The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake
The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many, David Brooks wrote in March. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.
I like to call what my extended family lives in a commune. My husband, teenage daughters, and I live in a ramshackle old house. When we bought the place, a law-school student was living in a tiny house in the backyard. Soon she graduated and we bought that house too. My father-in-law was declining into dementia, so he and my mother-in-law moved in there. We helped her with his care, which wasn’t easy, because he had a tendency to wander. (Since then, he’s passed away, but my mother-in-law still lives in our backyard.)
Then, a few years later, the house next door came on the market. My own parents were also having health problems but lived in a remote mountain community without a hospital. My brother bought the house for them, and now they live there part-time. During the summer, my brother, who is not married, lives there as well. We knocked down the fence between our homes and put down a path. This has been great for us as parents, because we always have a family member to help with child care.
Our forged family includes “orphaned” seniors who have moved to town to enjoy this community, old friends cut off from their own families, a homeless woman who for a time slept on my mother-in-law’s tiny kitchen floor, a former nun, a recent widower, and anyone else who doesn’t have a place to go on a holiday. My daughters grew up thinking this is normal, and in my family it is.
David Brooks writes that in primitive societies, people who migrated together formed a band. That is still true today in the U.S. I grew up in two extended families. The first was purely familial: three generations of grandparents, parents, and children plus assorted uncles all living together. But there was another extended family as well: the White Russian émigrés who fled communism. The members of that large extended family did not share a house, except in some cases, but lived close to one another and joined forces to raise children, start businesses, refer one another to jobs, build churches, and care for the elderly. The article mentions that recent immigrants to the U.S. are more likely to live in extended-kinship families; nonbiological kinship gives extra resilience to these communities.
Lena S. Zezulin
Takoma Park, Md.
I enjoyed David Brooks’s informative and insightful article on the American nuclear family, but I think he is seriously misguided by the notion that progressives lack an understanding of and commitment to conventional family structures. He writes, “Progressives have no philosophy of family life at all.” This is simply not true. That progressives are tolerant of unconventional domestic arrangements does not mean they are oblivious or indifferent to the great personal and social rewards of conventional family life.
Brooks provides an accurate picture of how the family once was and how it has disintegrated. However, he leaves out the exciting formation of other kinds of ties that stretch kinship in unprecedented ways.
In my own research on donor-sibling networks, I have found that parents and their donor-conceived children are voluntarily taking unique steps to counter the shrinking family by finding other families who happened to have purchased the same donor’s gametes.
Suddenly, a child who had no siblings has a dozen. Moreover, these genetic relatives (who start out as strangers) are exploring what it means to be related and connected to one another. They say they feel naturally comfortable together because they share genes—and they look for resemblances and similarities that reinforce belonging to the same kinship group. As siblings, they feel a moral responsibility to one another even if they have not grown up in the same household.
Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College
Q & A
David Brooks answers questions from readers about his March cover story on the nuclear family.
Q: I am curious about the choice of 1965 as the end date for the nuclear family. Can you comment more on the reason(s) for that selection? — Nancy Barba, Portland, Maine
A: I chose 1965 because that’s about the moment when divorce rates began to spike and more unmarried people started having children.
Q: Is the nuclear family the problem, or is it how we’ve changed our lifestyles—or how our world has forced us to change our lifestyles? — Ted David, Hyattsville, Md.
A: Family structures change, along with lifestyle and all sorts of other social arrangements, because of an underlying shift in consciousness. Around 1965, a communal “we first” consciousness was replaced by an individualistic “me first” consciousness. That produced a range of other changes across sectors. The evidence clearly indicates, to me at least, that culture drives history even more than economics and technology do. When you get a shift in values, everything else follows.
Q: How can one write an article of this sort and fail to acknowledge the role that religious belief and communities have had in mitigating the fallout from family breakdown by acting as the chosen community/family? — Alisha Ruiss, Montreal, Quebec
A: You are right to point to the importance of religion. I’ve received a lot of responses from clergy members to this article. None said they were motivated to urge their flock to return to bigger extended families. All of them said they were motivated to make their own congregation into more of a forged family. Perhaps the only way to get young people back to church is to make it the place where family happens.
What we learned fact-checking our new podcast
In our new podcast Floodlines, Vann R. Newkirk II revisits one of the biggest questions of Hurricane Katrina: Why did the levees fail?
After 80 percent of New Orleans flooded in 2005, blame fell on the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the breached levees near Lake Pontchartrain. Numerous studies—including the Corps’s own 6,000-page report—detailed the many mistakes. One conclusion, not mentioned in Floodlines but uncovered while fact-checking the show, sticks out.
The steel sheet piles used to anchor the New Orleans floodwalls against a potential hurricane surge were driven about half as deep into the ground as they should have been. This construction error was the result of an oversight in 1985: Corps researchers had made recommendations about the sheet piles’ ideal depth based on a study in which the view of a test floodwall was partially obscured. Experts now speculate that the test floodwall—like the actual floodwalls—was slightly tilted, allowing water to seep beneath and destabilize it. What blocked their view? A tarp that had been draped over the wall and was concealing its base—and the gap that had likely formed there.
The shorter, shallower sheet piles reduced the price of the floodwalls by approximately $100 million—but cost hundreds of lives.
— William Brennan, Floodlines fact-checker
Behind the May Cover
The cover-design process starts with anxious pangs: What should we make? And how? Kate Julian’s cover story this month is a trenchant look at anxiety—how pervasive it is among children and how early it can take hold. Our director of photography, Luise Stauss, suggested that we use childlike drawings to visually represent the complexity of the disorder. She and I worked closely with our associate art director Katie Martin to develop variations on this theme. We experimented with dozens of sketches and doodles, settling on a hastily drawn skein that overwhelms the cover and its small, central figure.
— Oliver Munday, Senior Art Director