What Kind of Family is Yours?

Photograph Source: Macfadden Publications Copyright 1955 – Public Domain

What kind of “family” is yours?  Is it a traditional “nuclear” family, with a mom & dad & a couple of kids? Or is a two-some, just you and a partner, no matter what gender? Or maybe you are part of an extended grouping, be it an adopted family, a commune or shared housing of multiple parents with children?  Or maybe it’s just you, a “family” of one?

Over the last few years, there has been increased discussion of the changing nature of the “traditional” nuclear family.  No matter what “family” formation you are part of the “classic” Ossie & Harriet family celebrated on TV land during the ‘50s is declining.  In 2021, only 18 percent – or 23.1 million — of U.S. households were “nuclear families” with a married couple and children.  This is a significant drop from nearly 60 percent during the 1970s.

David Brooks, a conservative opinion writer for The New York Times, wrote a compelling article in The Atlantic, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” in 2020. It chronicles the decline of the nuclear family and, more importantly, he considers the new forms of interpersonal association that are emerging today.

Brooks offers a rigorous and carefully reasoned analysis of the history and current decline of the “traditional” nuclear family, a decline intimately linked to structural changes in U.S. capitalism and deepening inequality.  His critique of the family is simple:

“We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. 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.”

Brooks concludes, noting, “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.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Brooks reveals, “Two years ago, I started something called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. Weave exists to support and draw attention to people and organizations around the country who are building community.”  He then goes on to mention, “In 2015, I was invited to the house of a couple named Kathy and David, who had created an extended-family-like group in D.C. called All Our Kids, or AOK-DC.”  And adds, “I joined the community and never left—they became my chosen family.”

The article drew much critical attention. From the left, Nicole Sussner Rodgers, writing in The Nationargued,

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.

She then adds: “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.”  Most insightful, she insists, “Children can flourish in a variety of family types and living arrangements.”

From the right, Kay Hymowitz, of the Institute for Family Studies and the Manhattan Institute, argued, “Scholars now pretty much agree that the nuclear family household has been the “dominant form” in Western Europe and the United States since the dawn of the industrial era. In fact, demographic realities made extended families an impossibility.”  She then insists:

Because humans can’t seem to resist pairing up, couples who break up will likely look for new partners. The partner who moves out will be mourned and newcomers will have to be incorporated into the pre-existing family, whether it is nuclear, extended, or forged.

Since time immemorial, humans have cohabitated or associated in sharing clusters to meet survival issues and address caregiving needs. Today, Americans – in unprecedented numbers — are experimenting with new forms of kinship and extended family association.

Matt Bell distinguishes two types of extended family association – (i) multigenerational families and (ii) nonbiological kinship lines.  Multigenerational or extended families include people that cluster along biological kinship lines and can involve (i) grown children living with married parents, (e.g., young adults moving back home after college); (ii) married or single adult parents helping elderly parents; and (iii) seniors living with unmarried children (e.g., “in-law suite”).

Nonbiological kinship lines include groups like the one Brooks is part of and CoAbode that welcomes single mothers who can find other single mothers interested in sharing a home. Its purpose is bold:“Combining resources allows single mothers and their kids to afford a better home in a better school district, helps lighten the load of parenting and childcare, and enhances their economic opportunities.”

The changing composition of the “family” signals an equally significant change remaking society – the erosion of patriarchy. “Before the nineteenth century, most families were organized according to patriarchal tradition,” notes Steven Ruggles in “Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015.”  Going further, he points out:

Masters of the household [i.e., men] had a legal right to command the obedience of their wives and children—as well as any servants or slaves—and to use corporal punishment to correct disobedience.

The waning of patriarchy was accompanied by a shift toward simpler and more unstable family structures.

Ruggles provides an invaluable overview of the shifting landscape of family life that grounds his analysis. “The tectonic shifts in the structure of the economy since the early nineteenth century transformed family relations. The transition from corporate families to male breadwinner families was a consequence of the rise of male wage labor in the Industrial Revolution.” He then adds:

The transition from male breadwinner families to dual-earner families reflects the massive increase in wage labor among married women following World War II. The decline of corporate families led to a profound upheaval of generational relations as family patriarchs lost control over their wage-earning sons. The decline of male-breadwinner families led to an equally profound upheaval of gender relations as men lost control over their wage-earning wives and daughters.

These developments had profound consequences. “In the past half-century,” Ruggles asserts, “the long-run trend toward atomization of families has accelerated. A broad retreat from marriage began after 1960.”

Now, a half-century later, what kind of “family” is yours?

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.