By Jennifer Brooks and Lea Ann Overstreet, The Tennessean
For the first time, married couples find themselves in the minority in Tennessee.
Newly released census data show that 48 percent of households in the state are headed by a husband-and-wife couple. Ten years ago, married couples made up 52 percent of Tennessee households.
In Nashville, married couples are even more rare. If you peeked in the window of 100 houses in Nashville, you'd find a traditional husband-and-wife couple in only every third home.
Married couples made up 36 percent of the county's households in 2010. The rest are single, or unmarried couples, or people like Bethany Patchin, divorced mother of four.
"I don't like to have the label of 'single mom,' because I'm just me, but that's what I am. I'm divorced, so now I'm a single mom," said Patchin, who works from home and shares custody of her children - Gideon, 9, Rilian, 8, Ella, 5 and Eden, 4 - with her husband. The kids spend part of the week with her, the other part with their dad.
As she talked, two of her children sat in her home in the 12th South neighborhood, quietly playing games - one on an iPad, one on a cell phone - while two others played at a neighbor's house. It was a serene moment in the usually hectic after-school routine of homework, dinner, baths and family time, all of it done with just mom leading the way.
"We both wanted to be present in their lives, and he's a good dad, but it's hard," said Patchin, whose eight-year marriage ended two years ago. "This is not what I had planned."
Patchin is not alone. This is no longer a country dominated by the nuclear family - mom, dad and kids. The married population has been on the decline for years.
There are counties in Tennessee where marriages are in the majority. Williamson County, for example, has married couples at the head of more than two-thirds of its households.
But in Tennessee and almost every county, the number of married couples dropped between the 2000 census and 2010. Wilson County slipped from 64 percent to 60 percent of households headed by married couples; Rutherford dropped from 56 percent to 51 percent; and Sumner dropped from 61 percent to 57 percent.
"If marriage is in decline in the buckle of the Bible Belt, then we're in serious trouble," said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The U.S. marriage rate dropped 14 percent between 1998 and 2008. Even Tennessee, which has some of the nation's higher marriage numbers, saw a 30 percent decline, from 82,947 marriages licenses requested in 1998 to 58,464 in 2008.
Why it's happening and what it means depends on who you ask.
"People are living together, not getting married. They're living alone. They're living with roommates. ... The trend has definitely gone away from (marriage)," said Randy Gustafson, a researcher who studies census data at the University of Tennessee's Center for Business & Economic Research in Knoxville. "We see it as something that's been going on for some time."
It's much easier for a single parent to run a household alone today than it was decades ago, Gustafson noted, which means marriage is less of a necessity and more of a matter of personal choice these days.
Ahmad Mukahal has noticed that few of his friends have chosen to tie the knot. Some are delaying for economic reasons, some because marriage seems like a huge step, even when they're living with their boyfriends or girlfriends.
"Marriage ain't what it used to be, I guess," said Mukahal, 27, who owns Smart Car Automotive in Smyrna. "It seems like a bigger step forward for a lot of them."
At the Southern Baptist Convention, Land mourned the growing number of unmarried and single-parent households as the result of a "30-year experiment into whether fathers are optional accessories in the raising of their children."
Nationwide, Americans are waiting longer to get married, and more are having children out of wedlock, or raising children solo after a divorce. Land worries that those children wind up at an economic and emotional disadvantage.
"The single thing that would eliminate more poverty than anything else in this country would be if fathers in this country would marry the mothers of their children," he said. "The church needs to acknowledge that it has failed to be a pro-marriage counter-cultural force."
The shift in demographics means a shift in the services communities are offering. More single parents means a need for more support services, everything from after-school enrichment programs to more child-care providers.
The United Way of Metro Nashville helps 30,000 adults and children a year through its Family Resource Centers and its 2-1-1 assistance hotline.
"The vast majority of the families we see tend to be headed by single heads of household," said Phil Orr, vice president of community impact for the Nashville United Way. "When someone refers a child or a parent to us, it could be for something as simple as they don't have the money for their school uniform. Or they might be hungry. Or they might need help paying the rent."
But every family is different, and single parenthood isn't a one-way ticket to poverty or misery. Bethany Patchin and her husband have found a way to make their new family demographic work for themselves and their children.
"Everyone's life takes twists, and things don't always go the way you plan, but it's OK," Patchin said. "You just have to be honest and not afraid when you need help."