David Brooks’ essay headlined “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” has generated a lot of commentary, including a week-long symposium by the Institute for Family Studies. Kay Hymowitz’s response is the latest to be published.

It’s a excellent contribution. Hymowitz admits that, since David Brooks has written eloquently about the decline of American communities and social isolation, this essay came as a shock. She also maintains that Brooks history of the family is flawed.

To whet your appetite, here is a nugget from Hymowitz’s essay:

Brooks doesn’t talk about marriage in “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” yet the inextinguishable human urge for pair bonding (and its associated childbearing) helps explain both the persistence of the nuclear family and the problems that plague its alternative communal forms. Because humans can’t seem to resist pairing up, couples who break up will likely look for new partners. The partner who moves out will be mourned and newcomers will have to be incorporated into the pre-existing family, whether it is nuclear, extended, or forged.

Children will lose crucial daily rituals and contacts—generally with their fathers—and adult networks will be short-circuited. Jealousy, anger, hurt, inconvenient attractions, doubts, and changing allegiances will be no easier to weather in forged, chosen families than they are in nuclear families. In fact, it’s a good guess it would be harder.  

Some of the alternative arrangements Brooks describes, such as in-law apartments and common areas in otherwise conventional apartment buildings, still depend on a solid base of nuclear families. Others, like co-living buildings, are temporary arrangements for singles until the right partner comes along. 

The more radical commune-like experiments he cites have a dismal historical record for some of the reasons I described above. Fruitlands, a "con-sociate" farm founded by the father of Little Women author, Louisa May Alcott, in the mid 19th century lasted seven months before succumbing to food shortages and infighting between and within the two primary families. The kibbutzim of the early Zionists were deliberately designed to free children from the hothouse of the bourgeois family, but this also died a slow death as parents demanded the domestic intimacy they were supposed to forswear. Children who were raised on the kibbutz left in droves. The large majority of the back-to-the-land communes of the 1970s were equally unsuccessful.

The disaster confronting less prosperous Americans is not the nuclear family, but the erosion of socio-economic conditions that help them sustain lasting pair bonds. To do something about the disconnection and instability infecting American life, we need to start there. 

Read the entire response.