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Why do we design for the nuclear family?

3 minute read by Andrew McLean

Mum, Dad, two kids and a dog in the suburbs behind a white picket fence is the picture that Disney, media and religion sells as the ideal, yet this way of life is restricted to particular time in a particular place - basically the western world after the world wars. Do you think Jesus lived in a nuclear family in this way? or Shakespeare? or Gandhi? In fact, the most traditional, and longest serving, form of family is the extended family and the kinship of tribe. It's the way things have been for a millennia.

The nuclear family has some very real struggles. It lacks resilience for a start. If one parent falls ill or dies, or they divorce, or the parents hit financial trouble, the children are often at the mercy of external forces, especially when the extended family is spread to the four corners of the country. The nuclear family also has some strengths, but I do think we need to reflect on where society is headed and what structures are best utilised to get there.

If you have spent time in traditional villages, islands like Vanuatu or Fiji, it's hard to identify who the parents of a child is.

The whole village seems to take responsibility for all the children. Perhaps this is how we were meant to live?

And yet, western parents believe that they hold ultimate responsibility for their children.

We know that 'it takes a village to raise a child', but many of us struggle to live it. Our whole system is built for the nuclear family. Capitalism has successfully taken what was once free (eg. child-care) and sold it back to us, so that we have to enter more deeply into the financial system so that it becomes next to impossible to get out. Suburbia is built so we are utterly dependent on the motor car, and instead of creating community where we are, our community is based on little interactions at work, play group, school, sport, or whatever. Suburban life is spent driving past 16 schools / sporting clubs / shopping centres / churches, etc to get to the 'best one'.

Only 30% of Australian household are made up of nuclear families. Maybe our building, urban, and social design could be more reflective of current realities. I coined a phrase in the vision phase of this project "design always wins". Talented people can make design work, but it takes effort, and when those people leave or burn out, the situation often quickly reverts back to the way of the original design . Many people are starting to see that walkable, human-centric cities are healthier and more fun to live in, but we have designed our suburbs to be car-centric, and this design; wins. Increasing public transport to focus on the 'last mile' will help, but it seems the design will always win and households will continue to be largely disconnected, full of tired, media watching souls at the end of each day.

Why are we 'shoe-horning' other family structures into housing and urban layouts that don't suit the majority? We need housing diversity. Intentional communities, like the Maleny Eco Village, are an alternative. As we live here, it's becoming clear that we are like a 'family you can choose'. Outside of the pressure-filled parenting phase, most people don't get to hang around children. Or the elderly. When a person gives birth and breastfeeds it's entirely possible in Australian culture that that the mother has never seen someone, up close, breastfeed.

Thinking back to village life in Fiji, and it's hard to comprehend how a young mother would not be taught this critical skill before they needed it.

I'm not against the nuclear family, I have three children and have just found out that I'll be a grandparent soon, which has filled my heart. And I have largely used steroetypes and broadbrush generalistations in this reflection - of course, all families are so different. But the main point is that most of the households in Australia are not made up of nuclear households, and yet the rest of us are stuck in buildings that are built for families. Intentional community projects like Maleny Eco Village is an example on how life can be different. If you would like to experience a 'family that we choose', come for a week or a month or longer. See the 'join us' page on the website.

If you want to deep dive into this topic, may I suggest a provocatively titled work called "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"


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