By Reed Schaefer
My fondest holiday memories are, of course, the ones when my cousins, siblings, and I were young kids. Those were simpler times, when we did not have any obligations and we could enjoy the spirit of the holidays — running around, laughing together and sneaking more cookies. As my family has grown older, these experiences have become impossible to replicate. My family is spread across the country, with many of my cousins and I in college apart from everyone. I am separated from my immediate family for most of the year, and it is rare that our extended family gets together. I especially miss my younger cousins who look up to me. While I miss my loved ones, this separation is considered “normal” by current society standards.
A recent article by David Brooks in The Atlantic, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” examines the evolution of the family unit over the last 120 years, and the resulting societal impacts.
At the turn of the 20th century, families were customarily large and closely connected. Commonly, extended families lived together in the same house, with multiple generations sharing dinner. My grandmother lived with six siblings, two parents, two grandparents and a great aunt under one roof. This form of family is now rarely seen in the U.S., although it remains visible in less wealthy nations. The idea of a “normal” family has changed over time to be smaller and less connected.
Since the 1920s, the family unit in the U.S. has evolved, from extended families with multiple generations in close proximity, to focus on the “nuclear” family entity. David Brooks defines the nuclear family as typically just parents and children, with fewer children than in the past, as society has made life freer for individuals. Thus, we must accept that people go away for college and people relocate for job prospects and the nuclear family has evolved to be the primary household unit. By 2017, nearly 78% of American families were nuclear families, and in many cases were not built around a married couple.
The nuclear family prospered from 1950 through 1965. The image of two-parent families with a couple of kids happily living in a large suburban home, as popularized on television, was a successful structure. With neighbors more closely related than today and post-war society more connected, the nuclear family could thrive. The post-war family was not without issues — women were often limited to homemaker and caretaker roles, and more diverse family roles were not accepted.
The evolution to the nuclear family has continued since 1965 and has resulted in less stable families. More often than not, both parents must work longer hours to pay for childcare and other needs to “replace” the support traditionally provided by extended family. As a result of longer working hours, the family spends less time together. This nuclear family may be a satisfactory structure for privileged American families, but many Americans are not able to support this lifestyle or simply do not fit this prescribed family structure.
More families than ever are led by a single parent. Pew Research Center found that in 2019, almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults (23%), more than three times the share of children around the world who do so (7%). If extended family is not nearby with capacity to help on a day-to-day basis, the single-parent nuclear family has a weak support system. Unfortunately, that means that stressful events such as divorce, sickness, and death can lead to the dissolution of the family.
As we approach the age of starting our own families, we should think about how we can bring back the bigger tables in America. Our families should be open to the diversity that the American population provides. Broader family structures will help all of us give and receive advice and support. A family can include immediate family, extended family, and even one’s chosen family. Growing up, my family was part of a larger chosen family with the families of my parents’ close friends. Many of my fondest childhood memories are of Sunday dinners and summer vacations with their children, who I now consider my cousins.
Moreover, expanding the family unit to include chosen families will help our society as a whole. Welcome into your family those who have been rejected by or have lost their own biological families. The support you can provide others will circle back to prop your own family up. The more we can make our families inclusive, the more we support our communities.