding him with men -- from coaches to pastors to cousins. Even his sperm donor was part of his familial constellation, making a point to visit regularly and spend some holidays with the family. Nathan drew something from each man in his life: He admired his soccer coach for being smart and athletic. He looked to his engineer neighbor, Bob, for help with school papers. "It does take a village to raise a child," said Stephanie.

Olivia, a single mom by choice, formed relationships with older adults who have acted as "virtual" grandparents to her young boy and girl. They share everything with these friends, from birthday celebrations to weekend brunches, while Olivia benefits from having access to perspectives influenced by age and experience greater than her own. In fact, anyone who indulges in the act of mothering and fathering, even without the biological or custodial title, can help raise a child. In the end, after all, effective families are defined not by number or gender, but by love, humor, and enduring support.