In 2009, Rebecca Mindeman's husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. She and her oldest son each took 12-hour shifts caring for a man she says was less recognizable each day and would hardly sit down for more than 20 minutes at a time. After three years, he passed away in April of 2012 — she and her son's transition to the perceived normalcy of a "traditional" family wasn't exactly a seamless one. After filling in as a father figure for his younger brother, resuming the life of an 18-year-old didn't come easy.
Mindeman's sister fell ill with stage IV colon cancer shortly thereafter, so she and her family opted to move nearby to make a new life for themselves and help care for her. Mindeman's youngest brother, Matthew, had moved in with their sister around the same time, as well, and he stayed with her until 2015 when she, too, passed. At that point, Mindeman and Matthew decided they'd live together — they'd already had a test run earlier that year when she shattered her right ankle and fibula and ended up living in her sister's living room. Matthew took care of all of them, so she knew living together could work out.
"Now, as an only parent, I am incredibly lucky because I share a house with my youngest brother," she says. "I get to work because he doesn’t. He helps with my children (just an 11-year-old at home now) and pets, takes care of the maintenance and does the grocery shopping. He lives in the basement. My son and I live on the second floor. We share the space in between... We split the bills. Our two other brothers couldn’t believe we wanted to share a house, but it is perfect for us."
Mindeman says that her brother, a successful computer programmer who was ready to retire anyway, is the reason that she can do the work she loves and that her youngest son can still have a social life. Her brother also has dinner with her oldest son once a week, lending him a shoulder and an ear.
"It is magnificent to have a healthy, gentle male role model for my boys — I don't think this could be managed with anyone else," she adds. "I like to think he benefitted from having me around while caring for my sister, because I thoroughly understood what he was going through as the primary caregiver for a terminally ill loved one and had his back... My brother and I also get some comfort from knowing that there will be someone around to take care of us as we get older. Neither one of us has to tackle life's hard stuff alone. I think this even helps us take better care of ourselves."
Like Mindeman, Sherrye Richardson's family also leans on each other to care for the family. She and her husband are retired with flexible schedules, raising their seven-year-old grandson, Xavier, who has been living with them since he was just nine months old. Their daughter and Xavier's mother, Siobhan, is mentally ill.
"Currently, [Siobhan] is living in Florida in a rented room — Xavier sees her once or twice a year," Richardson explains. "His father is not in his life, Siobhan obtained Philadelphia Family Court order to ensure that I don't contact him."
While she says Xavier does struggle with "MIA parents" among other issues, he sees a therapist and is doing well in school nonetheless.
"We love this little boy," she says. "He's smart — he won the Mathematics Award at his preschool graduation. He is very affectionate, and I am raising him to be strong mentally and physically. I encourage him to ask me any questions, and I always answer him as honestly as possible... There are bad days, but Xavier will always be a blessing to me."
Mindeman and Richardson are not alone in having non-traditional family dynamics. In today's American society, traditional family dynamics are no longer necessarily the norm. Many American households have family structures that may be considered alternative, including situations like that of Mindeman and Richardson's families, single parenthood, cohabitation of an unmarried couple, same-sex families, polygamous families and even friends who co-parent their children together.
For example, single-parent households are becoming evermore popular, and single mothers make up the majority of all single-parent families in the U.S, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau. Specifically, out of about 12 million single-parent families with children under the age of 18, more than 80 percent were headed by single mothers.
Some single mothers, like Arielle Band, founder and chief navigator of Colibri Life, team up with other single mothers in the neighborhood for support.
"I have been divorced for the past eight years, and am truly living the ‘it takes a village’ dream," Band says. "While my daughter and I live alone, there are a few women (one in the process of divorce and another in a two-parent working family) in our local neighborhood that are also 'moms' for my daughter and I am a 'mom' for their kids (including pets). We all have keys to each others houses, host community dinners where all of the kids are at one moms' houses while the other two get a break, help each other out when sick or working late hours, let a dog out or feed a fish when needed, and essentially are there for each other when we need a hand! We even share clothes and shoes for the kids when one outgrows them. We have truly recreated a ‘village’ across our families that has become invaluable and, not only gives our kids the experience of different parenting styles, but also provides a broader sense of family for us all."
Band says that the dynamics of her family care happened organically. As she and the other women's children became friends, as did they.
"We just started leaning on each other when we needed support, which was a common theme for all of us," she explains. "It started small with things like asking to take a kid to swim team with their kids so we could have a few minutes to run an errand. Then, as our friendship and trust grew, so did our support system for each other... Being divorced, you really need extra hands in your life and having other moms who you trust and respect really makes a world of difference."
The best parts about her family care dynamics, she says, are the friendships and "extra family members" they'd all created together. The women's children have all become like brothers and sisters to one another, and the moms have a support system so they can all take care of themselves and give each other advice.
The need for support and self-care time is why a lot of unmarried or even divorced couples still cohabitate, as well. As marriage rates continue to fall, the number of American adults in cohabiting relationships continues to climb. In fact, the number of cohabitating adults reached about 18 million in 2016, up 29 percent since 2007 when 14 million adults were cohabiting, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Of course, there are other non-traditional family structures, too. Approximately 4.3 percent of adults in the U.S. identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ), according to the Family Equality Council. Nearly 1.1 million LGBTQ folks in the U.S. are married to someone of the same sex, and among those under 50 years old and living alone or with a spouse or partner, 48 percent of women and 20 percent of men are raising a child who is under 18 years old. This means that between two million and 3.7 million children under age 18 have an LGBTQ parent. Polygamous families are also growing. While polygamy is illegal in all 50 states, more Americans than ever say the practice is morally acceptable, according to a Gallup poll. Americans who find polygamy to be morally acceptable has risen from seven percent in 2001 to 17 percent in 2017.
It's no surprise that as family dynamics change, the ways in which people care for their families also changes. Many people really take the concept of "it takes a village" literally.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.