David Brooks recently wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” As I read the article, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Barbara Steisand masterpiece, the film Funny Girl, in which she sings People, a song particularly applicable in this instance. (For those who have seen the movie, you’ll soon understand, and those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you remedy that.)
Brooks begins his article by painting the picture of a big family holiday celebration:
Dozens of people celebrating Thanksgiving or some other holiday around a makeshift stretch of family tables–siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts. The grandparents are telling the old family stories for the 37th time.
Brooks soon moves on from this idyllic family picture, following the storyline of a 1990 film, Avalon, by Barry Levinson.
As the movie goes along, the extended family begins to split apart. Some members move to suburbs for more privacy and space. One leaves for a job in a different state. The big blowup comes over something that seems trivial but isn’t: The eldest of the brothers [in the film] arrives late to a Thanksgiving dinner to find that the family has begun the meal without him.
Throughout the film, Brooks tells us, the extended family plays a smaller and smaller role until it’s just one family in front of a TV. He then makes the claim:
This is the story of our times–the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into even smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.
Brooks then spends the rest of the article tracing the changes to family life throughout the years. The changes resulting in a life that’s “freer for individuals and more unstable for families.” Brooks describes how Americans moved from living with “extended clans,” families with both a large the number of children and other relatives living under one roof, to “the nuclear family,” a married couple with 2.5 kids, to the disintegration of the nuclear family and the newest stage, “forged families.”
In this final stage, where we are now, people are often far from their families. These people may remain single, without spouse or children, or be single mothers, but they are drawn to live in co-housing projects, where adults live together “as members of an extended family, with separate sleeping quarters and shared communal areas.” These individuals are choosing families for themselves, forging a strong support system for themselves often only found between actual kin.
I personally find this fascinating. In my own life–first leaving my family to go to college halfway across the country and now living far away as a military wife, I’ve followed the path that many parents have laid for millennials, one of freedom and individual choice. But I also know the importance of a support system, and how friends can become like family when we’re all far away from our own extended families.
While the military may present this concept in a drastic light, I have many friends who have also chosen to be far from their families, often for the sake of careers, and without these forged families, they experience the epidemic of loneliness that has swept across our country. So many of them could use the support of a forged family, as all of us need the support of others to flourish in life.
Brooks ends his article with a word about the emerging phenomenon of forged families:
This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin.
It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.