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  • Writer's pictureEi Ei Samai

Nuclear Family: A roadblock to democracy and an insane social experiment

I'll start by saying that exceptions do not make the pattern untrue. I'm sure there are cases where breaking away from an unhealthy multigenerational situation worked out better, just as there are cases where not wearing a seatbelt worked out better for the individual. Plus, leaving a dysfunctional home doesn't have to mean losing the village altogether.

Over time and geography, the evolutionarily nascent idea of home being two parents and the kids has meant incredible pressure on marriage, unrelenting demands on the caregivers, and narrowed connections for the kids. It's not good for democracy either.

Pressure on marriage:

Any two people who primarily, and sometimes solely, rely on each other to have all their needs met are bound to be either co-dependent, perpetually disappointed, or swing unstably between the two. Connection is essential for a healthy marriage and a non-negotiable for healthy co-parenting, yet, any two people whose relationship pattern changes from spending a ton of quality time together to barely being able to greet each other in passing with the arrival of a child will clearly experience disconnection. The absence of pinch hitters and extra hands invite chronic exhaustion and resentment, not to mention saying goodbye to romance in many cases.

Demands on caregivers:

There are books upon books and blogs upon blogs about the hilarious pains of mommyhood and daddyhood. I appreciate the realness these parents bring to the conversation and their sense of humor. I also ache for them.

Don't misread my words. There are phenomenal parents who seem to soar with their nuclear families. Lunchbox Dad is one of my personal faves. This isn't about being critical of the people who live in nuclear families; this is about the social experiment my generation has to unlearn as the only respectable option.

It saddens me that not being able to take a shower is a shared experience for so many new moms. It angers me that women disproportionately hold up or give up their careers because of lack of familial and structural support for 0-3. To exacerbate the unbalanced equation, care hired is prohibitively expensive while care by moms is outrageously undervalued.

Home care is itself a job and children add at least two jobs, if not more like a dozen part time jobs. For one-working-parent homes, the working parent is hopefully woke enough to pick up at least one of those domestic jobs and the stay-at-home parent takes the rest. Too often, it looks like dad has the paid job, then takes a part time unpaid home job like shuttling the kids while mom takes all of the remaining unpaid jobs, which add to up 2-3 FTE. Worse, mom has a paid job and still takes all the remaining jobs because the second wave of feminism, broadly speaking, made women wage earners but the men did not level up their home-sharing and co-parenting game.

The worst of the exhausted is the single parent. (Again, this is no dis to the single parents. They are some of the toughest, no-nonsense people I know. Single parents are significant contributors to the human gene pool. If I had to pick one person to survive the climate crisis with, I'd pick an immigrant single mom of color.) Single parenting in a villageless nuclear family means that parent better be a demigod with a super immune system, a heart of Mother Teresa, and patience of a fly fisherman. She, as is more often the case, also better have cloning abilities if there are multiple children.

Narrowed connections for kids:

Relationships with non-parent adults and caring neighbors are two of the 40 youth assets found by the Search Institute to reduce drug use, violence, and sexual activity while increasing school performance, civic engagement, and tolerance. (I know!) Anecdotally, seeing the diversity in personality, relationship, careers, and values amongst my ginormous family while growing up shaped me to be a more curious and well-rounded young person. I survived the shock of transplanting and the ugliness of condescension toward immigrants in this country because I had a firm sense of identity provided by my socially wealthy upbringing.

Kids need lots of people to have their backs. Villagelessness should never be.

Impact on democracy:

Aside from the negative effects the nuclear family experiment has at the family level, the conclusion I have recently come to, as a working parent of two young kids steering a professional project of increasing parent leadership in my Bay Area city, is that the nuclear family structure is antithetical to democracy.

In the context of globally tangled causes and effects, being informed to give overt, un-engineered consent takes an overwhelming amount time and mental capacity. Asking working parents (remember the extra jobs they're splitting amongst them?) to learn about education funding or the Farm Bill is like asking them to pick up a graduate degree in their spare time. Even literacy in local policy and steps toward policy change could be the straw on the already burdened parent's back.

From birth until 11 to 12, when the kids are mature enough (in some states, legal) to stay at home by themselves, if a parent is to say, attend a council meeting or participate in a voter ed workshop, the other parent, if such a feature exists for that family, has to pick up the extra shift left vacant by that civic choice.

During the last two years when I worked with pilot funds from a local government agency to increase parent leadership at schools, neighborhoods, and the city, I learned how much more difficult making these civic choices are for the parents due to alarming increases in housing insecurity, immigration related fears, and economic injustice. This at a time when we need our communities to lean in because our democracy is struggling with gerrymandered districts and unreliable checks and balances.

It's not my style to vent without offering at least some solutions so here they are:

- Admit to the foolishness of the nuclear family structure (even if it means decreased GDP from people sharing resources) and bring back extended and multigen families

- Apply the Village Concept to families with young kids and single parent homesUse technology and design thinking to make civic engagement from home or work possible (If Dancing with the Stars can do it, why not we?!)

- Make civic gatherings more family friendly (dinner, childcare, web join, etc.)


Create School Volunteer Programs that engage kin and kid-free neighbors to be the local schools' partners in addition to or as subs for working parents

Open civil debate, respectful exchange of ideas, and listening to connect are the embodiment of democratic values. I'd love to hear your ideas, your stories, your logic, your queries, especially if they differ from mine.

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