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.”