The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake – by David Brooks – and Related Links
If you want to get right to it, here’s the main link:
(Link): The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake by David Brooks – via The Atlantic (off site link)
Before I paste in excerpts from that editorial by David Brooks below, I wanted to say a few words, and I will be pasting in any relevant links about the Brooks piece even farther below that.
I’ve been saying on this blog FOR YEARS many of the same things that Brooks has outlined in his essay.
Some of what I’ve been saying on this blog for years now includes:
that Christians and conservatives have turned Marriage and The Nuclear Family into idols,
that they have placed weight upon both that the Bible never did, and in the process of advocating marriage, these conservatives and Christians have marginalized the never-married, the divorced, the widowed and the childless or childfree among them, and this is wrong.
The Bible does not teach that marriage – or parenting – are going to “fix” society, or that being married or becoming a parent is necessary to make a person into a moral, upstanding, responsible individual.
If you’re a conservative or a Christian who keeps sounding the alarm about falling marriage rates, you need to accept reality for what it is: most people now are either single and childless by choice or by circumstance.
The United States is simply never going back to the June and Ward Cleaver family structures in mass droves that existed in the 1950s; (Link): so get over it already, and stop trying to punish or guilt trip anyone and everyone who doesn’t marry or have children.
You need to start helping people where they are, even if that means single and childless at age 30, 40, or older, instead of shaming them for not being what you think they should be (i.e., a married parent).
If you’ve been a marriage-advocating Christian or conservative up until this point, you need to start supporting people where they are, instead of writing (Link): these alarmist editorials or indignant tweets or broadcasting these fear-mongering segments on your television shows about how nobody is marrying or having children, and ain’t that a shame.
To those Christians and conservatives who keep going into pearl clutching mode over falling marriage rates:
Stop playing armchair psychologist and assuming if folks are not marrying, it must be (Link): because they are narcissistic, then writing these big, open letters telling them so. It’s deeply insulting.
The Bible does not say that being single – whatever the reason – is narcissistic.
Jesus of Nazareth never married, would you depict him as being a narcissist for it? Probably not.
If you’re looking for “family,” marriage and parenting to “save people” or to “save culture,” you are barking up the wrong tree; none of those things will improve culture or make it less sinful.
In the meantime, many of you, my fellow conservatives, are making yourself look like fools, as you continue to publish these editorials – really, scare pieces – meant to frighten folks into marrying.
(W. B. Wilcox of the “National Marriage Project,” who is unfortunately quoted in the Brooks piece, is one such individual.
For years now, Wilcox, by way of the pro-family, pro-marriage institutions to which he belongs, has been publishing the most nauseating essays that get picked up by The Washington Post and other papers, including but not limited to: (Link): telling single adult women they are more likely to be attacked than married women, and that (Link): single men are more apt to die lonely and sick, etc)
The Bible extols the “church family,” or spiritual kinship, over biological family.
What the Bible conveys, and as common sense should make aware, one should not have to be married with small children at home to have companionship or help in time of need.
But most Christians, and most churches, are not willing to act as “spiritual family” to folks who are un-married.
I find this secular article from Brooks rather sad in a way. In it, one can witness how so many Non-Christian groups, persons, and organizations have stumbled intuitively into what Jesus already taught, as the Brooks essay explains: you don’t have to be married with children to have family or belonging.
Further, you can “choose” your family, so secular groups have set up clubs and organizations where people who are not related by blood can still have family of the non-biological sort.
The Christian church could have, and should have, been acting as a second family to people who have no biological family, but they refuse; churches continue to preach on Marriage and Parenting.
Churches refuse to offer themselves as the sort of non-blood family a lot of people out there could use and benefit from.
Their only solution, and what a lot of social conservatives, erroneously keep suggesting, is that everyone should run out and get married.
(But what if you never find a spouse? What if your spouse dies of cancer after five years of marriage, or divorces you after ten years, and so you’re back to being single again? The “just get married” notion is not a solution for everyone, and it’s not a lasting one, since people do die or divorce.)
Jesus instructed the early believers to put Him and spiritual family before allegiance to biological family, and I think he did this in part because he realized not everyone can or does get married and have children.
Even those that do get married and have children may find themselves single again later in life if their spouse dies or divorces.
Churches could’ve been filling this void in the lives of folks who don’t meet the 1950s Nuclear Family template, but they refused, and still keep on refusing… so the singles of the world have to find alternatives, they have created their own groups that are not always centered on the Christian faith.
If Christians will not provide a solution, you better believe the Non-Christians will.
Conservatives and Conservative Christians think admitting to the fact that most people are single, childless, or childfree these days and to just helping people where they are, is somehow catering to the liberals
– all they’re doing, though, by refusing to admit to the reality in which we live, is failing to minister to the folks in their communities (many of whom don’t meet the Married with Children criteria), which makes them (the churches) irrelevant.
Here are excerpts from the Brooks article:
(Link): The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake by David Brooks
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.
…We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options.
The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.
This article is about that process, and the devastation it has wrought—and about how Americans are now groping to build new kinds of family and find better ways to live.
The Era of Extended Clans
….. Until 1850, roughly three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids. Nuclear families existed, but they were surrounded by extended or corporate families.
…Extended families have two great strengths. The first is resilience.
…Extended families have more people to share the unexpected burdens—when a kid gets sick in the middle of the day or when an adult unexpectedly loses a job.
A detached nuclear family, by contrast, 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.
The second great strength of extended families is their socializing force. Multiple adults teach children right from wrong, how to behave toward others, how to be kind.
….In the Victorian era, families were patriarchal, favoring men in general and first-born sons in particular.
As factories opened in the big U.S. cities, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, young men and women left their extended families to chase the American dream. These young people married as soon as they could.
…The families they started were nuclear families. The decline of multigenerational cohabiting families exactly mirrors the decline in farm employment. Children were no longer raised to assume economic roles…
… By the 1920s, the nuclear family with a male breadwinner had replaced the corporate family as the dominant family form.
By 1960, 77.5 percent of all children were living with their two parents, who were married, and apart from their extended family.
The Short, Happy Life of the Nuclear Family
….For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy.
In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.”
Healthy people lived in two-parent families.
In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”
During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal.
…Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family.
That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.
For one thing, most women were relegated to the home. Many corporations, well into the mid-20th century, barred married women from employment: Companies would hire single women, but if those women got married, they would have to quit.
Demeaning and disempowering treatment of women was rampant. Women spent enormous numbers of hours trapped inside the home under the headship of their husband, raising children.
For another thing, nuclear families in this era were much more connected to other nuclear families than they are today—constituting a “modified extended family,” as the sociologist Eugene Litwak calls it..
…Finally, conditions in the wider society were ideal for family stability. The postwar period was a high-water mark of church attendance, unionization, social trust, and mass prosperity—all things that correlate with family cohesion.
A man could relatively easily find a job that would allow him to be the breadwinner for a single-income family. By 1961, the median American man age 25 to 29 was earning nearly 400 percent more than his father had earned at about the same age.
In short, the period from 1950 to 1965 demonstrated that a stable society can be built around nuclear families—so long as women are relegated to the household, nuclear families are so intertwined that they are basically extended families by another name, and every economic and sociological condition in society is working together to support the institution.
But these conditions did not last. The constellation of forces that had briefly shored up the nuclear family began to fall away, and the sheltered family of the 1950s was supplanted by the stressed family of every decade since.
Some of the strains were economic. Starting in the mid-’70s, young men’s wages declined, putting pressure on working-class families in particular.
The major strains were cultural. Society became more individualistic and more self-oriented. People put greater value on privacy and autonomy.
A rising feminist movement helped endow women with greater freedom to live and work as they chose.
…This attenuation of marital ties may have begun during the late 1800s: The number of divorces increased about fifteenfold from 1870 to 1920, and then climbed more or less continuously through the first several decades of the nuclear-family era.
….Over the past two generations, people have spent less and less time in marriage—they are marrying later, if at all, and divorcing more. In 1950, 27 percent of marriages ended in divorce; today, about 45 percent do. In 1960, 72 percent of American adults were married. In 2017, nearly half of American adults were single.
…Affluent people [in contemporary society] have the resources to effectively buy extended family, in order to shore themselves up.
Think of all the child-rearing labor affluent parents now buy that used to be done by extended kin: babysitting, professional child care, tutoring, coaching, therapy, expensive after-school programs.
…Affluent conservatives often pat themselves on the back for having stable nuclear families. They preach that everybody else should build stable families too.
But then they ignore one of the main reasons their own families are stable: They can afford to purchase the support that extended family used to provide—and that the people they preach at, further down the income scale, cannot.
….When you put everything together, we’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once.
People who grow up in a nuclear family tend to have a more individualistic mind-set than people who grow up in a multigenerational extended clan.
…Over the past 50 years, federal and state governments have tried to mitigate the deleterious effects of these trends.
They’ve tried to increase marriage rates, push down divorce rates, boost fertility, and all the rest.
The focus has always been on strengthening the nuclear family, not the extended family.
Occasionally, a discrete program will yield some positive results, but the widening of family inequality continues unabated.
….Without extended families, older Americans have also suffered. According to the AARP, 35 percent of Americans over 45 say they are chronically lonely.
Many older people are now “elder orphans,” with no close relatives or friends to take care of them.
In 2015, The New York Times ran an article called “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” about a family-less 72-year-old man who died alone and rotted in his Queens apartment for so long that by the time police found him, his body was unrecognizable.
…As the social structures that support the family have decayed, the debate about it has taken on a mythical quality.
Social conservatives insist that we can bring the nuclear family back. But the conditions that made for stable nuclear families in the 1950s are never returning.
Conservatives have nothing to say to the kid whose dad has split, whose mom has had three other kids with different dads; “go live in a nuclear family” is really not relevant advice.
If only a minority of households are traditional nuclear families, that means the majority are something else: single parents, never-married parents, blended families, grandparent-headed families, serial partnerships, and so on.
Conservative ideas have not caught up with this reality.
…..[W]hile social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental.
…The good news is that human beings adapt, even if politics are slow to do so. When one family form stops working, people cast about for something new—sometimes finding it in something very old.
….[F]or vast stretches of human history people lived in extended families consisting of not just people they were related to but people they chose to cooperate with.
…In 1980, only 12 percent of Americans lived in multigenerational households.
But the financial crisis of 2008 prompted a sharp rise in multigenerational homes.
Today 20 percent of Americans—64 million people, an all-time high—live in multigenerational homes.
…The return of multigenerational living arrangements is already changing the built landscape.
A 2016 survey by a real-estate consulting firm found that 44 percent of home buyers were looking for a home that would accommodate their elderly parents, and 42 percent wanted one that would accommodate their returning adult children.
Home builders have responded by putting up houses that are what the construction firm Lennar calls “two homes under one roof.”
These houses are carefully built so that family members can spend time together while also preserving their privacy.
…The most interesting extended families are those that stretch across kinship lines. The past several years have seen the rise of new living arrangements that bring nonbiological kin into family or familylike relationships.
…Over the past several decades, the decline of the nuclear family has created an epidemic of trauma—millions have been set adrift because what should have been the most loving and secure relationship in their life broke.
Slowly, but with increasing frequency, these drifting individuals are coming together to create forged families.
These forged families have a feeling of determined commitment. The members of your chosen family are the people who will show up for you no matter what.
On Pinterest you can find placards to hang on the kitchen wall where forged families gather: “Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile & who love you no matter what.”
….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.
…We’ve left behind the nuclear-family paradigm of 1955. For most people it’s not coming back. Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families, in ways that are new and ancient at the same time.
Much of the rest of the essay explores how people bereft of a biological family seek out families of their own, by joining gangs or what have you.
This is where the church could step in. Instead of “focusing on the (biologically nuclear) family,” as they always do, churches could instead be providing family for outsiders which is what Jesus Christ taught them to do (providing family via potluck suppers, by formation of platonic friendships, etc), but they choose not to.
Most conservatives, including Christian ones, would rather make an Idol out of Marriage and Parenthood, and keep complaining and pounding their fist on a desk that there is this “war against the Nuclear Family” by Liberals, even though there is not one.
Related article, off site:
by Joe Pinsker
Many Americans are reimagining life at home, exploring models of kinship and community that might help more people flourish.
For decades, Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist, has been studying these and other conceptualizations of family and community, and what draws people to them.
Her 2015 book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, was the product of years of interviews with Americans living in nonnuclear ways, and she has since written another book about how single people are unfairly stigmatized.
I spoke with DePaulo about the pros and cons of making a home outside the conventions of the nuclear family, as well as the society-level barriers that make it difficult to do so.
The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joe Pinsker: What comes after the nuclear family—and is it already here?
Bella DePaulo: To me, the decline of the nuclear family isn’t only a story of chaos or trauma.
For people who never fit comfortably into those nuclear-family structures, it’s liberating and opens up a whole panoply of options.
The way I think about those options is in terms of the big components of our life—getting married, living together, having sex, having kids. It used to be that these components all came packaged together, and now they’ve all come apart. People can pick and choose whatever components they want.
….DePaulo: I think many people are pursuing a model of relating that looks more like friendship than the nuclear family, or even extended family, does.
With friendship, there’s less slotting people into particular roles or hierarchies, and more valuing people based on your own affection for them, or whatever matters to you.
We’re expected to think that if you have a romantic partner, that person comes before everyone else, but many people are starting to think about others in a way that’s more expansive—in terms of whatever a person might bring to a situation, which might be just that you click, or that this person makes you happy when you see them and vice versa.
[DePaulo responding to a different question by the writer:]
…Another example is who is covered by laws that allow us to care for the people who matter to us. In workplaces covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, you can take unpaid time off to care for children or parents, and if you’re married, a spouse.
But if you’re a single person, no one gets to fill that spouse slot, so I can’t take time off to care for a close friend, and that close friend can’t take time off to care for me.
To become a more connected, caring society, it would help to have laws that recognize the people in our life that matter to us beyond just a spouse, or our own biological or adopted children.
(this post has been edited several times since publication, to add more commentary or to fix typing errors)
Related (on this blog):
(Link): “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” – one of the most excellent Christian rebuttals I have seen against the Christian idolatry of marriage and natalism, and in support of adult singleness and celibacy – from CBE’s site
(Link): Critique of Federalist Editorial “There Is One Pro-Women Camp In American Politics, And It’s The Right by Elle Reynolds” – Do Federalist Magazine Members Realize There Are Single, Childless Conservative Women?
(Link): This Headline Has My Fellow Conservatives In A Tizzy, but It Should Not: Just 18% of US households are ‘nuclear families’ with a married couple and children, down from 40% since 1970s and the lowest since 1959
(Link): Are Single Women – and specifically Never Married Women – More Likely To Be Victims of Abuse? Rebuttals to this view (advanced by W B Wilcox)
(Link): Male Christian Researcher Mark Regnerus Believes Single Christian Women Should Marry Male Christian Porn Addicts – another Christian betrayal of sexual ethics and more evidence of Christians who do make an idol out of marriage
(Link): Singles Advocate DePaulo Responds to Right Wing, Conservative Critics of Singlehood, Who Blame Singles For Breakdown of The Family (reminder: I myself am right wing)
(Link): What Two Religions Tell Us About the Modern Dating Crisis (from TIME) (ie, Why Are Conservative Religious Women Not Marrying Even Though They Want to Be Married. Hint: It’s a Demographics Issue)
(Link): Why A Quarter of Millennials Will Never Get Married (from TIME magazine)