Research debunks myth of self-reliant nuclear family

Despite the long-cherished belief that the nuclear family is independent and self-sustaining, most families with working parents depend on a network of care to manage work and family demands, according to research by Brandeis University sociologist Karen Hansen. More than half of all U.S. households with young children have two employed parents.

Closing the “care gap” in families with young and school-aged children typically means relying on a network of friends, paid caregivers and extended kin. This reality clashes with the ideology of family independence, a defining American value. Hansen’s research suggests, however, that the interdependence of today’s families is a source of positive relationships and unique bonds that the nuclear family alone cannot provide.

“The historical idea of the nuclear family, which is deeply rooted in our culture, is linked to our sense of individualism and autonomy,” explains Hansen, whose study of working parents and the networks of caregiving they develop forms the basis of a new book, Not-So-Nuclear Families: Class, Gender and Networks of Care.

In her book, which profiles four networks in depth, Hansen found that the middle class and professional middle class parents, upper class and working class families all rely on networks to provide childcare. The professional middle class parents, however, were more vulnerable to job pressures than either the upper or working class parents, leading them to express a higher level of anxiety about their patchwork childcare arrangements. “We should support and promote these kinds of relationships, which are found among all classes and races,” said Hansen. Ironically, while recent U.S. policy has focused on improving the lives of American youth by strengthening the nuclear family, improvement is more likely to be found through social policies that leverage and expand the networks already being used by millions of families, Hansen asserts.