Local youth typify shifting family paradigm

Inside the Sheep’s Stocking, sunlight pours through a floor-to-ceiling window bathing a semi-circle of chairs in its warm glow. It’s the perfect place to relax, have some light conversation and knit. Two women sit across from each other, their needles clicking as they focus on their respective creations.

“That is a pretty color,” Shari says to her knitting partner.

“My friend Renee picked it out,” Danica tells her, holding up the moss green amalgamation of yarn. “I told her I would knit her a hat if she took a class.”

At 20, Danica Matthews is barely half the age of the youngest woman in the knitting shop. Then again, she has always said she was born in the wrong era, that she is “old fashioned.” She keeps a hope chest, storing items she believes she will need for married life. She has always enjoyed the idea of cocktail parties, where the women wear polka dotted dresses, and the men wear blazers as they clank martini glasses, reveling in their unambiguous gender roles.

“I did learn a lot of my ideals from an older generation,” she said.

Her sensibilities do not surprise those who know her. Matthews moved in with her grandparents in Baxter after her parents divorced when she was six. She says her grandparents raised her. She looks at them the way other people view their parents.

“Most of things I learned and remember were with my grandparents,” she said. “It was more like my mom was my sister she worked two or three jobs and was going to college. She was there but she wasn’t there day to day my mom was very busy.”

Families like hers have become increasingly common over the past generation.

Since Matthews was born in 1993, divorce rates have doubled, according to the National Center for Marriage and Family Research, making single-parent homes increasingly common. Census data shows that the number of single-parent homes has grown each time the census has been taken since 1980.

Adoption has also become increasingly common over the same period. Colorado recently joined eight states that allow civil unions and nine states that have legalized marriage, for gay couples. With the legalization of civil unions and marriage for gays comes fewer roadblocks to their adopting children. Adoption for gay couples has risen since 2008, according to Census data.

Tori Johnson, 17, is also the product of a non-traditional family. Tori’s father, 2012 mayoral candidate and local school board member, John Johnson, is a stay-at-home dad. She said she is closer to her father than many of her friends.

“I guess I don’t really think about it,” she said. “It’s is something that has always been there.”

Tori’s mother, Paula, is a teacher, and Tori said having an “atypical” family has given her perspective on gender roles and helped encourage her to pursue a career. She wants to be a neonatal nurse.

John Johnson, of Marshalltown, said when he and his wife lived in Chicago he worked in the printing industry, but when they decided to move shortly after Tori was born, they decided he would stay at home.

“We didn’t want our kid raised by somebody else,” he said.

He used the opportunity to get involved in parent-teacher groups and become more active in the community. And his relationship with Tori and his two other daughters, ages 9 and 10, couldn’t be better.

Although he occasionally gets strange looks while at civic functions usually reserved for moms and his guy friends occasionally rib him about his role in the family, Johnson said he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“I think the biggest reward I have right now is knowing that they have someone they could count on,” he said. “If I could go back 17 years to make the decision to do this again, I would do it in a heartbeat.”