The Age of the Post-Nuclear Family
A Collection Welcome Note
When I was researching my memoir, In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood. (Basic Books, 2009), which is about the rising age of motherhood and all the new choices women and men are making when it comes to building family, I came across a surprising fact via the American Census. The nuclear family, which is defined as a married man and woman living with biological children, and has come to represent the status quo, is now less than 25 percent of the nation’s families.
According to a 2001 article in the New York Times, when anthropologist George Murdoch first coined the term in 1949, he said it was “the type of family recognized to the exclusion of all others.” So it’s understandable why living in this style has come to represent moral health and social stability. It is also why anyone who is not living in this way has traditionally felt like, and been looked at, as an outsider. The new reality is that nuclear families are the minority, and the majority is now dominated by other configurations. The number of people living alone is actually greater than the number of nuclear families.
Murdoch’s nuclear family has now been replaced by new combinations that include two mothers and two fathers, loving step parents, committed non-married couples, single dads, and financially stable “Single Mothers by Choice” whose children are created with sperm donors or through co-parenting agreements. My good friend Abby Ellin wrote an article for the New York Times in 2012 about people who are meeting on-line through matchmaking websites with names like Modafamily.com and myalternativefamily.com. She called them “a new breed of online daters, looking not for love but rather a partner with whom to build a decidedly non-nuclear family.”
I have a single mom friend, Robin Beers, who is raising her son with two gay men, a couple. The child calls them Papa and Dada. Beers coined the new family configuration “Open Source Family,” and has even given a presentation on the concept.
“Open Source companies are focused on sharing information and are more collaborative,” she said. “I decided to apply the idea to families and baby-making.” The idea is that families are no longer the traditional closed fiefdom of the nuclear family connected through biology, but rather an open community with a variety of emotional and biological connections that holds them together.
The reasons for this change are women’s increased economic power, the postponing of marriage and childbearing, the increased use of reproductive technologies, and gay marriage, and they don’t represent the downfall of the American family unless your perspective is that of the Moral Majority. Instead, they point to an increasingly open source movement of family arrangements. What this does mean, however, is that we must constantly look at and evaluate the changing social norms and shapes of these families in order that laws and social policies evolve with the times.
This is the purpose of this collection, to offer voices that represent the new majority of families. In the coming months, you’ll be hearing from Single Moms By Choice; donor conceived children; single women empowered as savvy aunties or by egg freezing technology; the child-free; adoptive families; older mothers using all types of advanced reproductive technologies from surrogates to donor eggs to create their families; queer parents;and step parents. I’ll be contributing posts about my choice to become a single mother as well as news about new fertility technologies. These are the new faces of the 21st Century family and not one of them can be recognized to the exclusion of all others.