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Dear Conservatives: Ozzie and Harriet Are Dead

But it's those married women who have chosen to pursue a career that allows them to be the primary source of income for the family that are really eating at Erickson and other conservatives. “Having mom as primary breadwinner is bad for kids and bad for marriage," said Erickson. Oh really? And on what scientific basis is that statement made? The "traditional family," where the dad works and the mom stays at home all day to take care of the kids, is nearly non-existent. Only 14% of families fit that template today. The overwhelming majority of women work outside of the home -- not exactly what Harriet Nelson had in mind, but that's America. Women make up 47% of the workforce and nearly a quarter of them have more education and training than their husbands. A growing number of fathers -- 3.5% -- are "stay-at-home dads" and make themselves responsible for child rearing while their better educated, more successful wives go off to work.

There's much more. When Erickson claims that female breadwinners are bad for children and their marriage, what kind of family is he imagining where the kids are better off and the marriage has a better chance of success? One can have little doubt that Erickson would reply that the "traditional family" is what he has in mind.

But what is a "traditional" family? A few facts on what the family unit looks like in America today:

* Single parents account for 27 percent of family households with children under 18.

* More than two million fathers are the primary caregivers of children under 18, a 62 percent increase since 1990.

* One in two children will live in a single-parent family at some point in childhood.

* One in three children is born to unmarried parents.

* Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.

* More than one million children have parents who separate or divorce each year.

*More than half of Americans today have been, are or will be in one or more stepfamily situations.

If there is such a thing as a "traditional family" today, it is a blended family -- parents and children the result of more than one union that will probably result in divorce and remarriage, further blending the already blended grouping. But there are other kinds of family units that would certainly fall under the rubric "non-traditional":

* Estimates show that approximately 2 million American children under the age of 18 are being raised by their lesbian and gay parents

* The number of unmarried partner households has increased by 72 percent in the last decade from three million in 1990 to more than five million in 2000. These figures include both same-sex and different-sex couples.

* One-third of lesbian households and one-fifth of gay male households have children.

Studies still show that the optimum situation for children is to have a married, different-sex couple as parents. A child's chances of success in education, in employment, and in building their own stable, monogamous relationship as an adult increases dramatically if they live in such an environment.

But truly, how many children can live under "optimum" conditions? Do we tell everyone else they can't have kids? There are a million reasons why families break up, and it is a certainty that women being primary breadwinners isn't one of them. Blame the ease of divorce compared to 50 years ago. Blame a culture that devalues monogamy. Blame fathers who beat their wives, mothers who constantly bitch about money, or couples who simply drift apart. But there is no basis to blame female breadwinners except an outdated notion of women and the family.

That conservatives consider themselves guardians of the traditional family, and family values is a good and noble thing. But the guardians of tradition, to be effective, must recognize the times in which they live and adjust to the changing realities of the culture and society. It's no use trying to recapture the Ozzie and Harriet version of the family, or any notion that women will eschew the opportunities that the 21st century is presenting to them because they may end up making more money than their husbands. That kind of thinking has gone the way of the Studebaker and Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Conservatives should concentrate on channeling the changes we are seeing in the family unit into productive outlets that help parents nurture children and empower families to achieve security. Building non-governmental support systems in the community is a good start. This means affordable day care, after-school activities, and perhaps educational opportunities for the parents.Voting for politicians who even vaguely understand the value of a well-ordered free market couldn't hurt either. A strong economic base is a prerequisite for strong families.

In other words, conservatives must work to strengthen the voluntary community. Not by lecturing women about how much money they make and hectoring them about how seeking their idea of a fulfilling life is selfish and even unseemly, but by welcoming everyone, of every race and, yes, sexual orientation into the circle.

Otherwise, conservatives and their political party will find themselves on the outside looking in.