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“This churning, this turnover in our intimate partnerships is creating complex families on a scale we’ve not seen before,” said Andrew J.

Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

They describe themselves as mild-mannered introverts who suffer from an array of chronic medical problems. On their wedding day in 2011, the groom was 43 years old and the bride 39, yet it was marriage No. Today, their blended family is a sprawling, sometimes uneasy ensemble of two sharp-eyed sons from her two previous husbands, a daughter and son from his second marriage, ex-spouses of varying degrees of involvement, the partners of ex-spouses, the bemused in-laws and a kitten named Agnes that likes to sleep on computer keyboards.

They love crossword puzzles, football, going to museums and reading five or six books at a time.

Also démodé is the old debate over whether mothers of dependent children should work outside the home.

The facts have voted, the issue is settled, and Paycheck Mommy is now a central organizing principle of the modern American family.

Among women with a bachelor’s degrees or higher, 90 percent adhere to the old playground song and put marriage before a baby carriage.

For everybody else, maternity is often decoupled from matrimony: 40 percent of women with some college but no degree, and 57 percent of women with high school diplomas or less, are unmarried when they give birth to their first child.

“Most people will move through several different types over the course of their lives.” At the same time, the old-fashioned family plan of stably married parents residing with their children remains a source of considerable power in America — but one that is increasingly seen as out of reach to all but the educated elite. “It’s the backbone of how we live,” said David Anderson, 52, an insurance claims adjuster from Chicago.

We lavish billion a year on weddings, more than we spend on pets, coffee, toothpaste and toilet paper combined. When an informal sample of 52 Americans of different ages, professions and hometowns were asked the first thought that came to mind on hearing the word “family,” the answers varied hardly at all. At the end of the baby boom, in 1964, 36 percent of all Americans were under 18 years old; last year, children accounted for just 23.5 percent of the population, and the proportion is dropping, to a projected 21 percent by 2050.

Fewer women are becoming mothers — about 80 percent of those of childbearing age today versus 90 percent in the 1970s — and those who reproduce do so more sparingly, averaging two children apiece now, compared with three in the 1970s.

“We’re seeing a class divide not only between the haves and the have-nots, but between the I do’s and the I do nots,” Dr. Those who are enjoying the perks of a good marriage “wouldn’t stand for any other kind,” she said, while those who would benefit most from marital stability “are the ones least likely to have the resources to sustain it.” Yet across the divide runs a white picket fence, our unshakable star-spangled belief in the value of marriage and family. “It means everything,” said Linda Mc Adam, 28, who is in human resources on Long Island. “It’s almost like a weight,” said Rob Fee, 26, a financial analyst in San Francisco, “a heavy weight.” Or as the comedian George Burns said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” In charting the differences between today’s families and those of the past, demographers start with the kids — or rather the lack of them.

We marry, divorce and remarry at rates not seen anywhere else in the developed world. The nation’s birthrate today is half what it was in 1960, and last year hit its lowest point ever.

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