The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work

03/01/2012 § Leave a comment

‘Sometimes the things that look the hardest have the simplest answers,’ Nina Power writes towards the end of her chapbook, One Dimensional Woman. She then hands over to Toni Morrison speaking to Time magazine in 1989. On single-parent households: ‘Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community … The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it I don’t know.’ On ‘unwed teenage pregnancies’: ‘Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after 40, when the income can … The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about.’ On how to break the ‘cycle of poverty’, given that ‘you can’t just hand out money’: ‘Why not? Everybody [else] gets everything handed to them … I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s the shared bounty of class.’

And this, surely, is only the start. It’s obvious – now Power-Morrison has said it – that any politics worth having has to start with the nuclear family: its impossibility, its wastefulness, its historical contingency. Children are the messages a family, a society, a culture, a civilisation, sends into the future, and yet every day there comes more evidence that child-rearing as currently practised among the people with all the choices doesn’t seem to be working out. They overeat, our little messages, they starve themselves, they adore themselves when they’re not indulging in self-harm. They don’t want to study medicine or train as teachers when they can just be ‘in the media’. And this obviousness starts little fires sparking backwards across the decades. There’s Selma James and the strange marginalisation of her ideas, not to mention the way the whole family-in-a-house imago goes unchallenged, even by feminists, lesbian and gay couples, and single-parent campaigners, let alone in government, advertising, the popular media etc.

This has not always been the case. A critique of the tight-knit nuclear family as a breeding-ground of consumerism, neurosis, misery in general, was central to feminism in the 1970s. This is Adrienne Rich on ‘the institution of motherhood’ in Of Woman Born (1976): ‘It creates the dangerous schism between “public” and “private” life; it calcifies human choices and potentialities. It has alienated women from our bodies by incarcerating us in them.’ ‘There is much to suggest,’ she wrote, ‘that the male mind has always been haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself, the son’s constant effort to assimilate, compensate for, or deny the fact.’

Jenny Turner in the LRB. Read it; it’s one of the best pieces on feminism I’ve read in some time.


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