How Understanding Nuclear Family Ideals Gives Us Valuable Insight into the Communities We Need When Living With a Chronic Illness

Black and white photo from the late 50s of a mother with her daughter sitting on her lap ready to blow out candles on a birthday cake. A young boy is sitting next to the mother.
Family photo from 1958 of my mother celebrating her 4th birthday, sitting on her mother’s lap. Her younger brother, Ron, is seated next to them.

For a few weeks I’ve been racking my brain looking for the phrase so many fancy news articles use to describe what has become central to the American Dream.

Today, I stumbled across an article on the Atlantic discussing nuclear families. The article is incredibly insightful on the history and development of nuclear families and the way family dynamics have shifted throughout the course of history.

Finally I had the word at the tip of my fingers. nuclear.

For a brief background, the nuclear family is what we think of the average American household – two parents and two and a half kids. Probably a white picket fence thrown in there as well. In actuality, The Atlantic article points out that this uniquely successful family dynamic existed primarily in the 50s and 60s and has had a failing trend due to stagnant wages for men, the feminist movement giving way to more women entering the workforce, and the sexual revolution.

The key thing I want to dig into is the way family – extended family and communal families – have become less important in society and the impact that has on someone in my situation.

You see, for centuries, most households were multi-generational dwellings. In many non-western societies, communities were truly communal and the roles that family members of all ages play was critical to the success of the community.

The introduction of the nuclear family came as families became more spread out and people had more individualistic goals and tendencies. Families who had children set them up on the path to go off into the world and create a life of their own, rather than continuing to contribute to say the success of a family business.

Two critical differences come with children and the elderly. Children go off to college or join the workforce and lead lives of their own, separate from their parents, often living thousands of miles away. Aging parents and grandparents are placed in community homes, rather than growing old in the family home with their children caring for them.

In recent years, according to the article, more people buying homes are interested in real estate that can accommodate space for their aging parents or their children who will be moving home.

This is what particularly sparked my interest.

Until I was 20, I was the product of a rather successful nuclear home. I was placed on the path to go out on my own, create my own success and career, and have the potential to start a nuclear family of my own. Regardless of not wanting said picturesque lifestyle, it was an option.

However, with the worsening of my chronic condition leading to disability, the nuclear family dynamic dissipated. I had no option but to move back in with my parents. Although I’m currently in my own space, in a short month, I will be moving across the country to look for a new home – one within my parents home, but just separate enough to provide some sense of independence. Myself and my parents are now looking for the exact real-estate type of search that is becoming more popular and shying away from the “norm.”

To my surprise, almost every migraine advocate I have encountered over the years has a story almost identical to mine in this sense.

At an age where we should be enjoying our independence and building lives for ourselves, our health has forced us to give it all up and move home. Whether we move back to our hometown so that family and friends are closer to help out, or into our high school bedrooms to spend months in the dark or prepping for surgeries, the theme of returning home is huge. We have no other options and although we’re of the fortunate few who have families able to take us back in, the act of moving home remains drenched in shame.

This shame and overbearing sense of failure comes from the way society still embraces what a family unit should look like. Even I’m guilty of holding less than positive viewpoints of a lazy millennial who is still living in his parent’s basement.

Most of western society is made up of everything but nuclear families. This is seemingly reserved for white, upper middle class and wealthy families. However, stories of how we can break free, stand on our own two feet and have a shot at the illustrious nuclear family is the dominant form of marketing around us. It sets up unrealistic expectations of life focusing on this ideal that hasn’t existed for half a century.

We’re left with an uncomfortable emotional battle that I’ve struggled to put into words in regards to living arrangements and what our health takes away from us.

I’ve touched on the idea of feeling like a burden and embracing that it shouldn’t be such a negative context, because there’s so many people in our lives who want to help us, who are happy to take on the responsibility of caring for us, lending an ear, lending a couch to sleep on.

Feeling like a burden because of our health is actually a rather new phenomena in the context of our family members. Family dynamics were always designed to care for everyone: the sick, the elderly, the young and its only with this new family structure that families have fallen apart and the “me me me” culture has turned the vulnerable into someone else’s problem.

So, when I was struck once again with having to live in a multi-generational home, it felt like a failure on my part.

Having to explain to old friends or total strangers who are simply too nosy for their own good, mirrored this sense of failure. Its one thing to temporarily move back in during “transition” periods of our lives, but to take the option of moving thousands of miles away alongside your parents is seen as a cop out. People instantly want to find a solution forgetting how unreasonable it is to either afford to live on your own or find accessible living options – in my case, less building accessibility and more access to roommates who are comfortable with my situation and can accommodate my health requirements.

What’s important to me, is that I’ve been able to have so many conversations with people who know exactly what I’m going through. This mental battle isn’t unique to me, and seeing that other people have gotten through it gives me strength to move forward.

It’s also a reminder that although we see the nuclear family as the standard, it is far from the norm, and we as a society continue to progress away from it and towards new communal or multi-generational living arrangements.

Perhaps the perfect family doesn’t exist. We have our Utopian ideals of what the perfect community would look like – for many within the disabled and chronically ill community we retain our own space but are within communities that are self sustaining, seamlessly accessible, and each person contributes to their own strengths and passions.

We all strive for a sense of family, a sense of belonging, but it’s time that we move past simply imaging these spaces as dreams and remember that for centuries, that’s how much of the world lived.

As much as I feel like my health is taking away this longed for independence, I think its critical to shift gears. To embrace that it is a fundamental part of human nature to need others, to need a vast community – family, friends, medical professionals, creators – to be successful in life, and to be an active member of that community contributing to the growth and success of those around you.

We were never designed to face life on our own. As Helen Keller said: “alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”


PS: I would absolutely recommend reading the article mentioned above discussing the history of nuclear families, its incredibly insightful and provides a much deeper perspective into the broader connections of life, family structure, and culture.

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