Two adults and somewhere between two and three kids. Maybe a dog. All living in their own little house with a nice, but not overwhelmingly large, backyard. That’s the kind of nuclear family in which most of us grew up, and may well replicate ourselves.
I can understand how it happened. As our society grew more affluent, many of us had the means to leave the parental nest, and as social change accelerated, we had the motivation, in many cases feeling somewhat stifled by our parents’ values. Plus, it’s a romantic notion for two people in love to create a little world of their own. But is it the best way to organise our society? Just because we can, in many cases – although housing affordability is certainly making it more challenging – should we?
I first started wondering about this when I was 13. My family (2 adults, 2 kids, 2 cats) moved from an apartment in a little building of four to a Home Of Our Own, with a backyard and everything. As it happened, my mum’s parents were moving to the country and wanted a city base, so my parents bought one half of a semi-detached home and my grandparents, along with my uncle, bought the other.
It was brilliant. We pulled down the backyard fence and doubled our play area. We loved that, and so did the dog our uncle soon acquired. Shared family dinners became a regular occurrence, especially when my country-based grandparents were in town. Both sides invited guests over for dinner parties, and the relatives were welcome to drop in if they were free.
It ultimately felt like a better way of living. Our family got along well, and we saw a lot more of each other than we used to.
We had keys to each others’ homes, which was endlessly convenient for deliveries and other chores. As the years went by, it became easier for my parents to go out of an evening and leave us at home if there was going to be a grown-up next door tin case things went wrong.
Not everything was perfect – there was a snack-stealing crime wave perpetrated by one of our cats, while the other one devoured a hole in any woollen jumper left out, ruining clothes the neighbours hadn’t realised were accessible. But apart from the pet-related challenges, it ultimately felt like a better way of living. Our family got along well, and we saw a lot more of each other than we used to.
I’ve remembered this model as I’ve grown older and seen friends start raising young children. So many of them become highly dependent on their families to share the intense childcare load, while grandparents are often in the happy position of having abundant time to share, a huge desire to spend time with the grandkids, and all that parenting experience.
But many people I know live far from their parents and other relatives, across town or in different cities or even countries. In those cases, the childcare burden often intensifies on one partner in a way that’s quite unusual historically. For single parents, this is even more challenging, of course.
Even the shared cooking makes life significantly easier. It’s not that much harder to cook for six or eight than four, and given how busy everyone is, it makes sense to share out our food preparation efforts.
When I got married in India last year, the ceremony was structured around the premise that my wife was leaving her extended family and joining mine
In many cultures, it’s still the norm for different generations to live together. When I got married in India last year, the ceremony was structured around the premise that my wife was leaving her extended family and joining mine, and our relatives – aunts and uncles in particular – were involved in the various elements to a far greater degree than they are in Western marriage rituals. This reflected a situation that’s still the reality in much of India today – that different generations will live together in the same home, and a new wife has to simply slot into the existing social structure.
I can imagine this must be very challenging when they barely know the groom, let alone the relatives – but the benefits are obvious. In India, grandparents more commonly live with a child’s family rather than in institutional care, often transitioning from a major role in childcare to being cared for themselves. This is common in much of Asia, where welfare services aren’t available at the same rate as in Australia, and not all retirees are affluent enough to be able to fund care in a home.
Earlier this year, I visited a family compound in Laos for a wedding where a dinner was held in the open space between the homes that have been occupied by multiple families for generations. It was nice to imagine all the relatives from 90 to 9 playing in the same yard.
It’s always nice to have your own space, but sometimes I wonder whether we’ve taken it too far in Australia.
Sometimes our friends take on some of these roles, becoming a virtual family. Many of the parents I know go on holiday together so their kids can play while the parents hang out, and they share the meal preparation effort around. Back at uni, I had a few friends who used to put on big dinners in their share houses on Sunday evenings, and I really appreciated the cooking and also the chance to catch up.
It’s always nice to have your own space, but sometimes I wonder whether we’ve taken it too far in Australia. Not everyone gets on with their families, of course, but for those of us who do, I reckon life’s pretty great when they’re right next door.
It doesn’t mean always being in each other’s faces – and even though my family still lives very close to each other, we generally only catch up once or twice a week. We’re all busy, after all. But when times are hard, or even if someone’s feeling a bit under the weather and could use a meal delivery, the support structures are right there. That’s why I think many of us have a lot to learn from societies with a broader notion of the family unit than some tiny nucleus.
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