For the past several years, David Brooks has made the decline of American communities and social isolation central themes in his writing. For those of us who share his alarm over these trends, he has been an indispensable voice.
So, it comes as a surprise to read “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” Brooks’ new essay featuring a flawed history that negates both its argument and its solutions for a society that is, as I fully agree, “too detached, disconnected, and distrustful.”
Like other skeptics of the nuclear family, Brooks describes the arrangement as a recent historical aberration replacing the more long-standing extended family. In his telling, by stranding parents and children on their own little island without the organic safety net of grandparents, that shift attenuated social connectedness and support. Wealthy people may be able to afford to purchase child care, prepared foods, and many other services once freely provided by grandparents and other relatives. But for the rest, he argues, the nuclear family has been “a disaster.” His solution is “forged families” made up of self-selecting individuals instead of blood and marriage kin.
However, the premise of this narrative can’t survive the cold light of history. 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. Brooks, citing family historian Steven Ruggles, states that “[u]ntil 1850, three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids.” That’s true, but it slides past the fact that there simply weren’t many 65-year-olds above ground; U.S. life expectancy stood at only 40 in 1850. In data published in a 1994 paper, Ruggles estimated that as of 1880, more than two-thirds of white couples, the large majority with children, lived in independent households. The anomaly was the extended family, not the nuclear family.
What about the black family, often held up by nuclear family doubters as a resilient alternative to the nuclear “white family?” True, after the Civil War, extended families made up a larger percentage of black households than they did white. But those families were still the minority: Ruggles estimates that extended families were only 22.5% of black households in 1880; the number climbed till about 1940, but it never went above 26 percent. Far more prevalent among blacks was the nuclear model: 57% of black households were married couples, the large majority of them with children.
As demographics changed, the dominant family form did not. Rising life expectancy and falling fertility starting in the latter half of the 19th century meant more surviving grandparents available for a smaller number of couple households. But the share of households with extended families stayed more or less the same. It seems that people preferred the privacy and independence of the nuclear form—despite all its disadvantages.
Brooks doesn’t talk about marriage in “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” yet the inextinguishable human urge for pair bonding (and its associated childbearing) helps explain both the persistence of the nuclear family and the problems that plague its alternative communal forms. 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. Children will lose crucial daily rituals and contacts—generally with their fathers—and adult networks will be short-circuited. Jealousy, anger, hurt, inconvenient attractions, doubts, and changing allegiances will be no easier to weather in forged, chosen families than they are in nuclear families. In fact, it’s a good guess it would be harder.
Some of the alternative arrangements Brooks describes, such as in-law apartments and common areas in otherwise conventional apartment buildings, still depend on a solid base of nuclear families. Others, like co-living buildings, are temporary arrangements for singles until the right partner comes along.
The more radical commune-like experiments he cites have a dismal historical record for some of the reasons I described above. Fruitlands, a "con-sociate" farm founded by the father of Little Women author, Louisa May Alcott, in the mid 19th century lasted seven months before succumbing to food shortages and infighting between and within the two primary families. The kibbutzim of the early Zionists were deliberately designed to free children from the hothouse of the bourgeois family, but this also died a slow death as parents demanded the domestic intimacy they were supposed to forswear. Children who were raised on the kibbutz left in droves. The large majority of the back-to-the-land communes of the 1970s were equally unsuccessful.
The disaster confronting less prosperous Americans is not the nuclear family, but the erosion of socio-economic conditions that help them sustain lasting pair bonds. To do something about the disconnection and instability infecting American life, we need to start there.
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