What Comes After the Nuclear Family?

What Comes After the Nuclear Family?

Progressives need to articulate a new philosophy of family life.


In his cover story for the March issue of The Atlantic, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” David Brooks lays out the limitations of the vanishing but still-vaunted nuclear family unit. Extended families are typically larger and more interconnected, which, he argues, makes them more resilient by nature, and a greater “socializing” force. In comparison, the smaller and more isolated nature of nuclear families leaves all but a privileged few vulnerable in the face of unexpected but not uncommon life events like divorce, death, illness, or the loss of a job or child care.

As fewer and fewer children grow up in nuclear family units—today, less than half of all children are living with two parents in their first marriage, a significant decline from 1960 when nearly two-thirds were—this American vision of family life is both increasingly uncommon and incompatible with the demands of modern life. There’s universal agreement that family life has become harder and less stable for everyone, at least by some metrics, and that’s especially true for working-class folks. And yet we don’t yet have any model of family life to replace the nuclear family. That’s because, Brooks writes, “while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it’s no longer relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all.” Seldom do I agree with Brooks, but on this point, he’s correct.

We differ, however, on why progressives lack a shared vision. It’s not only that progressives want to avoid being perceived as judgmental, as Brooks suggests. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about what exactly a progressive philosophy of family life looks like, including what’s desirable and achievable. People can’t yearn for a family life they haven’t even imagined.

Progressives are finally beginning to understand that the decline of nuclear families among working-class and poor folks is better understood as one symptom of growing economic inequality, not its cause, as conservatives typically contend. But the right continues to argue that decades of deviation from the nuclear family unit is a sign of cultural decay, employing fears about “family breakdown” as a dog whistle intended to blame black people for their own hardships. The pundit class, meanwhile, is locked into a debate over the best way to rebuild nuclear families, rather than explore alternative arrangements or philosophies of family life that might serve us all better.

How did the nuclear family remain the normative model of family life, even as its numbers were in decline? One answer lies in the significant impact of powerful evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family and Family Research Council, which were established in 1977 and 1983, respectively, to stem the gains of the second-wave feminist movement and push biblical “traditional family values.” These two groups alone spent well over a $100 million a year over several decades to cement their conservative philosophy in the cultural mainstream, largely eclipsing alternatives. They promoted the idea that marriage is a sacred, lifelong relationship that should never be abandoned even in the worst of circumstances, and that within it, men and women have distinct and complementary “natural” roles. They also maintained that the purpose of marriage is to have children, that sex should exist only within a marriage for procreative purposes, and that abortion is a sin. Their footprints are scattered throughout the current policy landscape in initiatives like federal marriage promotion, abstinence-only education, incentives for non-marital birth reduction, and of course, in unceasing attack on basic reproductive freedoms and reproductive health care access.

The other legacy, of course, is that conservatives continue to have a well-articulated set of regressive rules that falsely promise a stable and satisfying family life if you follow them. We know, of course that those rules often fail to deliver a satisfying or even safe family life. For example, research shows that marriage appears to benefit men more than women. And despite ongoing taboos against divorce, when no-fault divorce was introduced the impact on women in states which relaxed their divorce laws was stunning: A striking 20 percent decline in wives’ suicides, and even greater declines in domestic violence, along with a ten percent drop in a woman’s chances of being killed by a boyfriend or spouse.

The nuclear family model of the ’50s and ’60s is not making a comeback, so I sincerely applaud Brooks’s request to consider alternatives, including his push for a return to larger extended and “forged” families. But a long history of propping up the superiority of the nuclear family unit (including by Brooks himself, who stated in 2017 that “the stable two-parent family is what we want”) has already caused significant harm particularly to low-income black people whose families have been unfairly accused of being dysfunctional or broken. As a result, the poverty and violence experienced by black people today is blamed on them via racist, inaccurate tropes about welfare queens and absentee fathers. Of course it’s good to see Brooks acknowledge the strength and resilience of “forged” non-nuclear black families now, but it’s the prevalence of this very structure that’s been used to discriminate against them, from the 1965 Moynihan report to 1996 welfare reform, and so much in between. What’s changed is that it’s increasingly clear that the nuclear family isn’t working that well for middle- and working-class white people anymore either. Championing non-nuclear families now simply reflects the power of “trickle-up” respectability.

Thankfully, there are some potential directions around which we can begin building a new philosophy of family life. At Family Story, the organization I founded and run, our research has shown that women have far more complicated and ambivalent feelings about marriage than survey research has traditionally captured. They overwhelmingly believe that a single parent can do as good a job as two parents, and that while children do best with multiple adults invested in their well-being, it’s not necessary that those adults include married parents. Further, over half of all women would like more ways to raise children with someone who is not a romantic partner, and a solid majority of unmarried mothers say they would consider raising a child with someone who is not a romantic partner, a scenario featured recently in a fascinating story in Marie Claire about straight friends raising children together.

Beyond models to aspire to, a progressive philosophy of family life requires accurate, affirming and meaningful language that better reflects the full range of family-like relationships that exist without reverting to antiquated binaries or privileging biological-relatedness. Black families, for example, have typically had “aunties.” While the title doesn’t tell you much about the specific way two people are related, it tells you something meaningful about the role they play. “Mother” and “father,” on the other hand, have increasingly less meaning and utility today when so many children have two moms or two dads, single parents, blended families, or even three legal parents. Advanced reproductive technology and DNA-discovery has further surfaced the limitations of our lexicon and opened up a new realm of naming questions for a new generation (i.e., what do you call a “sibling” by way of shared sperm donor?). But not only is our language woefully inadequate, it is also antiquated and frequently stigmatizing. Most of us would never refer to a child born today as “illegitimate” or a “bastard,” yet the more generalized term “out-of-wedlock” remains commonplace and largely unquestioned, despite the fact that it’s intended to trigger a similar judgement.

To build a progressive philosophy of family life will undoubtedly push older generations out of their comfort zone, but it’s necessary, urgent work. Without a well-articulated philosophy of progressive family life, the void will be inevitability be filled with shame and confusion. Some guiding principles of this might include: A person’s marital status, relationship status, and living arrangements say nothing about their character or value. There will always be people who do not achieve the relationships, living arrangements, and family goals to which they aspire, but this is not a reflection of their self-worth. And: Children can flourish in a variety of family types and living arrangements. These types of progressive principles may provide a foundation for family life, but we also need to showcase the many models that can be built on top, whether its co-housing, intergenerational retirement communities, single mother collectives, or nuclear families and friends living in close proximity who commit to care for one another. It’s not enough to just motivate progressives against an antiquated idea—we need to paint a better picture of what we’re for.

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