After the Nuclear Family

the cover of the March 2020 issue of The Atlantic

For me, the most impactful aspect of my JVC experience was living in intentional community. I know not every JV has a great experience with their community, but I was blessed to get along quite well with my community-mates. I was so drawn to community living, in fact, that after JVC I spent two years as a live-in assistant at L’Arche Heartland, where I lived and worked in a community of adults with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. And right before JVC, in my last year of college, I took a seminar in gender studies where we did a unit on kinship, queer family structures, and alternatives to the heteronormative nuclear family. That unit enabled me to come to JVC with mental schema already in place that, for me, was essential in understanding my experience of community life. (Side-note: somebody has gotta write a book exploring the similarities between queer family structures and religious life.)

This is all to say: I was stoked when I came across David Brooks’ cover article in the March issue of The Atlantic: “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” If you’re at all interested in kinship, family structures, or intentional community, this essay is a must-read.

The essay begins by exploring how extended families and clans (what most people lived with for much of human history) gave way to the nuclear family in the 20th century. If the base units of society are nuclear families, you can have a stable society, Brooks argues, but only under a limited set of conditions:

In short, the period from 1950 to 1965 demonstrated that a stable society can be built around nuclear families—so long as women are relegated to the household, nuclear families are so intertwined that they are basically extended families by another name, and every economic and sociological condition in society is working together to support the institution.

Brooks then explores how those conditions have been falling apart and how the nuclear family has been failing society’s most vulnerable populations: children, women, older Americans, people of color, even single men. Nuclear families only reliably work for the most privileged: people who are white, upper-class, formally educated, and abled.

This line really stuck out to me: “The focus has always been on strengthening the nuclear family, not the extended family.” When we discuss the failures of the nuclear family, we (as a society) have tended to stay focused on how to fix it. But what if most of us don’t need to fix it? What if we need to move past nuclear families into an era where we instead redefine kinship and foster found and forged families? My own personal experiences of community life have convinced that this is indeed the case. Community life has its own challenges, but simply put, for most of us, I’m convinced it’s the answer.

In the second half of the essay, Brooks explores emerging kinship structures, the new cultural paradigms that are replacing the nuclear family as the dominant base unit of society. Here are a few signs of this emergent paradigm that Brooks points to:

  • CoAbode: a website where single mothers can find other single mothers interested in sharing a home
  • Cohousing: think apartment complexes designed with social and physical architecture to foster community and connection
  • Real estate companies like Common that facilitate co-living (check out this Vox/Recode article for more)

I also want to shout out the the Foundation for Intentional Community, which does a lot of great work supporting intentional communities and promoting cooperative culture.

Again, if you’re at all interested in kinship, family structures, or intentional community, this essay is a must-read. It articulates and explores, with clarity and some nuance, ideas about family and kinship that I’ve been thinking over for the past for the past five years. I’ve personally felt the need to write an essay or book on this topic, but now that David Brooks has written this lovely piece, I don’t feel that need as strongly, which is actually pretty great.

Instead, right now, I feel inspired to go practice community life and explore and foster the kinship and family structures that I’m convinced will one day displace the nuclear family as the base units of our society.

Featured image by Cam N. Coulter.

“After the Nuclear Family” by Cam N. Coulter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About Cam N. Coulter

Cam N. Coulter thinks incessantly about speculative fiction, gender, and intentional communities. Their poetry has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer, Eye to the Telescope, and Polu Texni, and their academic nonfiction has appeared in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal. Cam reviews short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty and blogs about social justice, simple living, community, and spirituality at The Ruined Report. After their year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. They currently work with adults with developmental disabilities in the SF Bay Area. Cam can be found on their website or on Twitter @camncoulter.