The nuclear family a ‘catastrophe’? No, but it needs help

Was the nuclear family more trouble than it was worth? The headline on a piece in the prestigious American monthly, The Atlantic, would give the impression that it was. More surprising is that the headline is over an article written by New York Times columnist, David Brooks who, despite writing for that newspaper, is on the conservative (small ‘c’) side on most issues.

The headline reads: ‘The Nuclear Family was a Mistake’. The sub-head reads: “The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.”

Well, that seems pretty unambiguous. Should we give up on it entirely then? No, and that is not what Brooks is saying. Far from it. His argument is more that the nuclear family needs to be supplemented because it is expected to do too much on its own.

Brooks rightly points out that the nuclear family of mum, dad and 2.5 kids living in a house in the suburbs often with no relatives close-by is extremely unusual, historically speaking. For most of history we have lived in small, tight-knit communities with relatives and others we knew very well close at hand. This meant we had lots of support in the arduous and demanding task of raising children. We didn’t have to do it alone.

But the move into cities changed this for most of us. In the cities we often lacked the support we had in traditional communities and were forced to rely on much smaller, nuclear families for support. When these failed, we often had little or nothing to fall back on.

Brooks writes (and this is where the headline comes from): “For those who are not privileged, the era of the isolated nuclear family has been a catastrophe. It’s led to broken families or no families; to merry-go-round families that leave children traumatized and isolated; to senior citizens dying alone in a room. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart. Eventually family inequality even undermines the economy the nuclear family was meant to serve: Children who grow up in chaos have trouble becoming skilled, stable, and socially mobile employees later on.”

Note first how he says for “those who are not privileged”. Poor people do not have financial resources to see them through a divorce or separation, the better-off do. This buffers them and can save them from total catastrophe. When you have neither financial resources nor a nearby network of kith and kin (or simply lots of close friends) to support you and your children, then you are in trouble, especially the children.

So Brooks is not calling for an end to the nuclear family per se. Children still ought to be raised by their own mothers and fathers, whenever possible. The nuclear family remains essential. What he is saying is that it should be part of a cluster, or a network of support which will enable it to keep going and be there if it falls apart.

It’s an excellent suggestion, I’m just not sure modern urban living which very strongly promotes individualism is the kind of environment that easily lends itself to such networks. This is not to say we should all go back to rural living (even if that were possible), but certainly we need to look at whether modern individualism is serving us well. It doesn’t appear to be and this is a problem not just in America, but in Ireland also. Changing this, will take a revolution in values, which is not presently on the cards, but given the volatility now of modern politics, cannot be ruled out either.