The “Nuclear Family” is a myth that limits our capacity to understand ourselves

Humans are a social species. Our greatest achievements, for good and for ill, have all come from the collective effort of thousands of people, often spread out over multiple generations. Mainstream discourse in the United States holds that the “Nuclear Family” is the foundation of all of that, and more conservative people will often go farther to claim that that structure – a cis man, a cis woman, and their children – has been central to all “greatness” in human history.

As with many such assertions, this quickly falls apart as we look at what’s known about human societies around the globe, but there’s a persistent effort to erase, denigrate, or dismiss any alternative ways of structuring our communities, past and present. Abigail Thorn’s video about witchcraft, gender, and Marxism explores the ways in which modern gender roles began to be enforced in Europe, and the role the witch hunts played in creating the world we all live in today. Where she focused on economic theory, concepts of magic, and historical eras, Saint Andrew’s video Rethinking Family focuses on family structures, and the roles they have played in making us what we are, in limiting our understanding of ourselves, and in limiting our power to resist oppression.

U.S. culture is obsessed with “the individual”, while also discouraging more than the most token expressions of individual identity. We are told to think and act as individuals (outside the workplace) and to define ourselves by work plus whatever we can do in our spare time – usually some form of consumer activity. In my view, understanding who we are as individuals requires some understanding of what we are as Homo sapiens, and in forcing everyone to conform to a particular vision of “the family unit”, we have been lied to about what we are. Not only does this make it difficult to truly understand who we, but that lack of understanding also greatly impedes our ability to shape ourselves, and determine the course of our own lives.

The Nuclear Family is an artificial construct, and one that has never been real in the idealized form we were taught to strive for. It’s past time to re-learn who and what we are, and allow humans to be humans.


  1. says

    For most of human history, the nuclear family didn’t exist. Arguably, it still doesn’t. But it was not at all unusual for a child to be raised by aunts/uncles or tradespeople (as an apprentice) especially in areas that were hit by plagues, epidemics, or wars. It was pretty common for children to be raised by a stepmother, after their birth mother died in childbirth – something distressingly common by today’s perspective. Nowadays, of course, the concern is divorce, instead of death or disability but that’s more of a reflection of imperialist attitudes than anything else. A lot of Americans don’t realize that their ideal child-rearing setup looks suspiciously like a classist ideal of upper class British victorian child-rearing – i.e.: it’s just pretension. The British weren’t living up to that ideal, particularly, either (and those that were, had pretty dysfunctional results, e.g: Winston Churchill) It’s always seemed funny, the American focus on “nuclear families” as important to child-rearing, given the American fondness for destroying families with high explosive, dropped at random, in other countries. As soon as you realize that “what about the children?” only applies to nice white suburban American kids, you can see the whole thing as the imperialist/white supremacist lie that it is.

  2. Dunc says

    A lot of Americans don’t realize that their ideal child-rearing setup looks suspiciously like a classist ideal of upper class British victorian child-rearing

    Upper class British Victorian child-rearing basically consisted of handing them over to a nanny / wet-nurse until they were old enough to be sent off to boarding school. The idea that children should be raised exclusively by their parents would be anathema – children in that class barely met their parents. It’s about as far from the modern ideal of the nuclear family as it’s possible to get… They outsourced the whole ghastly business to professionals.

  3. says

    Let me expand on that: note that daycare is generally considered completely OK. Rich people do have nannies, of course. But, yeah, outsourcing child rearing is one of those non-nuclear things Americans think is OK because it’s part of the ideal.

    The Americans I’ve met who are dead set on raising their own kids are the racists and religious whackos who want to control the ideas the kids are exposed to.

  4. springa73 says

    I think that the nuclear family emerged as a middle-class ideal in the 19th and 20th centuries, not an upper-class one.

    It’s not always a bad thing – I’ve known quite a few people who grew up happily in nuclear families. There are, however, lot of cases where nuclear families don’t work and other arrangements would be better. I don’t think there’s one single best way to arrange a family.

  5. Dunc says

    Marcus,@#3: Daycare isn’t even close. Upper class families in the Victorian era would literally see their kids at formal occasions a couple of times a year. Hell, my current partner was a middle class boarder in the 80s and she only saw her parents for Christmas and summer holidays – most of the time they weren’t even on the same continent. And that’s positively warm and fluffy compared to the upper classes in the Victorian era…

  6. cartomancer says

    I think it would be going altogether too far to call the nuclear family a “myth”, but it is certainly not the whole picture. Generally we find that human beings tend to fit in to all sorts of different structures and arrangements at once, and different ones are of utility in some situations, not others. Individual, nuclear family, extended family, clan, tribe, village, state, religious grouping, work grouping and others play different roles at different times in life and different social and political contexts. We can trace trends, but there are generally so many exceptions to even strongly normative ways of doing things in any society that it is unhelpful to focus exclusively on any one arrangement as primary.

    The focus on nuclear families is something of an artefact of economic conditions in America after the Second World War. For three decades, the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was generally very possible for a (white) man to support this nuclear family structure (home-making wife, 2.4 children, own home, car, etc.) on an average wage – something that has rarely been true even in US history before or since.

  7. says

    @Cartomancer – yes and no. When I call it a myth, I’m looking at the way it has been mythologized in American culture as both the only valid family arrangement, and the “default” throughout history. The best misinformation contains a little truth, and all that. I also think that a lot of things that we don’t think of as “parenting” like summer camp, babysitters, and so on, also fill in some of the gaps. Some of parenting has been externalized, so that we no longer even see it as parenting at all.

    On the daycare/rich people thing, I think it’s a little bit of both? I’m far from an expert on this, but my impression is that while rich people never actually enacted the “nuclear family”, because they paid poorer people to fill in the alloparenting roles that a functional community would provide, but that became less and less possible for the working class as capitalism progressed.

    But the “we’re just like you” rhetoric obfuscated the ways rich folks use money to maintain community levels of support for their kids, and I expect that fed into the idea that everyone “should” be able to raise their kids by themselves while also working full time.

    I should say – I grew up in a nuclear family setting, and had a comfortable childhood. That said, my parents had help from friends and family, as well as daycare (I think they could afford it because my mother got a job at the daycare center), babysitters, and stuff like summer camp which gave them blocks of time during which other people took on my care and education.

    So it was “nuclear family”(plus a bunch of other people who were involved in raising me).

  8. says

    I wrote:
    classist ideal of upper class British victorian child-rearing

    What I was trying to convey is that Americans interpreted and came up with their own version of that ideal. I know that daycare is not like British victorian nannies, etc. That was my point: there’s an ideal that Americans are trying to live up to, of this neatly structured imperialist household. I’m not saying that Americans are actually living up to that. Obviously. Duh.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    I only watched the first video, not the second. I liked the one I watched, but I think there’s something this discussion left out: namely, that cultures have tended to prioritize childbearing to the exclusion of other interests (unmarried “wise women,” homosexuality, abortion access, etc.), because cultures are subject to the evolutionary pressure of warfare. In the same that species that never develop defenses against predators don’t last very long, cultures with low birth rates will tend to get conquered by cultures with higher birth rates, because all other things being equal, the side that shows up on the battlefield with the most troops tends to win. Womens’ rights were suppressed during the witch hunts less due to capitalist pressure for more workers, which benefit only a narrow slice of a culture, but rather due to military pressure to have a big army, which benefits everyone. (Nobody wants to be a member of a conquered nation.)

    “Get you the sons your fathers got,” said Kipling, “and God will save the Queen.”

    I don’t think it’s an accident that the womens’ liberation movement gathered so much strength during the 60s, when it began to sink in to people that the next war would be won by two guys sitting in a room with a big red button, not lots and lots of soldiers on a battlefield.

  10. says

    Two points.
    First, the daycare where our children went was a cooperative, and so parents had to put in a few hours each week to help the workers. It was originally called the “Emma Goldman Daycare Cooperative .” There were skilled early-childhood workers for each age group, but the extra hands were parents’. One of many ways — mostly informal- – in which the core family (parents as well as children) was nourished and suppleted.

    Second: One point you made, which the comments have not picked up on, is the one about “individualism” — a term which our economic-political system has weaponized and distorted in pretty evil and intentional ways. This is really important, as the pseudo-family is offered as a refuge from , but is as manipulable and vulnerable as the pseudo-individual. A wellknown scientific paper from 2012 says it well: “We never were individuals.”

    (Though Marx and followers like Marcuse are famously associated with the idea of “alienation,” others from other perspectives also have interesting things to say (like John Dewey in “Individualism New and Old” and a radical stream of Christian thinking since the second century CE — in case someone’s looking for useful ideas or rhetoric to sharpen their own intellectual tools)

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