Is the Nuclear Family Exploding?



The happy flurry had begun: platters and bowls passing, here was the gravy, who needed butter? One of my cousins, maybe four years old to my seven, studied me and my mother, trying to figure out who else belonged to us. My mom tried a cheery “It’s just the two of us!”—who wants to say their husband is dead in the middle of a Thanksgiving meal? My cousin objected: “Two people’s not a family!”

My mom burst into tears.

Secretly, I agreed with him. I loved the hubbub of different ages and personalities and could never fathom my friends’ careless scorn for their siblings. But the big growing-up lesson was the realization that families are rarely as happy as they look from the outside. I watched friends break ties with parents who had never understood them, cut off brothers who had abused them or sisters who were downright mean, and begin constructing deliberate families, carefully selected groups of friends with whom they had more in common than blood.

“Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it,” George Eliot wrote in Adam Bede. “Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heart-strings to the beings that jar us at every moment.”

So many bits of rope and ribbon—blood and law, chromosomes, shared quirks, shared memories, resemblance, home. So much ambivalence, too. Are the two inseparable? Are we asking for tension by trying to glue together people who are, in temperament, interests, and worldview, very different from one another?

Over the years, I have paid close, wistful attention to the few big, happy families I have met. The secret formula starts (of course) with parents who know how to love their kids no matter what. Also, how to be fair. Next comes a strong family culture, with a trove of in-jokes, rituals, shared values, and stories. I wonder, too, if the mismatches in temperament and worldview have to be mild; if sharp differences will inevitably cut those ties to ribbons.

My hottest date with my future husband involved dragging heavy rolls of sewage-soaked carpet from his aunt’s flooded basement. Aunt Fern, who was a bit of a Southern belle, fluttered her eyelashes, put her hand to her bosom, and said tremulously how wonderful the evening had been, “almost like family.”

We looked at each other in blank surprise; Andrew and his parents were family. It seemed Fern had some other notion of family in her head, though.

I guess we all do. My definition of family is a cross between Little Women and a liberal version of Blue Bloods, just for the Sunday dinner talks. The technical definition, though, is “a group of people related either by consanguinity (by recognized birth) or affinity (by marriage or other relationship).” The nuclear family was supposed to be the support system that would keep us all safe, meet basic needs, provide a routine, teach us the world, tend us when we were ill, polish us up so we could shine in public, love us.

Such a family glows with warmth and stability—but the half-life can be toxic for the rest of us. When Prince Harry exulted, in the already legendary Oprah Winfrey interview, “Now we’ve got a family—we’ve got four of us, and two dogs”—I felt the sting of inadequacy. No kids, one dog—I am still not part of a family.

The stigma of childlessness used to be so fierce, I have read of irreverent couples who made up kids, assigning them names and interests and reporting their accomplishments to strangers at cocktail parties. At least those couples had each other; pity the spinster, maiden aunt, single mother, extra man for a dinner party, courtesy uncle, confirmed bachelor. Confirmed? As though some religious rite has sealed him off, and women could stop trying to save him?

“Check in on your single friends,” freshly elected Vice President Kamala Harris urged last Thanksgiving. Five simple words, but behind them a sea change in how we organize our common lives. Fewer than thirty-nine percent of U.S. households contain married couples, a percentage that has been declining slightly but steadily for years, alongside the percentage of households with children. The number of single mothers is increasing. The hot new topic is the (slight but attention-getting) trend toward polyamorous relationships that bind more than two people into a family.

The nuclear family is no longer the only valid way of life, normative for all of us, forcing anyone outside that circle to define themselves by what they are not. What will it look like to honor all sorts of families? Will we live more communally, maybe with shared kitchens and meals in common, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman suggested so long ago? Last year we figured out how to form pods; in future, that sort of inner circle could be defined as your family. So much hurt would be eased. Not everyone marries or has kids, but nearly everyone can be a loyal friend.

I think all this in grand, sweeping social terms, but inside, I recoil. I am way too shy for a pod family. I like monogamy; I cannot imagine explaining all my innermost feelings and quirks to more than one person, and the prospect of anything communal exhausts me. Also, I worry that once the stakes are lowered, and the familial association loosens into a wider, perhaps less suffocating circle, the bonds will relax a little. And then a little more. This is not a lifetime commitment—or even a commitment that pretends for the first few romantic years to be a lifetime commitment. This is a chosen family in which people can move in and out, precisely because blood and law no longer prevail. Personalities do, and shared interests and preferred lifestyles, and all of that is malleable.

A chosen family might be even more supportive than a traditional one, but it is no longer, in Robert Frost’s words, “the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.”

And maybe that should have been enough of a definition all along.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.