For the past half century or more, the ideal of a family in the United States was the nuclear family. Though the definition has changed somewhat to be more inclusive, it has not changed the fundamental nature of it. Ideal though it may seem, there are drawbacks to this type of family, which has likely led to its steady decline in popularity.
The image we typically have when we think of the nuclear family is a smiling husband, returning from a hard day’s work; a smiling wife, wearing her apron and holding a freshly-baked pie; and a young boy and girl, taking just enough time from their homework to look up and smile at the camera. Though this ideal became the norm in the middle of the last century, it was too restrictive of an idea to completely consume the whole nation, especially considering the wide variety of circumstances Americans encounter in life. As time progressed, its definition was slightly redefined to include any man, with any woman, with any number of children, living in a single household. Though this was more inclusive and accurate, it changed nothing about the fundamental aspects of nuclear families.
The initial appeal of a nuclear family was, to many, self-evident. The man of the household would spend a full day at work, the woman would spend a full day working on the home, and it would allow the family time in the evenings to focus on activities that would bring them closer. Also, since the U.S. was hardly concerned with agricultural concerns, many nuclear families had to be able to move when the jobs moved. A nuclear family, with the dominance seated firmly in the bread-winning male, would have relatively little financial difficultly making the move. With so much dependence on the head of the household to provide, it brought the family as a unit closer together, making it possible for them fend for themselves as a group. With a clearly-defined hierarchy and its ability to work as a single entity, it is clear why the traditional nuclear family was long considered ideal to many in the U.S. and Canada.
But all of these positive traits ignore several glaring problems. First of all, most of these advantages are dependent on the idea that the family be subservient to the male head of the household. He must also be able to consistently provide for three or more people, technically forever. In a real modern household, most families require the woman to also help with the bills by getting some kind of job outside the home. This creates the obvious problem of the wife doing double duty, working at home and working at work. Ideal though this may be to the man, there are obviously many women who do not find this appealing enough to enter (or remain, for that matter) into marriage. Aside from the androcentric problems experienced in nuclear families, the isolation of the family unit from the rest of kin makes the independence of the family unit problematically imperative. Young mothers are separated from the relatives that could help her physically and emotionally through the ordeal, leaving such care primarily up to hospital and other relatively impersonal care workers. And once the children are gone, the tradition of the nuclear lifestyle may be hard for the woman to break out of, leaving her a permanent housewife.
These serious problems with nuclear family structure, coupled with the increase of awareness about equality both in the home and in the workplace, have likely led to the steady decrease in nuclear households. Though it can be argued it is no more flawed than most other forms of families, the dynamic nature of personal relationships and other circumstances mean that more than one type of family may be needed to fulfill everyone’s needs. Though the traditional nuclear family has its flaws, in some cases it has proven to be a valuable method for establishing a family. Perhaps there is no perfect example of how all families should be, but rather, that there are several examples of families that may be perfect for some people.