A long-standing American institution, the nuclear family was first coined in 1947, defined as a man and a woman living in a house by themselves with two or three kids. The popular conception comes from the 1960s to 1970s, when American families began moving out of the cities into suburbs; This marked the inception of the proliferation of suburban life and the idealized normalization of the nuclear family that was overwhelmingly white, deeply patriarchal, and heteronormative.
The Nuclear family, in parallel with the suburbs, were designated to sites where the status-quo was reinforced. Sometimes it was explicit, as was the case with Black Americans being denied access to newly built homes or redlined poor housing options. Other times it was through subtle, as a structure that kept women oppressed and financially dependent. Furthermore, the nuclear family and suburban life consistently upheld heteronormativity as the norm.
Recent years have seen significant developments that have dismantled the nuclear family structure. Same sex marriage was legalized in 2003. There has been an increase of women in the public workplace, a rise in single parent households, as well an increase in LGBTQ folks living in the suburbs.
In 2020, the Covid-19 virus has put an incredible strain on the once dominant family structure and forced a reevaluation of both traditional nuclear family structures as well as other, diverse households. Since the start of the pandemic in March, social distancing has become the new norm and has created obvious problems, especially in terms of the need to socially interact. While this has affected everyone in our society, from our elders to our youngest adults, single people have faced the worst of this isolation.
Covid-19 has placed significant restraints on dating and socializing. Single parents have also faced unique challenges, as child care options have vanished and single parents have had to take on more and more of the workload. For many of us, the social connections we now engage in are primarily virtual, meaning that our livelihoods, education, and our link to the outside world are dependent on internet access, a luxury that many do not have.
With working parents juggling both work and childcare and singles struggling against the tide of isolation, many are questioning the efficacy of nuclear family structures and individualistic lifestyles.
Intentional communities have long provided a viable and more community-oriented alternative to these structures. For the uninitiated, an intentional community is a group of families who have all agreed to live together and share housing and food, amongst other things.
Naomi Klein, host of the podcast Intercepted , interviewed a group of people living in an intentional community in Oakland, California, along the Temescal Creek Watershed, referred to by its residents as “The Orchard.” The Orchard consists of four families living together in a single house with a yard in the back big enough for a trampoline. At the time of writing, the families have lived on this property for 10-15 years. While they did not decide to live together due to Covid, the families have found it easier to adapt together in this moment of crisis because of their unique living arrangements.
Having sixteen other people in your house can be a great advantage if a person isn’t getting to see their friends enough, but studies also find that living with others in intentional communities can be beneficial for your health–preventing isolation can lead to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Privacy, which may be considered essential for many people living on their own, has not been a deal breaker for many living in these communities. Speaking on privacy, one of the residents of the intentional community, Gopal Dayaneni, talked about his experience that was especially enlightening:
“I’ll just start with the very simple thing, which is, you know, we don’t actually have a lot of privacy. You know, we can have some, but we don’t have a lot of privacy. And I actually think that’s good because I think privacy can enable secrecy and secrecy can enable deception or denial. And you know, when I’m having a hard time with my kids, my housemates can hear it upstairs. And I know that they’re going to come down and, you know, say, “Hey, you know, Kavi or Ila, want to go outside?” Or even come down and say, ‘Hey Gopal, you need to take a break.’ It’s a lifesaver, you know, to have other people you know and trust and who care about you and care about your children being a part of your life. We need each other to be our best selves because it’s not as simple as an act of will.”
“The Orchard” exists as a wonderful example of what future alternative housing could look like for millions of Americans sick of traditional familial structures and growing isolation.
Intentional Communities don’t just exist in the San Francisco Bay area, there are tons of them all across the country. One of the most famous ones is located in the Midwest, in Missouri, about 10 miles away from the Ozarks. East Wind Community comes from the old tradition of utopian housing that finds its roots in the original utopian communities that tried to form in New England. There is a lot of room to imagine what the future of intentional communities could look like.
If intentional communities do provide a viable option, financial cost may be a barrier, especially if purchasing a house is an aspect of the intentional community. It is a known fact that 40% of its people would struggle to pay a $400 emergency , and with the average cost of a house ranging from $108,236 in West Virginia to $636,451 in Hawaii This is not even to mention the cost of owning a place in New York City, where the average cost of buying a single- bedroom apartment is $710,000.
While housing costs would be lower when shared with other families and individuals, the creation of intentional communities may require a certain amount of wealth that millions of Americans do not have, especially in an America, where minimum wage has not changed since 2009, especially with the withdrawal of federal unemployment assistance.
The suburbs, the genesis of the nuclear family, were funded in large part by the federal government. Historically and currently, suburban housing received the biggest share of federal funding, which helped millions of Americans buy homes in the post-war period of the 1940s and 50s. Levittown, New York, one of the most famous postwar housing developments, was able to sell houses for $6,990 in 1947 (The equivalent of $81,472.05 in 2020) with no down payment because these houses were backed by the federal government. Many corporations rake in trillions of federal assistance. If the same funds were diverted towards intentional communities, then they might be a viable option for many more people, especially at a time when housing is a crucial issue.
Many people, if given the opportunity, may still choose a traditional family structure. How a person chooses to live should be a free choice, without the worry of financial constraint or societal norms. However, the very existence of an alternative can leave room for hope and a radical future.
The normalization of the nuclear family structure has been fueled by corporate interests and a heteronormative agenda but as the pandemic shakes up our established notions, the benefits of communal living are becoming increasingly clear. While transitioning to such a system may not be an option at the moment, when we emerge from the pandemic, it is in our interests to create these options and legitimize them for those looking for an alternative to the norms of nuclear family and individualistic living dynamics.