Two parents and a child and a half still the ultimate ideal? No, no. The traditional nuclear family as we know it has turned out to be a mistake. A mistake, even a disaster, a major failure. At least that was the message of an article in the magazine The Atlantic that caused quite a stir in March. In the play, which is peppered with numbers and references to research, the American writer David Brooks writes that the nuclear family is still on a pedestal, while in practice it has proved to be particularly unsuccessful as a form of cohabitation.
In short, his argument boils down to this: the nuclear family in which two parents with children live together on a kind of autonomous island is seen by many as a kind of timeless, stable ideal. Living together “as it is meant to be”. But actually, in that form, the family is a fairly recent, Western invention, says Brooks. Moreover, an invention that has only had a very short glory time and has proved far from stable.
For much of history, people have lived much more together in larger “extended families,” allowing for setbacks such as divorces and deaths and financial downsides. And that is still the norm in much of the world. But as we have become more and more individualistic in the West, the nuclear family has proven to be a fragile and unstable alliance: a house of cards that relies on two parents who have promised each other eternal allegiance and stability, but which collapses with the least setback and everyone involved. with the debris.
Does he have a point? And does that also apply to the Netherlands? Marriage, which once served as the ultimate foundation for the model family, has in any case proved to be a vulnerable investment, according to the Dutch figures. Nearly forty percent of marriages end in divorce. And then the divorces of partners who were not married are not included. Thirty percent of the children grow up in a broken family, ie: do not live with both parents.
But anyone who sees those kinds of figures as proof of “the fragmentation of the cornerstone of society” attaches more weight to that cornerstone than it actually had. That says Frans van Poppel, historian and demographer at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI): “The standard family has not been the norm for almost half a century. And in the 19th century, families also had many compositions and manifestations. Families used to fall more often. separated because people died, now more often due to divorces. The idea that family forms are now more diverse or that families are now falling apart more often than before, is not correct. It has always been the case. “
According to Van Poppel, Brooks is right about that: the standard family has actually only been standard for a very short time. In the Netherlands too. “The so-called model family, or nuclear family, had only a relatively short heyday in the first half of the twentieth century, between 1910 and 1960.” And that heyday was made possible by a number of circumstances that were unique to that particular period. Namely: the husband made (enough) money for the whole family and the woman stayed at home.
Van Poppel: “In the first half of the twentieth century, increasing prosperity made it easier for a man to find a job that could support the whole family. If the woman could stay at home to take care of the household and the children At the time, this was seen as a status symbol. With a man who made a living alone and a woman who could take care of the children at home, the nuclear family could flourish during that period. “
According to writer Jacqueline Zirkzee, author of the book Lief en Leed, history of the family the so-called heyday of the nuclear family cannot therefore be seen in isolation from the limited freedom of movement of women and the tight straitjacket in which they were forced.
“At the time, the nuclear family was considered a beacon of stability, but that stability had a price. Women were expected to stay at home, take care of the household and the children and, above all, have no other ambitions. Motherhood was seen as an almost sacred task. And were you unhappy in your marriage? Then you had to accept that. “
That changed around the 1960s. Norms surrounding marriage, relationships and sexuality changed. Individual freedom became more important. Divorce has been increasingly accepted over the years. And perhaps more importantly, women wrestled from the imperative role of housewife and educator and demanded their share in the labor market and in public life.
In short: the conditions that made possible the heyday of the nuclear family disappeared. But the ideal of the family as an autonomous, stable island remained. Even now, the nuclear family remains the blueprint against which other family forms are compared. And according to Brooks, this is exactly where the shoe pinches: by still taking the nuclear family as a starting point, we glorify an outdated ideal, which dates from a completely different time, with completely different circumstances.
Women no longer stay at home en masse to take care of the children. Families can no longer easily make ends meet from one salary. And with the individualisation of Western society, close-knit extented families have become less and less important, as a result of which families are increasingly becoming islands on their own. A combination of factors that made the pressure on the two partners within a nuclear family unprecedented, according to Brooks. Too big.
The nuclear family as an island has actually turned out to be a particularly favorable construction for people with enough money, Brooks says. They were given the freedom to live according to their own needs, to pursue their dreams and they had the means to purchase the aid that used to be extented family was offered: permanent babysitter, a cleaner, homework support, care for older relatives.
But not everyone has that luxury. Many people therefore struggle to keep the family running as an autonomous island without outside help, he says.
Publicist and policy officer Nuweira Youskine (42) agrees. Her father has an Indian background and she grew up in The Hague within an extended family, which consisted of her father, mother, two brothers, two half-sisters, a stepmother, a grandmother and an aunt. “We all lived under one roof. Not out of necessity, but because it was self-evident. In addition to obvious annoyances, this also brought many benefits. As a family, everything could be shared: the costs, but also the worries, the household chores and the enormous energy that children demand. “
Now she lives as a single mother with a son of 4. She sometimes experiences the lack of the close-knit extented family she knew from her childhood. “It is well known that the life of a single mother is challenging, both practically and mentally. But I believe that traditional core families also lack the support and community spirit that a larger extended family provides. In a family with two adults today an enormous pressure on four shoulders to combine work and children. Notwithstanding the attention and effort it takes to keep a relationship good at all. “
And according to Youskine, the lack goes beyond the practical aspect. For her it is also about a feeling of interconnectedness, respect and security. “When family members help to take care of the children, you also pass on family norms, values and traditions. In addition, a close-knit extended family also offers a lot of safety and security for children. They have role models from different generations. Always enough people to share your story, to share your concerns. “
Do we have to go back to constructions where several generations live together in a house or on the same street? From a historical perspective, Jacqueline Zirkzee does make a comment on this. “The fact that families are now more on their own has its drawbacks, but it has also brought a lot of freedom and independence: the space to go your own way, with few unwritten rules, no strict social control. Many people would not want to lose that freedom anymore. The fact that the autonomous family – which does not necessarily have to be the heterosexual nuclear family – is seen as ideal by many people, is also because many people experience it as a pleasant way of life. “
According to Karin Wissenburg (60), organizer of Café De Liefde, an event where people come together to discuss the theme of love, it is not so much that the nuclear family no longer has a right to exist, but that it would make a difference if we would put less on a pedestal:
“We expect so much from the family today,” she says. “We put all our hopes and dreams in that one vulnerable alliance. And that must bring us everything. It must be fun. We must have a good relationship with our children. A job next to it. We must have romantic love with our partner “And keep it that way. And if we don’t get it done and a divorce or family composition changes, we are disappointed. In ourselves and each other. And we feel we have failed.”
She herself was divorced ten years ago. “I was very sad and disappointed about that at the time. But in the time that followed, I have been able to investigate and experience that there are so many different ways of loving and living together. And if you do not grow old with someone or if you are not always in the If original family construction stays together, does that mean that the relationship or the family has been a failure? I don’t think so, I think it makes us much happier if we accept that relationships and the ways you want to live together can change. “
What about the children? Would they not benefit from growing up in a stable family construction? Wissenburg: “Certainly, but children mainly benefit from safety and security. And you can offer that in many ways. Moreover, children are more flexible than we think, if at least both parents continue to treat each other well and respectfully.”
According to her, the question is whether the high expectations that we have of the nuclear family for children are so favorable. “Because in a setback such as divorce or death, that one vulnerable alliance quickly disintegrates. I think that children benefit from being sheltered in a wider network of loved ones than just their own family.”
Precisely because divorces are radical for children, Wissenburg thinks that more realistic and less high expectations around the nuclear family can not hurt. “Take, for example, parents who make a commitment to at least raise their children together and then re-evaluate their relationship. Or couples with same-sex partners who co-parent with a single woman. the child is less dependent on the success or failure of the romantic love of their parents. “
And those new shapes are emerging for good reason, according to David Brooks. The fact that more and more children are growing up in composite families, patchwork families and rainbow families is a sign, according to David Brooks, that people are looking for family forms that fit the current reality. In this way, a new kind of extented families are now being created: greater connections of people who share the care for children and who together have the resilience to absorb the blows of life. Because it’s like the old saying: it takes a village to raise a child. And that has always been the case.