New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – GOODBYE, NUCLEAR FAMILY?

On February 17, I eased my body down into my favorite ancient Morris chair to read a newly-delivered glossy magazine. This was last Monday, the Family Day holiday, and I was gazing at the cover story: “The Nuclear family Was a Mistake.” The irony did not escape me.

David Brooks writes for The Atlantic. In the current March issue, Brooks argues that the nuclear family “… held up as the cultural ideal for the past half-century has been a catastrophe for many.” He defines “nuclear family” as a married couple and their children. This structure – think of television’s Leave it To Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet did work well, he acknowledges, from about 1950 to 1965. Brooks believes it worked because women accepted their role as homemakers, the family had supportive networks of other neighbourhood families and society provided further support through church attendance , union membership and widespread prosperity.

However, by the mid sixties, “… the sheltered family of the 1950s was supplanted by the stressed family of every decade since.” Feminism opened other fulfillment doors for women beyond the home, family-supportive church and union affiliation declined dramatically. Brooks refers to various sociological surveys that track the ascendance of individualism and self-fulfillment in our more recent decades. These values can run counter to the ideal of family first.

In this deliberatively provocative article, Brooks reminds his reader that the nuclear family was not the norm over most of anthropological history. People grouped in extended families … parents, grandparents, lots of children and other assorted relatives under one roof … because this was a more effective unit of production. When most North Americans were farmers, more labour help was needed.

These large extended family also provided much better emotional and practical support than the isolated nuclear model of 3-4 persons. When a member died or lost a job, others stepped in to replace what was now gone. There was always a member to confide in and get advice from. In a nuclear family, a death or job loss can be catastrophic and individuals can feel more isolated. Taking only one of many statistics from the article: “Until 1850, roughly three quarters of grandparents older than 65 lived with their kids.”

I would slightly fine-tune Brooks definition of “nuclear family.” By definition, a traditional nuclear family consisted of a heterosexual married couple in their first marriage and with one or more children. The latest census data from Stats Canada confirm that the “Leave it to Beaver” structure has indeed been greatly modified:

  • About 30% of children do not live with both biological parents
  • Roughly 20% are lone-parented while 10% live in blended or step-parented families
  • About 40% of couples divorce and three-quarters of those remarry
  • twenty percent of couples live in a common law relationship
  • 0.9% of married or c l u couples in Canada are same-sex relationships
  • the number of children born per family has obviously shrunk dramatically.

Statistics confirm Brook’s thesis that that nuclear family is less cohesive and less “traditional” than in past decades. Interestingly, the trend to more adult children now living with their parents and midlife couples adding “granny flats” to their homes, we might be witnessing a return to the extended family.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story. From my observation, people will still seek and find intimacy and permanency in relationships, whether married or common law, whether straight or gay, whether first time or remarriage. Children will still thrive best in families, no matter the structure, where they feel secure, guided, nurtured and loved.

The nuclear family may be statistically modified from its 1950s version and admittedly under more stress, but it is not disappearing anytime soon.