American identity, family life

The nuclear family (alone) option.

This is an interesting bit of history on the roots of the nuclear family. Namely, that the notion was mostly 1) British, and 2) marked by many of the same characteristics that mark family formation in the United States today, hundreds of years after the era used as the springboard for the piece.

Not so long ago, family scholars labored under the assumption, half-Marxist, half-“functionalist,” that before the Industrial Revolution, the extended family was the norm in the Western world. There was more than a little romanticism associated with this view: extended families were imagined to have lived in warm, cohesive rural communities where men and women worked together on farms or in small cottage industries. That way of life, went the thinking, ended when industrialization wrenched rural folk away from their cottages and villages into the teeming, anonymous city, sent men into the factories, and consigned women to domestic drudgery. Worse, by upending the household economy, the Industrial Revolution seriously weakened the family. The nuclear family, it was believed, was evidence of family decline.

The nuclear family was the dominant arrangement in England stretching back to the thirteenth century.

But by the second half of the twentieth century, one by one these assumptions were overturned. First to go was the alleged prevalence of the extended family. Combing through English parish records and other demographic sources, historians like Peter Laslett and Alan MacFarlane discovered that the nuclear family—a mother, father and child(ren) in a “simple house,” as Laslett put it—was the dominant arrangement in England stretching back to the thirteenth century.

Rather than remaining in or marrying into the family home, as was the case in Southern Europe and many parts of Asia and the Middle East, young couples in England were expected to establish their own household. That meant that men and women married later than in other parts of the world, only after they had saved enough money to set up an independent home. By the time they were ready to tie the knot, their own parents were often deceased, making multi-generational households a relative rarity.

As I stop to think about it  for just 2 minutes (I just read the piece),  it makes perfect sense really.  Given that the U.S. was born of British heritage, it should be expected that our family dynamics mirror this.

I am beginning to wonder, however,  if I am too naive. Despite my oft-professed realism, I actually believe there’s a reasonable and sane midpoint. One where the overwhelming importance of the two married parents, father-led home is acknowledged as best for children and society, but which also acknowledges that such an arrangement thrives with  a little help from a village.

Ideally, that village would be extended family, but experience has taught many people that in the absence of shared values with some blood kin, you have to take support where you can get it. Thankfully if we’re fortunate, Christianity can open the door to heart connections with those of like precious faith onto whom we can lean from time to time when we need it.

Having come from a community where historically the extended family has tried -with minimal success to speak of if any- to fill in the gaps of the broken family nucleus with extended family support, it is my belief that if you have to choose one or the other, then the nuclear fmaily is the only viable way to go.

(h/t): Maea, via TPC




16 thoughts on “The nuclear family (alone) option.”

  1. I have to wonder whether we mix things up with the separation of parents from children and grandchildren. Did young couples in Merrie Olde England create their own households because they absolutely wanted to, or was it because their parents were living and they had to? If Mom and Dad are still alive, there is no sense in living in the same small cottage with them, especially when you’re more or less a serf renting a small allotment of land from the feudal lord. Is it their culture to wait that way, or did they simply have to scout around for a new plot of land to rent?

    Also worth noting is that the Black Death came through England starting in 1348, presumably killing the young and old disproportionately. So are church records from that time really showing that people married older, or are they showing that previously married people were often widowed (the Plague typically killed 1/3 people, do the math), remarried, and then started having kids again? And then being robust vs. the plague and smallpox, were Englishmen then longer lived?

    I’m thinking that the answer to all this involves the relative peace England enjoyed from the wars that ravaged the continent, the plague, the feudal system in England, and a fair amount more.


  2. One thing I know for sure Bike (as I have done the research on it) is that people marrying at 18 were a 1950s fluke no matter where you lived and what era.

    It speaks to the relative success (if you will) of Catholic teaching on sexual asceticism that people generally didn’t rush headlong into marriage so they could get some.

    That said, your points are worth exploring and perhaps when I am not neck deep in reading my kids’ lit class books, I will read the book by the author cited in the piece.

    I suspect though, that they are on to something given the way things were done by the colonists when they arrived in America in 1620. It too was much like what this guy describes from old English life.

    Like I said, the 1950s were a blip and anomalous. But because post-WWII culture is so indelibly etched on our American consciousness that we can’t imagine that perhaps it isn’t representative of historical norms’


  3. Agreed that there’s something different going on–I would just note that there are probably a lot of factors there. Another one I missed; if everybody in your culture is going to die by age 40, you’re going to wait until age 27 to get married….why?

    That noted, I’ve seen a lot of indicators, from Bede to the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, that speak to the reality that the Catholic Church in England did indeed promote virginity over marriage, and even at times virginity in marriage. I’m guessing a lot of people suffered needlessly due to this, and I’ve got the hunch that Chaucer was probably parodying and satirizing this, as the Wife of Bath shows scriptural knowledge far in excess of the clerical characters in the story.


  4. Here’s the thing, Bike.

    I am in no way advocating that late marriage is good. Only noting that it was pretty much the norm for men (not women) to marry in their later 20’s to early 20-something brides in Old England. VERY old England. And that it is not particularly surprising that this trned was followed in the U.S. as well as the fact that the sharp dip in the age of marriage in the late 40’s through early 50s was caused by the ame thing that regulated the slightly higher ages of marriage partners in other eras: Economincs.

    As for the sex part, I of ALL people would NEVER (nay, COULD never) be accused of embracing asceticism in marriage nor using it as a reason to delay marriage. I am simply pointing out that the teaching (which was dominant since the Catholic church was the dominant church in the 14th Century) probably kept people from wiggin out if they couldn’t get married at puberty because broke. That, and the severe and starkly differnt nature of the the dominant culture.

    I don’t think people who died at 40 were purposely marrying at 27. I think men -like I said- were marrying in mid to late 20s becaues that’s when they hd the money to do so.

    My point overall was simply that (and it’s becoming more nad more obvious to me) that what we who lean old fashined right tend to think was normal life in days long ago really wasn’t.

    And while we should ABSOLUTELY distinguish ourselves from the surrounding degenerate culture, we also needn’t make up stories about how much better they were nor try and fashion our lives as if we were born during that era.

    We can be faithful, upright, 21st Century Christians and even make it 25 years wthout having sex. It’s been done before!

    I admit though that it is harder now.


  5. Like I said, the 1950s were a blip and anomalous. But because post-WWII culture is so indelibly etched on our American consciousness that we can’t imagine that perhaps it isn’t representative of historical norms

    You’re going to get a lot of people who consider the 1950’s a better time, if not the best time evah. The nuclear family was common across all communities, and that’s a big deal. I came across this little gem. Ignore the infighting about gender wars and most of the race stuff, but you’ll see a lot of people think there was more stability and family life. I made a couple of posts and left it with “by their fruits they shall be known.” It does go without saying.

    We can be faithful, upright, 21st Century Christians and even make it 25 years without having sex. It’s been done before!

    Yes– it has and it still does. The problem, as I see it now through an older lens, is there’s too much emphasis on single culture. It’s pervasive in every Christian denomination. Single people constantly fight and clamor to get recognized, and when they finally do, they’re left wondering why they’re still single pushing age 30 (sigh). I’m not saying single people should be pushed into marriage before they meet someone they want to marry, or before they’re ready (financially, mentally, etc.). My point is, we as laypeople need to make it a point to stress family life of all kinds, and incorporate singles into family life and community. Not always send them off to do their “own” thing, or create events or situations that isolate them, but to provide them with the exposure and experience to be included. IMO, the super-emphasis on the nuclear family creates isolation and polarization, but I’m viewing these things from a bicultural perspective.


  6. I agree that treating single adults as if they have *no* family is part of the problem.

    One of our young adult daughters recently had to correct a friend on this very issue. She had planned time to help my husbaand with something and the friend didn’t’t understand why she wouldn’t break their plans to do something more “fun”. After all, she has “no family obligations”. My daughter had to explain to this person that yes, she does have obligations and is still a part of a family. People genuinely don’t get it.

    As for the 50s you are 100% correct. The “fruit” (see the 60s and 70s) speaks for itself.


  7. I’ve noticed people think it’s odd if a young single person says that they participate in family traditions, go to regular family dinners, etc. This concept should’ve never died.


  8. The longer I observe our culture (including our religious culture), I find that people are, in a word, unhinged by extremes.

    For instance, why is it hard to imagine a young adult who is both 1)living a full life and 2)engaged in the life of their family?

    Why is it hard to imagine a wife who is 1) fully committed to and engaged in her primary directive to be homeward focused and 2) has interests and friends and a moderate social life?

    Why is it hard to imagine a wman who is 1) submitted to her husband as unto the Lord and 2) not being abused, oppressed or stifled? Some of us view submission as a gracious and overwhelming gift.

    Why is it hard to imagine parents who 1) take excellent care of their children, but 2) avail themselves of help on occasion from extended family or trusted friends.

    Why can’t we imagine a single woman being 1) ready, willing, and even eager to marry at a young age while 2) chastely enjoying life and finding contentment in the state wihich she currently finds herself?

    The village isn’t supposed to be ultimately responsible for raising the child, but no man is an island and a good village is nice to have around.

    My new mntra is: get some friends!


  9. People like extremes because they’re more “exciting.” Yeah, it sounds dumb, doesn’t it? But it’s what people choose to pay attention to, and any ideas about balance are ignored.

    The last part about a single woman being content in her current season and desiring marriage is a mind-boggler for a reason. It’s because we as a culture of Christians haven’t distinguished between “all about me singleton” and “content.” You’ve countered this kind by stressing that it’s okay for them to enjoy the current season, but be open and mindful about the marriage opportunity when it comes. Christian culture pretends that last part isn’t possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. . It’s because we as a culture of Christians haven’t distinguished between “all about me singleton” and “content.” You’ve countered this kind by stressing that it’s okay for them to enjoy the current season, but be open and mindful about the marriage opportunity when it comes.

    I was a 22-year-old bride who has had a great marriage and is highly in favor of a young couple starting out very young and building a life together rather than trying to merge two established lives.

    We have no problem with, and would have had NO problem with, our daughters marrying at age 20 for instance, and finishing college as wives, etc.

    It just didn’t work out that way and no matter how much anyone may want a certain thing, none of us can MAKE anything happen on our preferred time table. We can however, trust in God, believe that He is in control, and that if we have the right heart and an open mind and attitude (as well as doing the natural things to make ourselves suitable, it’ll happen according to His will.

    I am at times kind of grateful that the pressure *out here* isn’t as great on my girls because they already do feel the pressure of having lived their entire lives with a mom and dad who kind of just jumped in at young ages, took a leap of faith, and have always been very in sync and in love.

    If they were getting pressured from the outside world, it would be very hard. Now I suspect when they hit 25, they might start to feel external heat, but that’s still a few years away and a lot can happen in 3 years.


  11. One more fun thought about the fifties; in a world where “my tribe” (fundamental Baptists) often seems to recycle Victorian, Edwardian, or 1950s mores as if they were Scripture (sigh), it’s worth remembering that, historically speaking, Beaver Cleaver was at Woodstock.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Stupid fridge repair guy is running late (been without main fridge for over a week so no rescheduling), and also no eclipse viewing party for us. Making the cereal box viewer now. Le sigh…


  13. Actually, the point is not specifically that Beaver Cleaver (of course a fictional character) was there, but rather that kids who grew up with that worldview realized how vacuous it is, and they were at Woodstock–sorry about the vagueness. If you read 1950s National Geographics, there are times when you’ll think the Gospel was that we ought to go to Church because the Godless Commies could not. Scariest thing is that a lot of otherwise unbelieving people not only made it into the pews, but also onto deacon/trustee boards. It did a huge amount of damage in the ensuing decades.


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