Culture //

Nuclear families are not the power we need

Pulling the plug on a tired model.

Credit: Christian Collins

Curled up on the couch with my parents and two dogs after a Sunday roast, we settle in for our weekly viewing of Upper Middle Bogan.

As the title track (Comin’ Home Baby by Mel Tormé) accompanies Bess’ transformation when she visits her newly discovered extended family, I ponder why exactly the drive from one home to another necessitates such a change.

My family home, where I’ll probably spend a large part of my twenties, clearly delineates between each of its members. My room, distinct from shared areas, is a source of respite when exam season rears its ugly head. There is the lounge room where my mother indulges in her overdramatic medical shows, and tucked away at the back is my father’s gaming room. Not so communal after all.

There’s certainly no room for my extended family, who visit for an afternoon but travel back to their homes by nightfall. While I’m grateful for the calm that allows me to type an essay at the kitchen table, I recall the gentle rumble of my mother’s childhood home, with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles breezing through at any moment. The plates clanging loudly as they pass from one hand to another, spoons rattling in coffee mugs on Saturday afternoons.

England, I suppose, is to blame. As always.

Colonial roots of our family tree

In pre-industrial England, extended families would toil together on large plots of land, the many children running underfoot while older generations taught the younger how to till the soil and sow seeds. It’s no surprise that the Industrial Revolution, alongside all its other disruptions, saw the extended family fragment into much smaller parts.

Younger generations no longer worked in their ancestral homes, instead travelling to work in factories. They would marry in their late twenties, raise only as many children as they could afford to feed, and lived in small homes. Their children were raised not to join any community but to continue the cycle of labour, with education given for the sole purpose of a continued return on investment.

Thus, the ‘nuclear’ family was born: a core unit of two parents and their children. This family was young and mobile, trading long-standing local roots for the ability to relocate to wherever their labour was needed most.

Homemaking and moneymaking

But there’s always a price to pay. Nuclear families are far less resilient against disruptions, on macro and micro levels. If a child gets sick, suddenly someone’s entire day (usually the mother’s) is derailed to take care of them. If a relationship breaks down, extended family members find it hard to fill any cracks.

Caring for sick family members is just the beginning of the immense burden this family structure places on women. Created when a woman’s sole role was reproductive labour, the nuclear family model, and the societies built upon it, has struggled to adapt to a world where both parents work. Women were simply expected to do more – to perform their traditional duties at home as well as playing a role (full- or part-time) in the workforce. This model has proven to be unsustainable, as most Western government’s struggle to find equitable models for childcare, parental leave and the necessary rigours of childbirth and child rearing show.

Throughout history women in extended families tended to take on the bulk of the domestic labour. Perhaps in an age of relaxed gender roles, a less restrictive family structure could lighten the load.

What we’re missing

This all goes without mentioning the classism and colonialism embedded in the nuclear family. Even in the Victorian Era, the bourgeoisie, who reaped the rewards of extended family fragmentation, were shocked by the breakdown of traditional morals. The call to protect hearth and home only grew as the working class fragmented itself to sustain the capitalist system.

In Australian history in particular, this originally descriptive term has become prescriptive — a way of ensuring immigrants and First Nations people assimilate. In my own family, I mourn the loss of my Greek heritage, which was never taught to me by my grandparents who lived hours away. Within Indigenous communities, children are still stolen from their complex and fulfilling kinship networks, and forced into unfamiliar and unsatisfying nuclear families. Another method of colonial control, the nuclear family looms large and foreboding in our social structure.

The working class has had its greatest gains when organising transcends the constructed barriers of the nuclear family. Striking workers support each other in clear rejection of the west’s radical individualism, exacerbated by the atomisation of traditional family structures. It’s clear that nuclear families serve the bourgeoisie in ensuring a fragmented and disjointed workforce, reducing an individual parent’s ability to organise and denying individuals the comfort and support of their extended family.

There are as many ways to configure a family as there are families. Being raised in a cross-cultural family has exposed me to both nuclear and extended models. Most families have the potential to be a part of a larger group. So why deny ourselves the closeness and support they offer?