By Lornet Turnbull
The Seattle Times
It's suppertime at the Malcomsons. Seventeen-month-old Sarah is wearing her dinner plate on her head again.
Her sister and brother, Grace and Will, 6 years old today, jockey for their mother's attention. They talk endlessly about their day - about their teacher and friends in kindergarten and their upcoming birthday party.
But in this lively family tableau, is someone missing?
"I tell mommy to find a husband `cause we want to have a dad," Grace says later as she gets ready for bed. "I think it would be more fun that way. And if mommy has to go to a meeting, the dad could take care of us."
Christi Malcomson, a single mother by choice, helps illustrate how the choices and circumstances of heterosexuals are changing the rules for marriage in this country - the June and Ward Cleaver model that some now say is under attack by gay unions.
For straight people, alternatives to married life - single men and women living together or raising children solo - are no longer a scandal.
The census four years ago found the nation's highest rate of unmarried-couple households in the Northwest. "There's no question marriage is undergoing a fundamental change in our society - even if we left the gay issue out of it," said the Rev. Stephen Jones, a pastor of Seattle First Baptist Church.
Unlucky in love and ready for a family, Malcomson tried for 4 ½ years to get pregnant, eventually giving birth to the twins when she was 38. Four years later, again without a mate, she had Sarah.
"I've always known that I was meant to be a mother," Malcomson, 44, said. "I tell people, `I didn't choose to be a single parent. I choose to be a parent.'"
"Fifty years ago, our family would have been an anomaly. Now, it's not so different from everyone else's."
The marriage rate has been declining in the state of Washington since at least the 1980s; the divorce rate has also declined, in part because fewer people are getting married. Among U.S. cities, the U.S. Census Bureau found, Seattle ranked second in the per capita rate of unmarried couples - gay and straight - living together.
The number of households with unmarried couples living together increased in the state of Washington from 4.6 percent in 1990 to 11.8 percent in 2000. By comparison, unmarried, cohabiting couples accounted for 5 percent of all U.S. households in 2000.
In the country as a whole, there is about a 50 percent chance that a new marriage will end in divorce. One-third of births in the U.S. are out of wedlock, and 40 percent of the out-of-wedlock births are to couples who are living together but are not married.
From New England to the Northwest, the explosive debate over whether gays should be allowed to marry has led to a sort of nationwide soul-searching about what marriage really means.
"The institution of marriage is too important to allow it to be redesigned," said Gregory Quinlan, a self-described former gay man who is now married and heads the Pro-Family Network in Ohio.
"We've already experimented and found that the other concoctions or recipes for marriage and family don't work. That's the reason we're having the problems we're having now. We need to re-examine and get back to what we know works."
The discourse has been pushed out of family dining rooms and into courtrooms, city halls and government buildings. President Bush's endorsement of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages came at a time when some lower-level governments have thrown open their doors to lines of gay couples looking to marry.
Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and national co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families, said, "You know we're in trouble when we think that by stopping the marriage of 1 percent of the population, we might somehow be able to make all the things that are wrong with marriage go away." She is author of several books, including "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."
"We have this ideal of marriage: raised three kids; lasted forever; both were faithful; very fair and very loving. First of all, how many marriages today are that way? Fifty percent of children pass through some kind of family setting where the biological parent is in a second or third marriage."
For Michael Christophersen and Darcie Kline, living together 11 years, marriage has never been in the cards - even after the birth of the couple's first child, and then their second. "Darcie's mom, when she found out Darcie was pregnant, said, `Well, you guys are going to get married now, aren't you?'" Christophersen said.
That was five years ago.
"My mom has given up even asking," said Christophersen, 42. "The only reason I could see it happening is if it helps things out legally for the kids - if there's actually some benefit to it. Right now, we really don't see it has any benefits at all.
"Both of us come from divorce families. We don't see what marriage did for them."
The pair moved in together three months after they met. Kline, 43, does freelance graphics work from home; Christophersen works for AT&T Wireless, where he faces a layoff. He's looking for another job - one that he hopes will provide health insurance for him and the children. Kline must purchase coverage on her own.
"My employer offers coverage to same-sex couples, but not to couples like us," Christophersen said. "Their explanation is that we have the option of getting married. I think that's ridiculous. They're trying to force us into some ritual we don't believe in."
The couple has drawn up documents that would prepare their family for any unexpected circumstances: powers of attorney, wills and custody agreements.
"When you're married, the marriage license takes care of those things," Christophersen said.
But all around them they see the carnage of broken marriage - friends facing divorce, relationships in turmoil - which only serves to strengthen their conviction.
"I know people who spent thousands on a wedding for a marriage that didn't last a year, " Christophersen said.
Jones, the Seattle pastor, said America may have to accept that marriage in the 21st century will look very different than it did in the past.
"So many young people have grown up in broken marriages and are reluctant to rush down the aisle," he said. "They have seen the bad side of marriage and have a much stronger sense that they want to do it differently - get it right. For many, there is a sincere effort to put together a different kind of relationship than they witnessed in their homes."
Rebecca Field wanted the kind of relationship she witnessed in her home. Yet two years ago, when she still hadn't found a suitable mate, she decided to start the family she always wanted.
She contacted Faith International Adoptions in Tacoma, Wash., about adopting a child from overseas.
"I used to think there's no way in hell I'd be a parent alone," she said. "But when I was ready for that next stage, I still hadn't met anyone to marry or be in a serious relationship with. I thought `I have such a great life. Why wait to share it with someone?' I had no control over whether I'd get married. But I could decide I was going to be a parent."
Field, a project manager for Starbucks, brought Madison Field home three weeks ago, just shy of the child's first birthday.
Malcomson, another single mother, said that from the beginning, she involved her parents in her decision to have children alone because "I was going to be giving them grandchildren in a very different way." Her parents, who live in Seattle, have been active in the children's lives.
She endured a 4 ½-year regimen of first artificial insemination and later in vitro fertilization and a miscarriage. The doctors had given her a 4 percent chance of getting pregnant again when she conceived the twins.
She decided to have a third child because she wanted the twins to have a sibling to nurture and care for. "I liked the idea of different age groups in the household," Malcomson said. "It added to the experience of a family."
When the children have asked why they don't have a father like many of their friends, Malcomson has told them about the patchwork of American families.
"I told them there are all kinds of families, that some kids have mommies and daddies, some have only a mommy or a daddy," she said. "And some kids live with their grandpa and grandma. I told them that we are just one kind of family."
© 2004, The Seattle Times.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.