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.
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.”
Despite the hardships, though, the increasing diversity of American households should not “be portrayed as the collapse of married life,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families.
Creating a modern, accurate portrait of the American family is vital, she said -- informing decisions about school construction , for instance, or helping businesses shape benefits packages and other human resources policies.
“As a society, we’re not going to know how to invest in the next generation if we don’t know where the next generation lives and how it lives,” Coontz said. “The question right now is not what kind of families do we wish people were living in but what kind of families do exist, and what are the variations within those families.”
Indeed, interviews with numerous families in Southern California reveal a generation of parents and children who still view the family as the building block of society but no longer view the nuclear family as the ideal. By and large, those interviewed insisted that their non-nuclear lives do not reflect a weakening of society but a fluidity and complexity that echoes a modern world.
The Times analysis tracked changes in the proportion of categories of California’s households using new census figures in order to draw the most meaningful conclusions while accounting for other demographic shifts. According to the analysis:
* Households occupied by unmarried, opposite-sex partners rose by 20% between 2000 and 2010, and now make up 6.2% of California homes.
* Single-parent households with children also rose by 20%, now making up 11.8% of California homes.
Households of married couples who do not have children rose by 4%, now 26% of the state’s households.
* The proportion of same-sex households rose by 25% between 2000 and 2010, increasing in every county in Southern California.
Analysts and many gay couples believe the actual number of gay households is not necessarily increasing that fast -- but in a more welcoming world, the recognition of those households is.
“These types of family units have always been there,” said Jeff Zarrillo, 37.
Zarrillo and his partner, Paul Katami, 38, have shared a home in Burbank for seven years. After they were denied a marriage license in Los Angeles County, they sued. The federal judge who heard their lawsuit declared California’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. Proponents of the ban, Proposition 8, have appealed.
Katami said many gay couples have declined to live openly until recently.
“It was not OK to be gay,” he said.
Gary J. Gates, a researcher at the Williams Institute within the UCLA School of Law, noted that many of the state’s sharper increases in the documenting of gay households came in socially conservative regions, such as the Coachella Valley, rather than in the gay enclaves of San Francisco or West Hollywood.
“In some sense, you’re capturing the size of the closet,” Gates said.
The Times interviews also suggest that the state’s stagnant economy has contributed to the erosion of traditional family models.
Marriage typically carries a host of financial benefits -- a facet of traditional households touted by both social conservatives and gay rights activists pushing for the right to wed. But in Culver City, 49-year-old Xaime Casillas has declined to marry Claudia Bracho, the mother of his 16-month-old son and his partner of nearly 10 years, because he owns two properties that have fallen into foreclosure.
But, said Casillas, “I couldn’t see my lady, my partner, marrying into a financial mess.”
Casillas said he has long harbored doubts, too, about the tradition of marriage. He grew up in West Los Angeles in a home purchased by his Mexican-born parents. Theirs was “the American immigrant dream,” he said -- but their marriage imperfect.
“It would have made more sense for them to separate rather than continue the war in the kitchen,” he said. “But they stayed together because of the Catholic Church.”
Casillas said his generation’s ideas about relationships have evolved. Today, he said, the “ultimate dream” is simply “to be with someone you love” -- no matter the structure of the home.
Back in Mar Vista, Lisa Eisenpresser said she always comes back with the same answer when 4-year-old Kate’s friends ask about her three mothers: “Fami- lies look a lot of different ways.”
“People are all different. So how could it be honest to try to fit round pegs in square holes?” Eisenpresser said. New types of families, she said, “open up new possibilities that can only be good for our society -- to have more diversity, more examples of what life can be.”
Times staff writers Nicole Santa Cruz, Ken Schwenke, Maloy Moore, Sandra Poindexter and Doug Smith contributed to this report.