Friday, September 22, 2006

Nuclear Family (and Christmas Materialism)

I think it's called the "nuclear" family because it's about to blow up.

Two adults are not enough to raise children. I'm convinced of this. I watch my friends struggle to keep sane while working and parenting. My family is faring better than most, probably because we live in a small city with low housing costs, so I can afford to run a business part-time. But in big cities with long commutes and high mortgages, I honestly don't know how they survive. There simply aren't enough hours in the day to do what has to be done.

Imagine how different it would be if grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins still all lived together, as was the norm in our culture less than a century ago. All adults back then had paying work of some kind, but all contributed in some way to the household unpaid work and the parenting as well. In effect, the childran had more than one mother, more than one father, and extra brothers and sisters. There was flexibility and durability to this family unit. Nobody needed layers of life insurance, health insurance, and retirement plans to protect against all of life's travails -- that was what the family was for.

Compare that with two dead exhausted parents siloed in their "single family homes" and high-stress lives and paying big money for it, wondering if this is the dream life they were sold the bill of goods on.

Why? Because a highly industrialized economy needs more portable workers. For this reason, back in the 1940s and 1950s, our culture invented The Career, luring people into thinking that they must structure their lives around their work, rather than around their people. This made industry more efficient, because it could move people around like chess pieces. For workers to be this portable, families had to be divided into smaller units -- nuclear families. Somehow, they managed to make this sound normal.

Of course, at that time, only one person in the family could have The Career. The woman had to stay at home to make up for all the other adults who were no longer part of the family unit.

Now that both parents are working again, the nuclear family is cracking under the strain.

In the meantime, we've built entire cities of single-family houses and commuter highways. We've taught seniors that they don't actually want to live with their adult children. We've invented the idea of the "empty nest" to justify the feelings of grief that come when the already tiny family unit disintegrates further. It's as if we've tried to shore up the nuclear family and career ideals so that we can never return to the larger families of earlier times.

I think we are homesick for the extended family.

And that's where Christmas comes in. Nowhere is this homesickness more evident than in Christmas traditions. The warm-fuzzy images are all of big tables with multiple generations together. We get in cars and planes and trains to get back to whatever extended family we still have so that we can get a smidge of this warm-fuzzy. But it's not the same. These are people we hardly ever see, only a notch above strangers. We have to work hard sometimes to manufacture the warm-fuzzy we're supposed to feel. Besides, there are always relatives who can't come, who won't come, etc.

How many of us haven't seen our nieces and nephews in months? Our grandparents or aging parents? Our aunts and uncles? We're all so far away from each other.

The nuclear family seems like a thin, sad substitute for the support, warmth, and economic stability of a larger family. Christmas merely pushes this into our faces.

We're homesick.

So we solace ourselves with cheap plastic junk.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the rise of Christmas materialism in the 1950s coincided with the rise of the nuclear family and the rise of The Career.


At 11:00 PM, Blogger Robin M. said...

Amen, sister.

I want to write more but I have to get back to running my nuclear family.

At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Chris M. said...


My wife (see above) is at the grocery store and my children are asleep so I can read blogs for a few minutes... :)

This is another angle (angel?) that makes me glad my career is to advocate for affordable, infill housing development in one of the most expensive housing markets in the US....

-- Chris M.

At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

When I was in my teens, the standard observation was that the things you're complaining about were all caused by the emergence of the personal automobile. The media published statistics showing how more than 50% of U.S. residents had moved across state lines in the last ten years.

Now we seem to be glimpsing the end of the era of the personal auto, as we talk about "peak oil".

For many folks here in the U.S., the neighborhood church has become the new extended family. That's what (I think) a lot of Philip Gulley's fiction is about. And a lot of Garrison Keillor's stuff. And, in a different and (it seems to me) deeper way, what Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe is about. No wonder First Day School committees are so important in most meetings!

At 9:52 AM, Blogger david said...

VERY interesting.

Especially as I'm currently working as an employment counsellor -- and looking to shift to another position where career exploration has a greater role.

I need to think on this. Thanks.

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in the kind of extended family you're describing: both my parents live with my partner and I and our two kids. My sister and her husband live up the road with their three kids. Another sister and brother live in the same state and can make it back four or five times a year--we trade kids for a week or so in the summer. We've chosen to live this way, and we love it (at times) but it's not a panacea. There's almost no autonomy in an arrangement like ours: my partner has had to become another adult child of my parents, and we've all had to work out what that means for decisionmaking about everything from menus to house paint. There's a long-term commitment to one place, and the jobs that are available there. There's the recognition that if we had to move, our kids would have been much more significantly affected by the loss of grandparents, aunt, uncle, cousins than their peers would be.

Don't get me wrong--I wouldn't live any other way. But I also recognize how stifling it might be for others. Nothing works for everybody, right?


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