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Are nuclear families really the norm?

And what makes a family home a family home?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Are nuclear families really the norm?

And what makes a family home a family home?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

5 min read

Other than developments specifically designed for retirees, students and/or ‘young professionals’, the homes on estates, and even in apartment blocks, are designed as ‘family homes’, and estates are marketed as places in which families can thrive. But what, exactly, is a family? First let’s look at those ‘family homes’.

What is a family home?

Ask any estate agent, and chances are they’ll reply that a family home is a minimum two-bed, two-bath home with a kitchen and dining room – and possibly a den/playroom/study. A ‘real’ family home, though, is likely to have at least three bedrooms, and two bathrooms, one en-suite.


Because a ‘real’ family consists of Mom, Dad, Boetie and Sisi (MDBS). Of course, chance may leave Mom and Dad with one, three or four children, or two of the same gender, but the MDBS is the ‘perfect’ – or, more accurately, stereotypical – nuclear family. And, of course, the unwritten part of the ideal MDBS is that Boetie and Sisi are the biological children of both parents, who are married. (To each other!)

Why the en-suite bathroom? Because Mom and Dad need – or possibly deserve – a ‘master’ bedroom with its own private en-suite bathroom. Seriously, try selling a family home with only one bathroom. This is not the 1960s, you know. And the term ‘master bedroom’ or – increasingly more common – ‘master suite’? Really? Master? What does that tell us about the expectations the developer, architect and agent have about the hierarchical structure of the families that are going to inhabit these homes with their ‘master suites’?

What’s interesting about all this is that the concept of the ‘family home’ evolved pretty much at the same time as the concept of the nuclear family. Which doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with either, it just means that this family structure is not a biological given. It’s just one form out of many that families can take – but it’s the one we have been brought up to consider ‘normal’ – or even ‘natural’.

Is the nuclear family the natural family?

If the 1960s animated American TV sitcom, The Flintstones, is anything to go by, yes. The flintstones, Wilma and Fred, live with their infant daughter and pets, in their own cave, and their next-door neighbours – also in their own cave – are an unrelated married couple trying for a child. No grandparents, cousins, maiden aunts or eccentric uncles. Spoiler alert: the neighbours do eventually get a child – by ‘adoption’ – because otherwise they would not be a ‘proper’ family. So, if even Stone Age families were nuclear, it’s obviously ‘natural’.

Now clearly, an animated sitcom can in no way be considered an authority, but its efficacy as a transmitter of cultural norms cannot be underrated. Countless Boomers grew up watching the programme in the USA and, here in South Africa, we read about Fred and Wilma in ‘the funnies’ back when we bought newspapers every day. And The Flintstones was just one of the many TV shows, cartoon strips, movies and books that portrayed ‘normal’ families. And, interestingly, almost any movie or TV show in the second half of the 20th century that did actually portray anything resembling an extended family, portrayed it as a problem – the despised mother-in-law, the deadbeat uncle scrounging on his more successful sibling. Even the more ‘successful’ extended families, like the Ewings from Dallas, with three generations, and three married couples, living in the same house were more than a bit dodgy. Or the Forresters from The Bold and the Beautiful – good luck trying to work out that family structure without DNA testing. So, yes, the nuclear family might not be the ‘natural’ family, but for anyone brought up in the dominant culture of the late 20th century, it is the norm. So what? The nuclear family might not be natural, but it is the best, right?

Not for cartoon animals it isn’t

An interesting exception that has spawned numerous postgraduate degrees in sociology and media studies is the Disney cartoons. The Mouses (Mickey and Minnie) are not married and have no children – although Mickey does have (no doubt immaculately conceived) nephews, and the Ducks (Donald and parentless nephews) are also not a ‘normal’ nuclear family, but – interesting as it is – that’s a whole nuther story.

Family structure in the 21st century

So much has changed since the mid-20th century. Single mothers are celebrated, rather than whispered about as ‘ruined women’, and gay men, gay women and anyone in between are – in most places – at least accepted if not embraced. Surrogate motherhood is not science fiction; adoption is considered by many to be a more ethical option than bringing more children into a world with so many orphans; and no-one raises an eyebrow to children with two mothers, two fathers, or any other combination. Polyamory is far more prevalent than people realise; blended families can create all manner of interesting permutations; and it’s not unusual for single parents to cohabit in a non-romantic way to share expenses and chores, and to offer their children some of the advantages of having siblings.

Is the nuclear family the right family?

Interestingly, while many churches celebrate and advocate for the nuclear family, a critical reading of the Bible will not find many examples of MDBS families. That is because – until the 20th century – the nuclear family, as we know it, was not the norm. Hunter-gatherers lived in clans of related adults, their children and their grandchildren; and agricultural societies depended on extended families to bring in the harvest, look after the herds and, generally, keep the place going. In these societies, family was essential to production and survival, hence the obligation to have children – lots of them.

But now production is divorced from family and land; we ‘go out’ to work in order to support our homes and families. It’s all been turned on its head. So, now, rather than Granny being an essential child minder and pair of hands in the kitchen, or Grandpa being depended upon for his great tracking ability or green fingers, they are no longer ‘needed’ and, in some cases, are considered to be decidedly surplus to requirements.

The ghettoising of old age

So, in the mid-20th century – just about when the nuclear family was ascending the pedestal on which it still resides, and single-family homes were spreading like a rash across the landscape – Gramps and Grandma were ‘shipped off’ to old-age homes to kill time until they died. While active abuse was rare, these ‘ghettoes for greybeards’ were dull, stultifying places that tended to accelerate that slippery slide to the grave. But, happily, this has changed significantly, and 21st-century retirement estates are life-affirming places where people can live fulfilling lives – even if they do sport grey hair. However, most developers are now moving towards multi-generational estates, perhaps illustrating that the short-lived experiment in generational apartheid was not a success.

So, what then is a family home?

If we acknowledge (and we really should) that the MDBS family is not the only normal, and is not even really the usual, how do we plan what kinds of houses to build? There is already a move towards micro-living with shared communal spaces – marketed largely to students and/or young professionals. But perhaps these would also be great spaces for single, over-60 empty-nesters who want independence and downsizing coupled with occasional access to wider spaces – and people with different life experiences. Or even families, or half families. And perhaps ‘family homes’ don’t need ‘master suites’ because modern families are not necessarily structured as an MDBS hierarchy.

The bottom line here is that – sorry – I don’t have a nice, convenient answer to this conundrum, and I don’t think anyone does. But what I do know is that any savvy investor who wants to stay ahead of the curve should consider a range of alternatives, or a way of structuring flexible living spaces that can easily accommodate a range of non-hetero-normative family structures.

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