Maria Leonard Olsen is the author of the new book Not the Cleaver Family: The New Normal in Modern American Families. She also has written the children's picture books Healing for Hallie and Mommy, Why's Your Skin So Brown?. A lawyer and journalist, she co-hosts the Inside Out radio show on WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Not the Cleaver Family, and what would you say are some of the biggest changes in the American family over the past few decades?
A: My parents were forbidden by law to marry in the state of Maryland in 1961 because they were of two different races. Interracial marriage was illegal in 16 states until the Supreme Court's Loving decision in 1967.
When I told my children this fact, they were incredulous, as were many other people with whom I have had this conversation. I believe the battle for same sex marriage is a parallel situation. With education, acceptance and cultural evolution, the laws in our country have changed for the better.
I wrote this book to be part of that development. It is both a consciousness-raising work, depiction of how far we as a society have come, and call for even more inclusion and awareness.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: When I was a child in the 1960s, the Cleaver family of the popular show "Leave it to Beaver" represented the model American family.
I was a child of a broken, biracial marriage and longed for a Cleaver-type family--well-behaved, well-adjusted children, with a calm, wise father and a perfectly coiffed mother who was always home.
From my viewpoint, growing up in an all-white, middle-class D.C. suburb, that appeared to be the widely-accepted ideal. And, while cultural norms have shifted considerably, there is lingering romanticism about families that resemble the Cleavers.
It is certainly changing, however. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that less than 50 percent of our country's population will be white by 2043. The title reflects the changing demographics, and other significant changes in our familial and societal norms.
Q: Your subtitle mentions "the new normal" when it comes to families in this country. How would you define "the new normal"?
A: Today, I believe that a family is what each individual decides their family should be. People who are childfree by choice are a huge and growing demographic, for example, as the cultural imperative to have children dissipates.
Science enables women to preserve their eggs and have children without a co-parent. The prohibition against transracial adoption has been lifted. Same sex marriage is now legal. Typical no longer equates with normal in the familial context today.
Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to how families are defined and created in the United States?
A: I wrote this book for educators and caring citizens who wish to remain aware of and appreciate our evolving society. Already, school and other forms are changing with such questions as "Parent 1" and "Parent 2," since not all families include a mother and a father, or even two parents.
We still have much work to do, however. As I said in my first book, Mommy, Why's Your Skin So Brown?, people today still let their curiosity overwhelm their manners in the things they say to those whose appearance may not fit the observer's assumptions.
For example, many people, including a pediatric dentist I was considering and my son's Gymboree teacher, assumed I was the nanny of my light-skinned children, simply because our skin color differed.
People often fear and misunderstand things that are not familiar to them. As different kinds of families become more visible in the media and in society at large, acceptance grows. Taboos melt away, at least in many areas of our country.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a book about the significant transformations in my life that occurred after turning 50. I have my first book agent, Diane Nine, who represented U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; the grand dame of the White House Press Corps, Helen Thomas; and you! Hopefully, the book will be as successful as those produced by these luminaries.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'm having a book launch and talk on Not the Cleaver Family at Politics & Prose at Busboys & Poets @Takoma Park on Jan. 11 at 6:30 pm. And I have a new website that I keep updated with my book events. Come to one and join the dialogue about your unique--and normal--family!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Maria Leonard Olsen, please click here.