The Disruption of the Nuclear Family

Earlier this summer, when Black Lives Matter was getting all the social media buzz, and many white people were trying to figure out what to think about everything going on, there was a phrase in the BLM belief statement that seemed to upset a lot of people. It was given by many as a reason to steer clear of the entire movement.

Watching the Republican National Convention a few weeks ago, Jack Brewer, a retired NFL player, tried to make a reference to this statement in his speech. He said that BLM “openly on their website, called for the destruction of the nuclear family.” Since that is a pretty flagrant misrepresentation of the original statement, and since I’ve heard numerous people misquote and/or misunderstand it, I want to offer a few thoughts on the matter.

To begin, here is the actual statement: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”

This statement is not threatening to me. In fact, I think it casts a vision that can be quite beautiful, if we’re willing to lay aside our prejudices for a moment and view it with fresh eyes. And that’s what I invite you to do with me.

(As a caveat, I don’t pretend to know the exact intentions of the authors of the above statement or to speak for them in any way. I’m taking the statement at face value, interpreting it in a way that seems fair and reasonable to me. All that to say, what follows are my thoughts, which may or may not be shared by the BLM organization. Whether or not we are in 100% agreement is not really my point. My point is that good and beautiful things can come from thinking about family differently.)

My son Theo was born in mid-April, and yesterday, about 4.5 months after his birth, something strange happened. For the first time in his life, he and I were the only ones in our house. To my knowledge, in the 4 months and 12 days since his birth, we had never been completely alone. That’s not to say that we haven’t had plenty of time just the two of us – between nighttime feedings and daytime play sessions, we have gotten an abundance of quality time together! But most of the time we have the option of interacting with someone else in the house if we want to, and there has always been someone available to help in case of emergency.

My experience as the mother of a newborn stands in stark contrast to many stories I hear of new moms nearly losing their minds in loneliness, isolation, and exhaustion. In the most traditional, conservative, idealized vision of the nuclear family, the husband goes off to work, leaving mom and baby at home for the day. And this happens day after day after day, the mom shouldering the bulk of the job of parenting on her own, while longing for interaction with other adults. Some moms escape this fate by going back to work relatively quickly after giving birth. And no doubt that’s a good and healthy choice for some people. But for those of us who want to be primary caretakers for our children during the day (and who have the financial luxury to do so), is the traditional vision outlined above the best we can do? What if that vision could be improved upon without compromising the integrity of marriages and parent-child relationships?

In 2014, my roommate Rachel and I were living in a rental house in Oak Cliff and praying for opportunities to show hospitality in radical ways. Our opportunity came that October, when Rachel learned that a student in her high school bible study was functionally homeless. We really didn’t need to give it much thought, because that is exactly what we wanted to be about. Kalia came to live with us, and we never looked back.

After the death of his first wife in 2016, my husband Joel knew that a traditional living situation wasn’t going to work for him anymore. With the loss of his best friend and lifelong companion, he longed for a community to share life with him in the midst of his grief. In May of 2017, he bought a sizable house in Oak Cliff, and had a series of housemates in the first year – his brother and niece and nephew, two political consultants who were in town for the summer working on a campaign, a friend and former coachee who now lives down the street. That fall, Randolph moved in, who would become the first long-term resident to share the home with Joel and Grace.

When Joel and I got married in the summer of 2018, we combined our households – Joel, Grace, Randolph, Rachel, Kalia, and myself. It was an unconventional situation for newlyweds, to be sure. A lot of people told us we were crazy, and they weren’t wrong. But they weren’t necessarily right either. It was different, and it represented an act of faith. One that, I’m happy to report two years later, has borne unbelievable fruit. During that time, we’ve added two more members to our household – Kalia’s oldest brother LaRon, and baby Theo – as well as being able to host a dear friend for several months while she was going through a hard time.

Sometimes I think about where we would all be if we’d let fear of the unconventional keep us from the vision God laid on our hearts. I think about Joel – what his life would be like right now if he and Grace (his only daughter, who will go to college next year) had continued down the traditional path. I feel a deep sadness when I imagine him a year from now as a widower and an empty-nester in his 40s.

I think about Kalia, who was on the verge of dropping out of high school when I met her. Six years later, she is an irreplaceable part of our family, and is on a career path to become a teacher. (She is working as an instructional aide at Joel’s school this year!) She has also served as the primary catalyst in our journey of racial awakening, and the patience and generosity she has shown us is invaluable.

I think of LaRon, who was living on the street a couple of blocks away from our house before he moved in. He is brilliant and talented, but was spending all his energy on survival. Now that he has a place to call home, he is finding his way. He feels like he has been given so much by us, but we feel the same way about the life and energy he brings to our household.

I think about Grace, who lost her mom at the age of 13. She is writing her college application essay about the way living in a community house has shaped her into the person she is today. As a 17-year-old, she has gained interpersonal skills that many adults never develop – the ability to navigate conflict, to hold tension between opposing perspectives, to process intense emotions, etc. Nothing and no one could replace what she lost, but when I see the joy that Theo brings her, I know that God is somehow at work in all of this.

I can’t share every detail of all of our stories, but we are a household characterized by hardship – grief, homelessness, mental illness, addiction, childhood abuse and trauma. There are certainly challenges when you put all those things under one roof – without a doubt! But what’s the alternative? Isolating ourselves and trying to battle our demons alone? Or worse, shutting them up in a closet and pretending they don’t exist? Living in community requires confronting the worst parts of ourselves, and provides the opportunity to shed our immaturities and grow in love.

I say all of this very humbly, because God’s grace is over every person and every relationship and every circumstance in our house. What happens here is not formulaic and is often unpredictable. We try to love and support each other, we make messes, we clean up messes, we take chances, we pray for patience, we offer grace radically, we wrestle with resentment, we confess, we apologize, we define ourselves and cast new vision, we grow.

Maybe this has nothing to do with what BLM is saying, but I grow weary of Christian worship of the nuclear family. There is nothing biblical (or antibiblical) about the nuclear family structure. It’s a cultural tradition for a household to be restricted to parents and their children – it’s not right or wrong, it’s just one way of doing things. People who choose to live with grandparents or other extended family members are “disrupting” (not destroying) this “structure requirement.”

Perhaps we’ve taken things a few steps further in our home. Instead of grandparents and blood relatives, Theo is growing up in a “village” of love and support. Some of the relationships defy categorization – (If Kalia is Theo’s sister, and LaRon is Kalia’s brother, who is LaRon to Theo? We call him “Bruncle LaRon,” as in “Brother/Uncle” ?). But at the end of the day, in the midst of a pandemic, Theo is surrounded by people who are eager to hold him, play with him, care for him.

I don’t mean to over-romanticize life in community. It can be really challenging. More people to love means more people to worry about, more people to get on your nerves, more people to argue about the “right” way to do things. It means more problems to solve, more needs to be met, more grievances to discuss. But in all of this, there is learning and there is growth. And I wouldn’t trade any of it for another way of life.

And that’s why I’m not threatened by the idea of the “disruption” of the “nuclear family structure.” Maybe we could all use a little disruption of our status quo. What if something more beautiful is waiting for us on the other side?

Reflection Questions:

  1. What does this post stir up in you? Where do you feel anxiety? Where do you feel hope?
  2. What is one area where your status quo is being disrupted right now? What would it look like to lean into that disruption rather than running away from it?
  3. Who is one person in your life who isn’t part of your nuclear family, but who needs some extra love and care right now? What is one thing you could do this week to show them love?