Blowing Up the Nuclear Family

One of the hardest kernels to come out of the recently collated national census data is the fact that now less than one in four American households contains a biologically related mother, father, and child or children, or what used to be known, before it exploded, as a nuclear family. This is the kind of information that makes perenially sophomoric scribes like myself lunge forward with factoid lust. Nuclear family, begone!

Informationally jaded readers will gloss over this new nugget as we must a thousand others every day; a bomb in Jerusalem, captives in Columbia, a shootout at the local high school. Among the lurid tales of the FBI’s latest screw up, NASA’s most recent metallic gift to the universe, or the story of some southern preacher discovered en flagrante with his son’s mistress, the blasting of the nuclear family seems small news indeed.

But it is hard to believe that in the cramped neighborhoods of my youth the home that did not house an intact family was a rare exception. In my childhood, divorce was not only unusual, it was unknown. Up and down the pavement of the tenement laden avenues the family stories raged; alcoholism, infidelity, mental illness, death, all were common. But through it all there was no question among the horde of us youth screaming through the streets that the family and all its parts, for better and for worse, would be there when we stumbled in at night.

We were scandalized, a quarter century ago, by the information that 30% of minority births were to single parents, and ten percent of teen age girls would have a child. As adolescent boys we searched endlessly for such girls, but find them we could not. For us Catholic schoolboys, rebellion consisted of slyly substituting check socks for the uniform required grey.

Now, more than two thirds of all minority births, and more than a third of Caucasian births, are to single mothers. You don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar (I’m not) to predict what the percentages will be a quarter century from now.

We are left with the question: is that a bad thing? If we indeed take the time to notice that the nuclear family is disappearing, is its loss something to be mourned?

As a step-adoptive-biological father, and with deepest apologies to step-adoptive parents everywhere, I can tell you there is a difference, and it’s a difference that makes a difference. Noticing your genetic heritage in the shape of an infant’s ear or in the tenor of her cry has an odd and deeply modulating effect on the nervous system of the receiving parent. And sure enough, rates of abuse of all sorts are markedly higher among step and adoptive families, not because step or adoptive parents are bad people but rather because the ratio of stress to attachment is stretched toward discomfort, and there is no access to the cooling waters of the reservoir of biological similarity.

But the most significant implication of the census data is what’s missing; fathers. For fathers, the destruction of the nuclear family means one thing: you’re gone. Either you were never there – single parent birth – or you are escorted out the door – more than nine in ten divorces, more than eighty percent of which are filed by women, result in mother custody.

For men, the nuking of the nuclear family means choosing between never forming a lifelong bond with another adult human being, or returning in mid-life to the lone wolf status appropriate to teen age years. For all too many men the death of the nuclear family means that life is circle from adolescence to adulthood and back to adolescence again.

The myth of the happy-go-lucky fifty year old divorcee dancing merrily with his twenty five year old secretary is just that – no more than a myth. The truth is that men are creatures of habit, searching desperately for a need to fill, for whom the precipitant mid-life discharge from the nuclear family is a prescription for death. Men want attachment, and will suffer anything to preserve attachment. Don’t believe me – just go ask one.

The blowing up of the nuclear family is essentially a strike against men, a statement that in the great lifeboat game of family, men have been voted overboard. They will prowl the streets and sleep in the dumpsters, but in the present and even more so in the future, the man who grows old at his family’s hearth will be a rarity.

What is missing from the discussion about the disappearance of the nuclear family is a genuine, heartfelt examination by men, and among men, of our role in the present and future domestic scene. As we fade from the family, replaced by day care centers and serial surrogates, do we reappear somewhere else, fulfilling some other social function, or do we dematerialize like some Star Trek warrior as he is transposed to the planet Zargon? Is the man of the present and the future a being who needs to learn to enter and depart families, playing the role of father like Broadway stage actors, before moving on to the next opening night in Phoenix or Sacramento?

The role of man as serial father, and short term husband or consort, requires very different skills than the role of father as lifelong model of male identity. Such a role requires a degree of detachment and flexibility that, to say the least, has not been characteristic of the average man of the past. The man cast off from the nuclear family must develop resources of psychological autonomy that are a challenge to even most self-examining male.

The current confusion about the structure of a healthy family, recorded in the census data, reflects men’s ambivalence about male identity, and the fragility of the fathering role. Only one thing is certain; men while have to make up their minds, or learn how to swim.