The brief life of the nuclear family

The cover story in the March edition of The Atlantic is titled, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.”  This five minute video with author David Brooks gives a summary.

Brooks’ basic argument is that the nuclear family – a household consisting of two married parents living with their children – rather than being the norm for human thriving, was a freakish aberration that peaked in the US between 1950-65.  He traces family arrangements across time and cultures, noting that bands, clans, and extended families have been the norm throughout human history.  Regarding more recent history he says:

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

Part One of the essay is divided into two sections: “The Era of Extended Clans” and “The Short, Happy Life of the Nuclear Family.”  It backs up its claims with plenty of statistics, including how family structures have impacted elderly people, children, African Americans, and women.  Brooks proposes:  

We’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once.

Part Two is title “Redefining Kinship.”

Here, Brooks goes well beyond the American context, gathering input from historians and anthropologists, noting that kinship has regularly been defined well outside biological ties.  He notes:

The late religion scholar J. Prytz-Johansen wrote that kinship is experienced as an “inner solidarity” of souls. The late South African anthropologist Monica Wilson described kinsmen as “mystically dependent” on one another.

His closing section is titled “From Nuclear Families to Forged Families.”  He cites the gay and lesbian communities in San Francisco in the early 80’s, those frequently booted from their nuclear families, as being at the forefront in the US of forged families.  He describes a project he helped found two years ago called “Weave: The Social Fabric Project” which seeks to give attention and support to those around the country who are building community, including forged families.  Brooks himself is a part of a forged family, something I hadn’t known about him.

One of the things I most appreciated about the article was the alternative narrative it gives to the bemoaning of the decline of the nuclear family.  By zooming the lens out wider, the article strongly affirms the central importance of kinship groups.  By zooming in on certain examples of contemporary kinship and family that don’t fit into the nuclear family mold, it offers some hopeful pictures of how present day families are drawing from new and ancient sources.

It also calls to mind that Jesus was all about forming a forged family, much to the consternation of his birth family (Mark 3:31-35).