So they’re not the typical family. They have Grammy awards, celebrity friends, wealth, and their own television show. Braxton Family Values recently wrapped another season of drama that included a divorce for one of the singing sisters. For Towanda, the process involved couples counseling plus settlement talks rather than court proceedings. Should more American families follow Towanda’s lead?
Reality Television Gets Real
Perhaps viewers should have seen it coming. Towanda’s husband Andre hadn’t been working and there appeared to be tension around his role as a househusband. He saw no problem with leeching off the Braxton family’s kindness. And poor Andre had been M.I.A. in front of the rolling cameras. Eventually, Towanda used the show to announce her decision. She called it quits and filed for divorce.
Andre was angry about the pending separation. In retaliation, he demanded sole custody and questioned Towanda’s love for her children. The situation was turning ugly. Reflecting on the horrible circumstances of her own parents’ divorce, Towanda decided to go in a different direction. She thought it was best for her children to build and maintain a peaceful co-parenting relationship. She suggested couples counseling. By no means was this path an easy one. Andre initially resisted but decided to participate. In the end, the former couple negotiated a shared custody agreement.
The Braxtons likely have more money than most of the people who watch their show. And their fame is often associated with over the top living. But should Towanda and Andre’s path to post-separation co-parenting be a model for more American families?
“Real” People and Families
America has danced around the idea of helping low-income Americans access family strengthening services. The Healthy Marriage Initiative provides relationship education and counseling. Some Responsible Fatherhood programs have worked with participants on their co-parenting relationships. And the Access and Visitation program offers mediation and other services to help parents develop parenting time (or visitation) agreements. All of these efforts benefit from token levels of federal funding.
The nation’s thought process could mirror Towanda’s. We can look back at a previous generation and say, “Maybe we can do better.” At the beginning of the tumultuous 1960’s, nine percent of children lived with only one of their parents. Fifty years later, that number was 27 percent. In the early years of these changes to the American family, best practices had yet to be developed. Many children were traumatized and scarred. Like Towanda, they carried these experiences into adulthood.
Over time, the legal profession recognized the limitations of court proceedings. Mediation leads to better post-separation relationships. Simultaneously, growing numbers of Americans began participating in counseling and various types of psychological services. As with many societal innovations, low-income people tend to be left behind.
Being left behind is quite possibly contributing to severe outcomes. Some children are exposed to unnecessary conflict. Parents who don’t live with the child (most often fathers) sometimes fade away. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38 percent of mothers living in poverty report that their children have no contact with their fathers.
Recreating the Towanda and Andre story on a mass level isn’t easy.
Families need living wage jobs, paid leave, food, healthcare, and other high priority items. Finding room for family strengthening services on the hierarchy of needs is tough. This is true even as cohesiveness translates into greater emotional support and economic resources for children. Fathers who maintain contact with their children are more likely to pay child support.
Just as families (and their advocates) prioritize needs, so do governments. The Great Recession and subsequent rounds of budget cuts have left little room for new efforts at the federal, state, and local levels. However, significant inroads could be made through smart efforts to leverage resources and build public-private partnerships.
Readiness is yet another challenge. Many people are unfamiliar with family strengthening services. Shows like Braxton Family Values help educate audiences and normalize potential offerings. Even as Americans ready themselves for potential participation, service providers may not be ready. The haves in our society are increasingly segregating themselves from the have-nots in neighborhoods and schools. Providers may be uncomfortable with populations unfamiliar to them and lack the cultural competence to do a good job. Quality training, professional diversity efforts, and even societal integration may be called for.
There’s at least one other challenge. Selling the value of these services is hard work. Towanda and Andre may have occasional arguments during their shared parenting relationship. To some, this looks like a bad result. But what if the intervention never happened? Towanda could have been separated from the children. The bitterness between the two parents could have been far more intense. This also looks like a bad result. Providers have to make a difficult sales pitch: “Some family outcomes look bad but they could have been far worse.”
Many things we see on reality television aren’t real. But the separations experienced by families throughout the United States are very real and have very real consequences. The nation must continue to improve the ways in which we manage them, ensuring that low-income families are not left behind in the process.
(Originally Posted on Medium.com on June 9, 2017)