For The Atlantic’s March cover, David Brooks makes a powerful and provocative argument that “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” His story is an examination of the shift over the past century from a familial structure that prized interconnected extended families, with grandparents upstairs and aunts across the street, to one that idealizes detached nuclear families—and how this structure has been a catastrophe for many, namely children and lower-income Americans.
Brooks writes in the cover story, published today at The Atlantic, that despite its glorification, the two-parent, 2.5-kid household is a remarkably fragile arrangement for buffering against the challenges of life. Parents are ill-equipped for the demands of raising kids without extended family nearby, and many lack the strong economic and emotional support system necessary for managing life’s challenges. The wealthy are able to maximize their options by effectively buying extended family in the form of tutors, therapists, coaches, and nannies; their money also buffers them in an emergency. But in the nuclear-family dynamic, the less wealthy and more vulnerable have suffered, struggling to recover from a health issue, divorce, or job loss without a large family network. Brooks writes: “A detached nuclear family is an intense set of relationships among, say, four people. If one relationship breaks, there are no shock absorbers. In a nuclear family, the end of the marriage means the end of the family as it was previously understood.”
As more and more Americans face this reality, Brooks argues for the return of the extended family, and reports on signs that it may naturally be reemerging. He reports that this revival has largely been driven by young adults moving back home, and by seniors moving in with their children, or moving to be close to their grandchildren. Immigrants and people of color—many of whom face greater economic and social stress—are more likely to live in extended-family households, and as America becomes more diverse, extended families are becoming more common. The past several years have also seen the rise of new living arrangements that bring nonbiological kin into family-like relationships. Groups of adults are seeking out co-living spaces, and creating forged families to replace the fractured relationships of their own nuclear families.
And while the two-parent family is not about to go extinct for the financially fortunate, this new and more communal ethos is consistent with 21st-century reality and 21st-century values. As Brooks writes: “The blunt fact is that the nuclear family has been crumbling in slow motion for decades, and many of our other problems—with education, mental health, addiction, the quality of the labor force—stem from that crumbling … Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families, in ways that are new and ancient at the same time.”
Read “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” at The Atlantic. The March issue of the magazine appears on newsstands next week, with pieces continuing to publish across this week and next.