The Nuclear Family Is Not Enough

Under the coronavirus lockdown, our ideal of the independent family unit is starting to crack.

A father holds his child while the mother looks at them across the child's room.
AleksandarNakic/E+ via Getty Images Plus

I’m a big fan of those blunt, kind books from the 1980s, by psychologist Louise Bates Ames, that give age-specific advice for each year of a child’s life. In her book about 3-year-olds, Ames writes that the primary caregiver of such a child must consider handing her child off to others occasionally if she hopes to extricate herself from the epic power struggles developmentally appropriate to the age. “No mother of a child of this age should hesitate to place the burdens of daily routines on the shoulders of a sitter,” Ames counsels.

I have thought of this passage about 498 times during the past week, as my own 3-year-old wails and writhes on the floor upon being told it’s time to wash her hands—again. By all reports, at preschool (sigh … preschool), she was perfectly fine at following instructions. Here, in our coronavirus isolation pod, there’s only my husband and myself—a nuclear family, like we’ve never been before. And folks, it’s not good. In the United States, we idealize the households of the imagined past, like the Ingalls family in Little House on the Prairie—Ma, Pa, and the girls, safe in a sod cabin, with only the wolves to fear. If this situation teaches us anything, it should be that the nuclear family is not enough.

Coronavirus isolation, Anne Helen Petersen wrote in a piece for BuzzFeed surveying desperate parents about their experiences, “has made everything that was once simple feel difficult, and everything that was already difficult feel impossible.” Kids aren’t sleeping well; they’re anxious; the older ones are not on board with homeschooling, and the younger ones aren’t too sure about “self-entertaining” while parents work their normal hours. But perhaps the hardest part is the utter aloneness parents feel in facing all these challenges. “It’s blowing my mind,” writer Kathryn Jezer-Morton observed on Twitter on Sunday, “that the only people who will be caring for our kids for at least the next 2 months are my husband and me. Not a scrap of grand parental care. Not even our friend Susie. Friggin no one but us. Deeply unnatural.”

I’ve been speaking with friends and with members of the Slate Parenting Facebook group, and I see that there are actually some silver linings to be found in this family isolation situation. (We are still hopeful. It’s only been a little more than a week!) Friends report that, without the struggle of getting kids out of the house to preschool and school and dance lessons and soccer, their relationships have taken on a mellower tone. (“No commute time, not having to pack and unpack so many things every day, no pumping at work [!],” one Slate Parenting member ticked off her silver linings.) If (if!) you still have a job, and can work at home for employers who understand that you won’t be as available as you once were, there may be upsides—especially on the weekend, when you’re not striving to get work done and teach your children math at the same time.

And, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some households have seen an exacerbation in the already statistically imbalanced gendered division of domestic labor (and there are lots of fears for the way the pandemic may worsen gender inequities over time), I’ve also heard from plenty of people whose male partners, and older children, are doing more now than they did before. Perhaps because the situation is so dire, and families cannot escape each other, some women have been able to have division-of-labor conversations they never had before. “Things are actually better in terms of division of labor, because now we are both working from home and so we had to actually talk about how it was going to work juggling the kids and work,” one Slate Parenting member wrote. “We came up with a plan. Also, I worked from home 2 days a week before this and watched the baby, and now he sees how impossible it is.” “We call it the ‘Official Coronavirus Protocol,’ ” another Slate Parenting member said of her efforts to get newly home kids to do chores. “Everyone does their own laundry and dishes, and cleans up after their own cooking. My sons are 12 and 16, so this was loooong overdue.”

The bad news is that our houses feel tinier and tinier. We obviously miss day care, and preschool, and school. That’s a given. But we are all really feeling the lack of contact with whatever makeshift villages we had cobbled together to serve as pressure relief valves for our little family units. “We used to plan a lot of our days around ‘Sign the kids out of preschool and then hang in the school yard for 30–60 minutes while the kids ride bikes in the parking lot or run in the field and have actual conversations,’ or ‘Meet at the park/museum/play space with several other families and drink coffee and laugh while the kids run amok,’ ” a Slate Parenting member said. “I miss my friends, but mostly I miss the collective eye we had on all the kids.” My own friends text about the epic cookouts we’ll certainly have once “all this is over,” and the idea of seeing our children playing together brings me to tears.

We miss the usual spots. If you don’t have a child, you may not realize it, but having a kid opens up your town—the pool, the library, the little indoor playground area in the mall (closed, closed, closed). Even boring errands are a way for curious kids to have interactions and get input beyond what’s in your living room. (“I can deal with most of the losses from social distancing but going to the grocery store with the 2yo is part of our weekly routine,” wrote historian Joseph Adelman on Twitter on Sunday. “Today she earnestly asked ‘when can we go to Wegmans again?’ and it just about broke me.”) Bigger towns have kids’ museums and play spaces (closed, closed); here in our smaller city, we used to build weekend mornings around going to the feed store or Lowe’s (not safe, not safe), where our kid could ride in the cart and see the baby chickens.

“I felt very isolated when I first had my son. It took time but I built a really nice little village of other new moms,” a Slate Parenting member wrote. “We’d get together semi/regularly. I would also take my son to the pool, on playdates, to activities around town, out for stroller runs (with and without others), to my WW meetings (where he had all sorts of admirers and loved it), even just to the store. That’s what kept me sane all year.” Like everyone, this mom of a 1-year-old, who had been on maternity leave and was just about to go back to work when the news hit, is just now figuring out how much this is going to hurt: “It’s been less than a week and I can see how not being able to connect face to face with people other than my husband and baby is already affecting my mental health.”

Oh, boy, do we miss grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. One Slate Parenting member, used to spending every Sunday with her in-laws, only realized how much of a break that had been from their daily grind of parenting, working, and parenting when it became clear that they’d have to cancel for the time being out of health concerns. “Once I learned this was the new reality, I completely lost it,” she wrote. Some have parents or other family members living with them. Those might seem to be the lucky ones, but a friend whose octogenarian parents are with her for the indefinite future, and who appreciates the help, added: “It also means I’m twice as paranoid about exposure. It’s not good if one of us gets it, but it’s a 50-50 death sentence if one of my parents get it. And it’d be really hard trying to manage kids, and also quarantine an adult and take care of them.”

We miss all that help, yes, but we also miss helping. A friend who came to bounce my own daughter to sleep for a few blessed hours when she was a couple weeks old—a good deed I will never forget—made me cry by pointing out that she can’t do that for another friend, whose child is now 17 days old. “I met the baby for the first time over Zoom yesterday,” she wrote in an email. I can’t bring people food (food from someone else’s kitchen? In March 2020?) and I can’t relieve the single mom on my street by taking her son for a couple of hours. If you’re around kids, you are around their bodies—poop, snot, puke, toddler punches to the nose—and other bodies are now off-limits.

The irony of the American nuclear family ideal, so near and dear to advertisers and politicians, is that having a kid usually teaches you that it’s not real. The fantasy of family independence—this idea that home and hearth is its own pure little nation—falls apart quickly as soon as you see how naturally kids embrace the world around them. The clincher is how much you, the parent, need that outside world of caregivers and peers and educators and entertainers to help you survive the day. If anyone still thinks that one house is enough, this experience should certainly be the cure.