The American family - once that familiar Norman Rockwell grouping of a working dad, a housewife mom, and their two or three children - has split into a dozen different permutations. The Rockwell grouping is now a tiny minority among such groups as: single parents; dual-income, childless couples; older, divorced women; adult children who live with their parents; single adults with adopted kids, and other variations on the theme we call family.
The diversity stems from a number of social and economic trends - from the increasing divorce rate that creates single-parent families to a recessionary economy that pushes older children back into the nest. But by far the largest single factor behind this fracturing of the family pattern is the emergence of women into the work force - half of all American women of working age are now either working or actively looking for work.
The ramifications of this emergence, says the American Association of University Women (AAUW), are affecting - and need to be addressed by - all levels of society. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the AAUW has spent the last 18 months on a project called ''Families and Work,'' identifying the problems encountered by the new family forms and their possible solutions.
Using a network developed in two national conferences with corporations, labor unions, and academicians, AAUW's 190,000 members have initiated a series of ''public discussions,'' as project director Mary Ann Krickus puts it, looking at how the association's chapter communities are addressing home-and-work issues.
It is their growing conviction that ''these individual problems are actually national in scope,'' AAUW President Mary Purcell, says.
Sociologist Jessie Bernard puts it more forcefully: ''At first the problems seemed to be individual ones that each family should deal with alone. Families - actually women - were to be responsible for adjusting to the dual demands of work and family. But as awareness of the seriousness of the change spread, individual solutions were recognized as inadequate.''
The absence of a full-time homemaker in the family is forcing individuals to find other ways to do the work of the homemaker. As Paul Bernstein, dean of graduate studies at Rochester Institute of Technology, puts it, ''Somewhere along the line, society had to conjure up the resources that once were part of extended-family arrangements.''
Finding people and time to take care of children and older parents; dividing housework; getting the car fixed; and working out the sick-leave, annual-leave, flexible-working-hours, or part-time arrangements necessary to juggle all these demands are increasing demands on most families.
But Dr. Bernard, in a paper written for the AAUW, said the real issue behind this American juggling act is caring.
''Ordinarily,'' she says, ''family members contribute to the great caring pool, so there is enough for each to draw on - and even some left over for others. Until recently, nonemployed, 'taken care of' women have kept the reservoir (of caring) full. For almost 200 years, as individuals or members of clubs or associations, women engaged in charitable or caring activities.
''But as more and more of the women who formerly engaged in those caring activities enter the labor force,'' she says, ''fewer are left who have the time or energy to serve as scout leaders, voluntary teachers, or nurses' aides. At the same time, more and more people need caring, including many women who have entered the work force.''
Increasingly, workers are looking to corporations, labor unions, and government for this sort of caring. Robert Desatnick, vice-president for personnel at the McDonald's Corporation, identifies a number of responses corporations have made to the increasing needs of their worker families, including:
* Paid maternity leave with the job guaranteed upon return.
* Direct assistance in locating a position for a spouse, male or female, when an employee is transferred.
* Equal relocation policies that do not discriminate between male and female employees, or those with and without families.
* Removal of artificial restrictions on husbands and wives working in the same department or the same company.
* Flexible working hours for male or female parents.
* Work at home, wherever possible; sometimes as much as 60 percent of work time.
* On-site day-care centers for children of working parents.
* Time out for male as well as female parents to take care of family responsibilities.
* Job sharing that allows two people to share one job and receive a full range of company benefits in proportion to the hours they work.
* Short hours on Friday to allow parents to spend more time with their families.
* More and longer holidays and vacations, as well as time off to take care of personal business, illness in the family, and so forth.
* Sabbatical vacations of eight to 10 weeks after 10 years of service, often with a repeat after 15 years.
* Company functions and parties that include spouses and often children.
But Donald Fronzaglia, director of human resources for the Polaroid Corparation, emphasizes that business alone can't do it all: ''Unfortunately, the love-hate relationship between business and society and business and the individual many times becomes exacerbated by unrealistic demands being placed upon business as the social and cultural environment changes. So, rather than contributing to the solutions, a major element, business, becomes part of the problem.''
Similarly, many family experts advocate placing part of the burden of taking over traditional family responsibilities on government. They ask for public policies that would, as one put it, be designed to ''support - or at least not undercut - families.''
The experts contacted by AAUW emphasized the need to keep family-and-work issues from being defined as ''women's problems.''
As former Secretary of Commerce Juanita Kreps put it: ''Why is day care not a family or an educational or community or, as in many countries, an industry concern? What makes comparable pay a women's problem rather than a racial one, or more fundamentally, an issue of equity and economics? How did the plea for flexible working hours come to be a women's cause, when trade unions have been battling over paid holidays and the length of the workweek since Samuel Gompers launched his union campaign in the 1880s?''
According to Kathleen Newland, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute:
''Employers are bound to give women short shrift if they can assume correctly that women normally will be the parents to leave their jobs, even if only temporarily, to care for young children; that they will be the ones to take time off when children fall sick; that they will refuse overtime work because of household responsibilities; that they will relocate when their spouses are transferred to other jobs. Governments aggravate the problem when they attempt to make it easier for women to fit the assumptions rather than making it easier for men and women to share family responsibilities.''
She advocates public policies, such as Sweden's ''parenthood insurance,'' which extends special privileges to all workers - not just mothers. And she recognizes the limits of using public policy to solve family problems: ''Clearly , the division of labor within a private household can be influenced by public policy only up to a certain point.''
AAUW has come to feel that such problems need to be solved on a community-by-community basis. They are currently looking for funding to initiate such an effort, in which the association's chapters will form ''community partnerships'' between local parent-teacher associations, church groups, businesses, colleges, and governmental bodies to address what they have found to be the universal issue of families everywhere: dependent care.
''The care of infants, toddlers, school-aged children, the handicapped, and elderly turned up on nearly everyone's list of concerns,'' says Ms. Krickus, the project director. She emphasizes that adults contacted during this study were unable to give this dependent care themselves for ''economic reasons. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 73 percent of the female labor force must work. So expecting women to go home and take care of their kids is just not a real option.''
Society is still grappling with the problem of finding real solutions to these new dilemmas.