For many of us, the holidays bring precious time with family that is often hard to come by during the rest of the year. The Dicksons shook our holidays up a bit this year with less formality but plenty of togetherness with various family branches at a Christmas Eve supper, a Christmas Day oyster roast, a post-Christmas fried chicken fest and New Year’s black-eyed peas with pimento cheese muffins.

Plenty of both family and food.

Family relationships ebb and flow, of course, with beginnings and, sadly, endings. They morph, contracting and expanding among husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings according to changing circumstances and age. We all recognize when things are evolving in our own families. What we may not see as clearly is that our change may not be personal to our own families. They may be part of trends that are carrying others along as well.

I am part of the Baby Boom generation, the largest American generation born after World War II, until the Millennials, some of them our own children, blew past us in numbers. Our two generations sport many differences, among them that Millennials are far more diverse than Baby Boomers. Another is that while Baby Boomers married for the most part in our 20s, that is not the case with Millennials.

Today’s Americans between 18 and 34 are, in fact, less than half as likely to be married as were their counterparts 50 years ago.

Reasons for their aversion to the altar seem elusive but money likely plays a significant role. The Great Recession slowed most people down a bit, few more so than young folks just starting out. Many continue to live in their parents’ homes out of economic necessity. In a recent American Family Survey, Millennials acknowledge financial security as a reason to defer marriage, but they also reference education, several serious relationships as points of reference and home ownership. Love, it seems, is not enough to tie the knot, making marriage less a marker of young adulthood than a later-in-life achievement.

Families come in all shapes and sizes, of course, some of them being foster families and adoptive ones. North Carolina has plenty of both, with more than 10,000 children in foster care with more than 2,000 of them waiting for an adoptive home. The number of adoptive families is harder to pin down, as many of today’s adoptions are private. Foster children who do not find their “forever families” have far too often had a difficult time, because they aged out of the foster care system at 18, often into nothingness. The North Carolina General Assembly has now allowed some foster children to stay in the system until 21, not a perfect solution but three years better than finding oneself entirely on one’s own at the tender age of 18. In addition, the state has launched an initiative to place foster children in forever homes. 

No one had ever heard of paternity leave when I was a child, and my father did what most men of his generation did — he brought home most of the bacon and was sweet to and tolerant of my sister and me. I remember a very sleepy Daddy reading “The Three Little Pigs” to my sister who knew the words by heart, of course. He groggily misread a line, saying “laying pigs and slapping mortar between them,” which sent the toddler into wails of distress. I do not recall any diaper duties or meal preparation, except for occasional soft scrambled eggs cooked in the double boiler.

Contrast that with new father Mark Zuckerburg, also famously the father of Facebook. The Zuckerburgs have a new daughter, Max, and daddy Mark has announced he will take two months of paternity leave. Facebook offers four months of paid paternity leave. Mother Priscilla Chan is a pediatrician who is taking an undisclosed maternity leave, so little Max will be well attended. Mark has already posted a photo of himself changing a diaper on Facebook with the caption, “One more down, thousands to go.”

Admittedly, Mark Zuckerburg has the resources to do whatever he pleases and admittedly paid paternity leave remains rare in our country outside the technology industries. The fact that the high-profile Zuckerburg is taking his paternity leave so publicly still strikes me as significant. It says to the fathers of his generation, Millennials, that babies need their fathers as well as their mothers and that this is A-OK. It also says to his generation that paternity leave is an important business practice and that American companies should provide that benefit as companies in other nations, especially in Europe, do routinely.

All this may not be evolution in a Darwinian sense, but it is evolution nonetheless.

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