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Data show state families changing

U.S. Census figures reveal a strong increase in nontraditional households

June 23, 2011|Kate Linthicum and Ari Bloomekatz and Scott Gold

On a leafy drive in west Los Angeles, at a newly renovated home with cathedral ceilings and a backyard pool, 4-year-old Kate Eisenpresser-Davis' friends have been known to pose an intriguing question: "Why does Kate have three mommies?"

Lisa Eisenpresser, 44, and her partner, Angela Courtin, 38, share custody of Kate with Eisenpresser's ex-partner.

When asked to describe their life, Eisenpresser and Courtin respond with the same word: "Normal." Days are spent searching for the right balance between work and home, and zigzagging through Mar Vista to meetings, school and gymnastics.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 25, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. families: An article in the June 23 Section A about U.S. Census data on families referred to "children born to unmarried parents or raised in a single-family household." It should have said "single-parent households."

Courtin is pregnant. Kate will soon have a sister, Phoebe, conceived from Eisenpresser's egg and sperm from a donor -- the same 6-foot-1 Harvard grad, who scored a 1580 on the SAT, who served as Kate's donor.

"It's almost like I'm too busy to be thinking too deeply about being gay and different," Eisenpresser said.

Maybe she shouldn't bother. According to a Times analysis of new U.S. Census figures, the Eisenpresser-Courtin-Davises are on the leading edge of change -- of a steady evolution in the meaning of "family" and "home" in California.

New census figures show that the percentage of Californians who live in "nuclear family" households -- a married man and a woman raising their children -- has dropped again over the last decade, to 23.4% of all households. That represents a 10% decline in 10 years, measured as a percentage of the state's households.

Those households, the Times analysis shows, are being supplanted by a striking spectrum of postmodern living arrangements: same-sex households, unmarried opposite-sex partners, married couples who have no children. Some forms of households that were rare just a generation ago are becoming common; the number of single-father households in California, for instance, grew by 36% between 2000 and 2010.

For centuries, "family" connoted a sprawling, messy, almost tribal identity. Industrialization, wealth and mobility allowed, even encouraged, the family unit to shrink. The term "nuclear family" didn't enter the lexicon until the boom after World War II -- a suggestion that the immediate family, built on a foundation of marriage and traditional gender roles, was the nucleus of social structure, even of American morality.

That paradigm, though, began to fray even before "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" went off the air in 1966. Today, California is a stark reflection of a new dynamic: the traditional Hallmark card image is hardly obsolete, but it is the minority. And new sorts of households -- blended families; bands of middle-class singles who live and vacation together; families that were once called "broken" -- are increasingly the standard.

Like a funhouse mirror, emerging dynamics of family stare back at us from television screens. "Ozzie and Harriet" gave way to "The Brady Bunch." Today's version is "Modern Family" -- ABC's show about a man who remarried a younger woman with a son from a previous relationship; his daughter, who is married with three children; and his son, who is gay and recently adopted a daughter with his partner.

The way 25-year-old Amanda McAneney grew up, she was surprised whenever she discovered that a friend's parents were still married to each other. "I always thought that was a little weird," said McAneney, who now lives in Echo Park with her boyfriend and has no immediate plans to marry.

The preservation of what is viewed by many as the traditional family has long been a hot-button political issue. There is little dispute that some modern living arrangements, particularly the growth of single-parent households, often result in financial burdens and other challenges.

Ron Haskins, the co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families who once served as President Bush's senior advisor for welfare policy, said that children born to unmarried parents or raised in a single-family household, in particular, are more likely to be poor and to commit crimes. He said there is a national movement to promote marriage, such as marriage education requirements in some high schools.

On Tuesday night, Patrick Carruthers sat outside a Trader Joe's market in Riverside, gulping strawberry and vanilla smoothies with his 5-year-old daughter, Amelie. Riverside County saw a 39% rise in single-father households between 2000 and 2010.

"She's going back and forth between me and her mom," said Carruthers, a 27-year-old photographer. He said he wished life had taken a different turn for the family -- that he and Amelie's mother, who met in a college history class but never married, would have managed to stay together to provide more stability for their daughter.

"I wouldn't really call it enjoyable," Carruthers said. "I don't want to be that every-other-weekend dad."

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