The Modern Nuclear Family

Categories: Year of Wonders

The "nuclear", "isolated", or "restricted" family is not a recent phenomenon, but has existed in many cultures throughout human history. Indeed, the extended family of several generations is found mostly in relatively advanced, stable, and affluent, but not yet industrialized societies. Very primitive and very sophisticated societies seem to prefer the nuclear family model.

However, nuclear families can vary in the degree of their isolation and restrictedness. For example, before the Industrial Revolution the Western nuclear family was often embedded in a larger social unit, such as a farm or estate, an aristocratic court, or a village populated by relatives.

Many older city neighborhoods also kept kinship ties strong, and thus even very small families remained open to the community. Family visits might be frequent and extended; children might freely circulate and feel at home in several households.

On the other hand, we have seen that, beginning in the late 17th century, a trend toward "closeness" reduced the size of many larger households and changed the relationships between the remaining family members.

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They became more concerned about each other. They needed each other more. The idyllic home of the "bourgeois" became an island of serenity in the gathering storm of modernization, a haven secure from the world "out there", from aggressiveness, competition, and class warfare. We have also seen how this home sheltered women and protected the children from sexual and other temptations. Other nasty social realities were also kept safely at bay. The family income was no longer earned inside, but rather outside the house.

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The division of labor between the sexes became more pronounced as men spent more and more time away from their families as wage earners in factories, shops, and offices. Their wives became almost the only companions of their small children whose care and education was now their main responsibility. (Formerly, these tasks had been divided between mothers, grandmothers, nurses, and servants.) Virtually the only middle-class men who still worked at home were doctors and lawyers in private practice. As a rule, however, the bourgeois family saw its "head" and "breadwinner" only when he returned from his work at night. This work itself remained an abstraction to both his wife and his children.

The removal of productive work from the home into the factories had, of course, important consequences for all family members. It was no longer necessary for any of them to develop strong roots in any particular community or to become attached to a particular house. Instead, they became free to move about, to follow industrial development into new settlements, to "go after the jobs" wherever they might be. Moreover, family connections became less important, as factory work became ever more rationalized and efficient. Nepotism gave way to hiring and promotion on merit alone.

By the same token, the new worker, business man, or bureaucrat no longer had to take care of distant relatives. He now worked exclusively for his own small family and this made him more industrious. He could advance faster, since his income had to support only very few people. Thus, the individual husband and father was no longer weighed down by traditions or extensive social obligations. In addition, the education of his children and the care of his aged or sick parents began to be taken over by the state.

In view of these developments, many observers have noted a "fit" between the nuclear family and industrialism. In other words, small, intimate, and mobile families seem best suited to advance the cause of industrialization and, conversely, industrialization seems to encourage the formation of small families. After all, in modern industrial societies there is a general trend toward equality and personal independence. This, in turn, allows for the free choice of a marriage partner, place of residence, and occupation. In an extended family these freedoms are always restricted, because a "wrong" choice would affect too many relatives.

Thus, people who want to take full advantage of the new possibilities normally marry late and keep their families small. However, this rule also has its exceptions. Sometimes large families are more useful, because they can serve as a "back-up unit" by providing shelter and aid at crucial moments. This may be especially important for lower-class individuals who try to "move up", although the higher classes often also maintain extensive family ties. Thus, even in fully industrialized societies one can find many men and women who appreciate the traditional extended family or at least a large network of relatives.

Still, by and large, the closely-knit nuclear family has been dominant in Western societies for the last several generations, and thus it has shaped the general perception of what a family should be: A man and a woman marry for love, have two or three children, live alone by themselves in a "family home" or apartment, and spend all their free time together. The man leaves for work in the morning, while the woman takes care of the children and the house. She also cooks dinner and ministers to her exhausted husband when he returns at night. Once or twice a year, at Thanksgiving or Christmas, there is a brief, ceremonial get-together with other relatives at "Grandma's house", but otherwise everyone keeps his distance and minds his own business.

Obviously, according to this "ideal" model, the family members are relatively isolated from the larger kindred and, indeed, from the rest of the community. However, they are to be compensated for this isolation by a greater emotional warmth inside the nuclear circle. Father, mother, and children are to be the world for each other. A deep mutual love is supposed to keep them together and boost their morale as they compete economically with other small family units. Unfortunately, as many families have discovered, things do not always work out that way. The lack of wider contacts is often perceived as crippling, too much closeness becomes oppressive, and inescapable familiarity breeds contempt. Therefore, almost from the beginning, the modern nuclear family has also been subject to criticism.

In Victorian times, when the "cult of the home" was at its height, this criticism was expressed mainly by great bourgeois writers, such as Flaubert, Ibsen and Strindberg, who denounced the hypocrisy, shallowness, and dullness of middle-class life, and who exposed the suffering and vicious psychological infighting behind the facade of respectability. The family was further criticised on philosophical and political grounds by Friedrich Engels who tied it to the origin and maintenance of private property. Finally, Sigmund Freud provided perhaps the most serious, if indirect, accusation when he described the "happy" nuclear household as the breeding ground of neurosis and sexual perversion.

At any rate, by the late 19th century the disadvantages of the bourgeois family model had also become evident to many average men and women. The emotional hothouse atmosphere of the home began to seem stifling, and what once had been praised as a sanctuary was more and more often condemned as a prison. In the traditional extended family, children had been able to choose between several male and female adult role models; now they had only their parents. Formerly, their early education had been shaped by a number of different people and a variety of influences; now they depended entirely on their own mother and father. Actually, the latter was not even always available. Since he no longer worked inside the house, his children had no clear conception of his social role.

Instead, he became simply an abstract "provider" and disciplinarian, a mysterious and distant authority figure. He was occasionally loved, frequently feared, but rarely understood. At the same time, the wife and mother found herself more restricted than ever before. Her greatly increased maternal duties kept her confined inside her "four walls." She could venture outside only for a visit to church or to go shopping. Her world had shrunk, and her functions were narrowly circumscribed. She had to be feminine, motherly, sensitive, "proper", and in all matters of importance she had to defer to her husband.

It is understandable, therefore, that many Victorian women began to resent the nuclear family and their position in it. Thus, it was a signal of things to come when, in Ibsen's A Doll's House, the heroine Nora simply walked out on her husband and children. As time went by, more and more women demanded complete legal equality with men and the freedom to develop their full potential as human beings. They began to struggle for the right to vote and the reform of marriage and divorce laws. They also entered the work force in ever increasing numbers. Finally, during World War I, they proved their capabilities in many formerly inaccessible jobs and thereby further emancipated themselves from the home. {See also "The Emancipation of Women.")

Recent decades have seen a continuation of this trend. In many families today both husband and wife work outside the house, while the children spend much of their time in a nursery, daycare center, kindergarten, or school. As a result, the emotional ties between family members have become somewhat less constrictive, and a greater tolerance prevails. The influence of peer groups has grown, not only for the children, but also for their mothers. The traditional male and female roles are being reevaluated.

The mass media keep everyone in touch with the larger community and its continued transformation. Still, the family circle as such has not widened. Grandparents are rarely part of the household, but live on their own in "retirement villages", "senior citizen centers", or nursing homes. Unmarried relatives move to a "singles' hotel" or apartment building. Thus, the average American family remains fairly small. Indeed, there are now many "fatherless" families consisting only of a woman and her children.

The one-parent family or "core family" is usually described as an "incomplete" nuclear family, and there is a general assumption that it is socially undesirable. The lack of a "father figure" is seen as detrimental to child development, and hasty generalizations are made about "undue" female influence. In the U.S. these comments sometimes even have racist overtones, as mother-child families are frequently found in the poor black population. However, with the rising divorce rate, this family type has also become increasingly common in the white middle class. Indeed, at the present time about 1 out of 6 children in America lives with only one parent, and the number of such households may well increase in the future. After all, our welfare regulations and other government policies often have the effect of breaking up families that would otherwise stay together.

Our legisiatures have not yet learned how to test new laws through "family impact studies" which would reveal such unintended consequences in advance. Still, in the meantime it should be remembered that the one-parent family is not necessarily bad. In the years following the two World Wars, millions of women have successfully brought up their children alone, and this impressive example should caution us against superficial judgments. Moreover, upon closer examination, many "core families" are discovered to maintain close connections to wider kinship groups and thus turn out to be more open and viable than might have been supposed. Finally, we know that there are also many father-child families which have not received sufficient critical attention.

It is another question whether the nuclear family itself, even when "complete", is still the best available option. Many people today are convinced that small, single households are uneconomical and wasteful, that they are still emotionally unhealthy, that they perpetuate outmoded sterotypical sex roles, and that they produce competitive, egotistical children in an age when universal cooperation seems the only hope of mankind. It is also argued that the modern family no longer has any other function than to provide love and intimacy, and that this is by no means enough to justify its existence.

Indeed, since families have been largely relieved of their economic, educational, and protective functions by the state, sexual attachment has become the nearly exclusive basis of marriage, and this basis is notoriously weak. Frequent divorce and remarriage, however, while perhaps practical for the adults, hardly seem in the best interest of the children. Under the circumstances, it is only fitting that a number of thoughtful men and women should continue to search for more stable, "new and improved" family models.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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The Modern Nuclear Family. (2016, Nov 17). Retrieved from

The Modern Nuclear Family essay
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