Beyond the Nuclear Family

Beyond the Nuclear Family

We won’t end precarity with nostalgia for an era when men were the primary breadwinners.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple

This article is one in a series of arguments on the family in our summer issue.

I recently watched every episode of a show called Marriage or Mortgage. Set in Nashville, Tennessee, this Netflix production asks couples to choose between two markers of adulthood: legal union or property ownership. Their budgets will only cover one option, so decisions must be made. Almost without fail, couples choose a wedding. The first time I watched the show, I screamed at my television. Why, if you were offered a house, would you get married instead?

Marriage is a conservative institution, a way for class to reproduce itself. It is the foundation for the little platoons—family, church, and community—that Edmund Burke thought necessary for an ethical society. To conservatives, marriage will cure poverty and childhood trauma and gun violence. But they long specifically for so-called traditional families, with a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother. Our tax code reflects this desire. It is written to benefit wealthy married couples, most of which are white, as Dorothy Brown recently observed in The Whiteness of Wealth. “More than 40 percent of white married households earning between $200,001 and $1 million get tax cuts when they marry, while less than 20 percent pay a penalty,” Brown wrote. Most “mirror a historical archetype of a single wage earner with a stay-at-home spouse,” attributable to “tax policy decisions made in the first half of the twentieth century.” Policy is designed to favor certain family structures over others.

A defender of the traditional family might say, so what? Where’s the harm? But harm is inherent to coercion, and neither marriage nor the family are neutral constructions. Both are useful weapons to the right. They flatter the religious views of social conservatives, and they limit our political horizons. Some welfare proposals—like universal child care—target parents and child-rearing, and this is inescapable. Others should be broadened beyond the scope of marriage or the family. A child allowance is a good, even transformative social policy. A caregiver’s allowance, available to anyone who is responsible for a dependent, would be even better.

Even detached from legal or political regimes, marriage and the family devour outsized attention. Leftists who worry that capitalism threatens family life are correct, but only because capitalism threatens all relationships. Work, as Sarah Jaffe writes in Work Won’t Love You Back, frays friendships alongside marriages. Union-busting employers pit workers against each other, and professional advancement can do the same. And work has now seeped into every crevice in modern life, leaving little space for anything or anyone else.

In the shadow of precarity, Melinda Cooper has argued, the family might look like a sanctuary, in need of our protection. But why restrict our focus to one sliver of the problem? While left-wing defenders of the family can limit themselves to arguing for policies that help parents, I’d prefer to argue for more free time for everyone. These details matter. We won’t end precarity with nostalgia for an era when men were the primary breadwinners. The pandemic has shown how much force those old, gendered divisions still have: women performed most reproductive labor before the pandemic began, and according to surveys, their burdens only increased as children stayed home from school. Meanwhile, women of color in particular lost their jobs in the hundreds of thousands.

The past does have lessons to offer. A version of universal child care existed in the United States, a temporary product of the Second World War. But the twentieth century won’t provide answers in how best to support newly out-of-work women and their families. Nor is looking backward the only exercise available to us if we wish to spare them the necessity of working at all. We should expand our imaginations and our solutions beyond the nuclear family. This effort requires us to be selective about our allies. Religious conservatives can sound like friends, even potential partners, when they utter choice warnings about unfettered capitalism. Their goal, however, is to preserve a family structure that disempowers women and keeps old hierarchies intact. In a time of extreme economic disparity, the left needs ideas and allies—but not these ideas, and not these allies.

In October I am getting married in part because I have been pressured into it by policy. I have a medical condition, and if I’m hospitalized, I want my partner to have certain legal rights. The engagement has forced me to ask uneasy questions, like: when did I become a person who wanted to get married? For years I said I never would, and now I am looking at pictures of flowers and rings and cakes. In considering this question, I realized, the couples on Marriage or Mortgage were right. Like them, I want a wedding.

The wedding industry is hardly a radical paradise. (Mostly it’s torturous.) But a wedding is far easier than marriage to subvert. My partner and I have been together for seven years, and we have cohabited for six. We will be no more or less committed to each other after the wedding. We do not need any appliances, we have no room for a standing mixer, and we cannot in good conscience ask anyone to buy us Le Creuset cookware. What’s the point, then, of a wedding? To bind us to each other and also to everyone else.

Solidarity joins one individual to another in the same struggle and establishes a common good beyond customary divisions. And when love is so great it can last a whole lifetime, it bears marking, and it requires communal support. “Work will never love us back,” Jaffe wrote, “But other people will.” The demands of work might have pulled us hundreds of miles away from the people we love, but for one day, we will pull them back to us. Ceremonies are never just about one person, or even two; they are communal events. We want to make ourselves accountable not only to one another but to our families of choice. We want to air our obligations, for which the basis is love.

Capitalism pits all against the other, family against family and class against class. It alienates, the way a marriage can alienate a couple from everyone else, the way the traditional family alienates all those who don’t fit in it. These institutions are opposed to the reality my partner and I want to build.

When I am feeling romantic, and not just about my partner, I want to spread my happiness to others. As a definition of solidarity, this needs work, but it’s not a bad place to start. The foundation of any amicable relationship, whether it’s with a partner or a friend or a comrade, is empathy and care. It’s the antithesis of what capitalism—and the right—would force on us.

Sarah Jones is a staff writer for New York Magazine, where she covers inequality and national politics.

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