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Where we are
Nontraditional families face obstacles to social acceptance


October 2013

There are few things less controversial than the oat bran rings produced under the cereal brand, Cheerios. That all changed this summer when the "first food of children everywhere," released the seemingly innocuous commercial, "Just Checking."

The 30-second spot centers on an adorable 5-year-old girl questioning the cereal’s heart-healthy benefits. After her mother patiently reaffirms the claims, the little girl grins slyly, grabs the iconic yellow box off the table and flits away. The ad cuts to a shot of the girl’s father awaking from a nap on the sofa, bemused by the layer of cereal surrounding his "heart." The ad ends with a single word across the screen: Love.

It’s cute and sentimental, but not at all otherwise remarkable.

Except for one small thing. The ad features an interracial family — the mother is white, the father is black, and the little girl with the Shirley Temple curls, is bi-racial.

Within days of uploading the commercial to YouTube, the page was inundated with racial comments and slurs and the company was forced to disable the commenting section. In a move that is rare for corporations, but supported by many of the nation’s interracial families, the company chose to stand by their casting decision — even as so many others called for the removal of the "offensive," ad.

"Consumers have responded positively to our new Cheerios ad," says Camile Gibson, the company’s vice president of marketing, in a public statement. "At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all."

Nontraditional families are on the rise. Gay, straight, single, multiracial or blended, these households are less defined by how they look, but rather how they don’t.

Cheerios’ Gibson presents the oxymoronic state in which many modern families live: On one hand, there is still enough fuel to ignite controversy; on the other hand, it appears their nontraditional families are being recognized.

Single parents and interracial couples are routinely featured in the media. Nontraditional roles, such as single or stay-at-home dads, are routine themes on reality shows. The award-winning television dramedy, "Modern Family," which features various races and homosexual characters, has reached its fifth season. TIME magazine devoted an entire cover story to "childfree," couples, and straight music artists, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, gained a legion of fans with their equal rights anthem, "Same Love," a song that shot to the top of the charts and has garnered more than 72 million hits on YouTube.

To many, it’s a sign of the times.

But Hollywood Boulevard has long been more progressive than Main Street, if only in fits and spurts. The white, heterosexual nuclear family prevails. Here on the ground, Milwaukee’s nontraditional families say they are still fighting against the monoculture to be accepted as viable and "real."

Historically, people married for money —  an arrangement that was scarcely tied to the heartstrings, says sociologist Angelique Harris, a professor at Marquette University. The idea of marrying for romance didn’t occur to the Western populace until the Victorian Age. Harris says modern courtships place emphasis on "people’s own happiness and life satisfaction, in the unit they create." Media, economics and a globally connected world have heightened the pace of change.

For the Kauflin family of Wauwatosa, it’s dad Jason who stays at home with the kids.

"We changed the cultural norm," Harris says. "Now, it’s all about love. And that concept is weird and freakish (to some). But, there never really has been a ‘traditional’ unit, it’s all in people’s heads.

"One day it will be laughable that we ever debated same sex couples," she adds.

For stay-at-home dad, Jason Kauflin, 41, of Wauwatosa, battling the status quo is a constant struggle. Kauflin is the face behind Milwaukee Dads, a support and activities group for stay-at-home fathers. He says despite raising his two children, now 8 and 10, and doing "everything a stay-at-home mom does" — errands, cooking and laundry — he doesn’t get the same credit as if the shoe were on the other foot.

"The perception is your wife is a doctor or lawyer and you planned (to stay home) because you’re mooching off your wife, or you’re really lazy," he says. "People think we’re ‘trophy husbands;’ that there is something wrong (with us). That kind of thinking is very outdated."

It wasn’t easy at first. Society has embedded traditional gender roles deep into the collective psyche. Kauflin says it took him a few days to amalgamate his "cool," machismo identity with the one pushing the stroller through the mall. It didn’t help that a few friends and family members chalked up his new role to a "phase."

"It was just how people looked at you," he explains. "But it was one of the things to let go of. We wanted to give the children a more stable environment. I mean, my relationship with my kids — I think it’s deeper than most parents have. I take a lot of pride in that."

Roberta Coles, a professor of sociology and the department chair at Marquette University, says unconventional families are nothing new.

"Every generation has complained about some aspect of the American family when it seems to be changing, but it is always changing and adapting," says Coles, adding that in the 1880s people complained about the rate of divorce. "We’ve always had more diversity in family structure than most people were aware of. Change is threatening to people."

Even though interracial marriage was legalized in the 1970s, interracial couples still face contention. In 2009 a Louisiana justice of peace refused to marry one couple "out of concern for their future children." But situations like these are rare. Megan Hayes, a 28-year-old teacher at Rufus King High School, says marrying her husband — who is black; she’s white — has so far been a nonissue for the couple, even in segregationist Milwaukee. The couple have never had a negative experience due to their differences in race, and have several other friends and family members who are in interracial relationships, as well. The couple married this May and have an 18-month-old biracial daughter together.

Though Hayes acknowledges the country’s racial tensions, she perceives the recent backlash as fueled by cowardly Internet trolls (they would never say the things they do online to her face, she says) and old-school extremists.

"I do feel nervous with the older generations," Hayes says. "They grew up in a different time, so they could be an issue." Today’s youth present a different story, however. Hayes points to the high school, where she sees a semblance of racial concord among her students — partially because so many of them were children born out of interracial relationships.

"There are so many kids that you don’t know what (race) they are," she says.

While there seems to be progress for interracial families, Milwaukee’s gay families still struggle with loving and living openly. Denise Cawley of Milwaukee and her partner, Anne Hester, find themselves constantly "explaining" their family to others. Across the United States, 13 states have legalized gay marriage; Wisconsin is not one of them. Though much of society has moved to accept gay individuals, gay couples with children face harsh scrutiny, both legally and socially. That makes Cawley and Hester especially protective of the 6-year-old son they raise together.

"I think we’re still so rare," Cawley says. "I wouldn’t say people aren’t supportive but I wouldn’t say that they are, either. I think we’re a surprise."

Cawley says she frequently fields questions about how her son was conceived, an inquiry most heterosexual couples would find inappropriate, or downright rude. In the end, Cawley says she just wants to be viewed as a normal family.

"Our son gets it," says Cawley. "He knows he has a ‘Mama A’ and a ‘Mama D.’ The children don’t need an explanation, it’s ignorant adults who do."

Harris predicts that the values of previous generations will, quite literally, die away as families continue to change. "We need to let go of that one male, one female, running a family," Cawley says. "There are so many different constructs of what a family is."

Well-rounded Families

Here are four family friendly activities to expand your horizons and feed your soul.

For Your Brain

Science Sundays

What It’s About: Discover the world of science through self-led interactive activities and crafts presented by the Urban Ecology Center. Fall series is "Animals and Their Homes."

Details: 1-4 p.m. Sundays at Riverside Park, 1500 E. Park Place. Geared to all ages. No charge to participate, and you can just drop in.

For The Aventurous

Learn to Rock Climb

What It’s About: For those new to climbing take this one-hour class to learn proper safety measures as well as basic belaying and climbing techniques at the Turner Hall facility. Children must be older than 8 to participate; those younger than 14 must be accompanied by an adult.

Details: Schedule your class two weeks in advance; cost is $25. Turner Hall, 1034 N. 4th St.

For Your Cultural Side

Symphony Sundays/Pajama Jamborees

What It’s About: Family programming by Festival City Symphony. Symphony Sundays include descriptions of the music that will be played. Attendees of the Pajama Jamborees are encouraged to come in their PJs and bring teddy bears and blankets. The one-hour concerts feature lively music selections and a narration.

The Details: Symphony Sundays start Oct. 6 at the Pabst Theater. Admission is $14 for adults and $8 for children. Family packs are available for $75 for the four concerts. Symphony Sundays are best for children grade 2 and up. Pajama Jamborees are free and best for children in K4 through grade 5. The first of three concerts will be Oct. 31 at the Bradley Pavilion of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 123 E. State St.

For Your Inner Artist

Kohl’s Art Generation Family Sundays

Kohl’s Art Generation at the Milwaukee Art Museum features hands-on creative art experience for children. The next Family Sunday will be Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on Oct. 20 where children can celebrate the memory of loved ones. Learn about the traditions and symbols of Day in the Dead while taking part in art activities and enjoying traditional music and dance.

The Details: Family Sundays are for children 12 and younger. Events are free with museum admission. Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive.


This story ran in the October 2013 issue of: