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Contributed by Tori Black
With news of an imminent coronavirus pandemic filling the airwaves and internet, you may have missed an important discussion surrounding the health and future of the nuclear family sparked by an article titled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” written by David Brooks and published in The Atlantic. To those of us who believe that the nuclear family is the foundation of flourishing societies, Brooks’ title was shocking, especially as Brooks has written extensively regarding the challenges faced by American communities. We thought he was a friend!
Well, he still is, but he had an important point to make about the fragility of families and their dependence on networks of support.
Creating family instability
We have long been aware of the deleterious effects of divorce, single-parenthood, and cohabitation on the well-being of children. In his piece, Brooks highlights the power of extended family and “chosen” family to counteract the impact of family disruption. Family structure that reaches beyond the nuclear unit can and does make a positive difference. Brooks observes that over the last hundred years, society has:
“…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)…”
One of the primary ways that we have made life worse for children is by restructuring and repurposing marriage. When married couples and families depended upon each other for survival and children were vital contributors to a family economy, sacrifice was a vital component of lasting unions. But that changed in the 1970s when people began to primarily look to marriage for a sense of self-fulfillment. Today, fewer people marry, families are smaller, and the romantic needs of adults take precedence over the emotional needs of children.
For Brooks, our increasingly individualistic society has impacted both the structure of the nuclear family – a mother, father and their children – and the cohesion and influence of extended family to the detriment of both family and society. He echoes journalist Jane Jacob’s assertion that modern families are “rigged to fail” because they no longer benefit from the protection and support of extended family structures.
The power of extended family ties
Raising children and maintaining a family is hard. It is particularly hard for those in the working and middle-class who have fewer financial resources and a higher incidence of divorce, single-parenthood and cohabitation. Children from those family structures are more likely to experience diminished health, both physical and mental, greater behavioral problems, and more academic challenges and failure. This is where extended family can make a difference.
I’m sure we can all think of examples when extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – stepped in to fill the gaps when our own family reserves were stretched thin. At the age of six when my parents divorced, I relied heavily on that network of extended family for emotional support. My grandmother provided childcare and stability while my mother worked to provide for us. Five years later, when my mother established a relationship with someone new, we moved an hour away from my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. That relatively small distance was enough to leave us isolated and vulnerable when the inevitable troubles erupted.
Extended family is often the cushion that softens the blow of trials that are part and parcel of life. Three years ago, my husband and I moved from Texas to Utah to live near a daughter whose son was diagnosed with autism. We drew on the example of my own mother who became part of a network of support for my sister and her husband as they cared for their daughter with special needs. But what if you have no network of family to help shoulder the burden of divorce, poverty, illness, or injury? Where do we turn when we are overwhelmed and there is no extended family to lend a hand?
To address that challenge, Brooks suggests the formation of something he calls the “forged family.” In response to the pressures faced by today’s families, “Americans are experimenting with new forms of kinship and extended family in search of stability.” We see this in multi-generational living arrangements such as young adults living with parents and elderly parents living with adult children. We also see this among single adults, with and without children, experimenting with creative living arrangements that allow for both privacy and connection among “chosen family.”
Professor Andrew T. Walker of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, believes that there is “no other institution more apt to be the central force in forging family and social connections than the local church.” This was certainly the case for my family when we made our way to Texas early in our marriage. For the first time, my husband and I found ourselves 1400 miles away from our parents and siblings. With a job that would take my husband away from home for several days every month, I needed to create the equivalent of my California family to help me when I was home alone with the kids and my husband was out of town. My church community became that family.
There is a reason that a church community is often called a “church family.” Better yet, there’s a reason so many church members call one another “brother” and “sister.” At church I found people I could count on to watch my children when I had an appointment and could pump the brakes on my ’67 VW bus while I crawled underneath to bleed them. I found companionship as our children played together and connection as we shared holiday meals. Walker explains that the church is more than a list of potential babysitters and handymen, it is “uniquely primed…to be the forged family for the unmarried, for single parents, and for the fatherless. It is there that the fatherless can find a fatherly example…to understand the church as forged family is to understand it is as a place of welcome, habit, and nurture…”
But what about those who have no ready-made church family? At the very time that more people are in need of the created kin that comes with active church membership, fewer people are going to church. A 2019 Gallup poll found that a “decline in church membership mostly reflects the fact that fewer Americans than in the past now have any religious affiliation. However, even those who do identify with a particular religion are less likely to belong to a church or other place of worship than in the past.” In the last 20 years, the percentage of U.S. adults with no religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8% to 19%, and only 64% of adults with a religious preference belong to a church compared to 73% two decades ago.
Forging kinship-like ties with others is challenging for those who have experienced the trauma of violence, abuse, neglect, and family break-down. Too often, those who have suffered trauma turn to substances as a way to cope with the pain they feel, which can exacerbate the challenge of forming healthy connections. They may also experience mental health issues. Couple this with a decrease in church affiliation and you have a serious problem among a growing segment of society that lacks the network of support it so desperately needs. When we claim that family is the foundation of society, this is why. Without strong, interconnected kinship ties – both biological and forged – individuals and families crumble under the pressure of modern stresses which impacts the health and strength of communities and nations. This impacts all of us at every level of society. But we all also have the power to make a real difference.
David Brooks provocative title was wrong. The nuclear family is not a mistake. It is as vital today as it was in Genesis when God brought Adam and Eve together and called it good. The family is the foundation of civilization, but it is a fragile foundation. Harmful concepts and practices have weakened that foundation leaving individuals vulnerable and alone, needing the support that comes with connection and extended kin, but not really knowing how to create it. We have the capability to make a difference by creating family with those who lack connection. Look for those people. Be their kin. It really is that important.