Blow The Nuclear Family Up

Western families don’t work. The rest of the world does it better

Great-grandfather chasing pig, and great-granddaughter

What is a family? The western idea is that it’s a mother, father and a few children. The rest of the world is like, what’s what? Down here, family is everything and everywhere. It’s like asking a fish what’s water.

At its worst, family is caste — a group of people that you exclusively intermarry with and outcastes that you won’t even share a cup with. I’ve known dudes that would only eat food cooked by Brahmins, with other Brahmins. It obviously gets worse from there. Then there are the plain old toxic families and the massive societal pressure that forces you to stay around.

At its best, however, it’s family. On average it’s also family. A really big family. It’s pervasive, it’s love, it’s food, it’s shelter —and for young children it’s a trampoline. I have been in both worlds and honestly, the southern family is better. The western, nuclear family is a modern thing and, honestly, it was a mistake. Just ask David Brooks, the most translucent white man around.

Growing up in a nuke

I grew up in a nuke. Middle America, working parents, two sisters who I largely ignored (sorry). It was lovely, but also lonely. I wouldn’t have been aware except we left every four or five years and I saw something else.

Proud mural for a puberty ceremony in Jaffna, which is very much a thing, in case you wanted your menstruation date on the wall. You do get gold.

We’d come to Sri Lanka for holidays and that was such a rush, being around so many cousins, and dogs, and aunts and uncles. It could be too much, of course. My sister got her period when we came down and the family insisted on having a PARTY, which was literally the last thing she wanted at this time. She cried but it happened anyways, because family. So yeah, it can be a bit much. But that’s because it’s a lot.

I still remember how dark the ride to the airport was. Suddenly the whole family fit in a van. When we got back I’d be depressed for weeks. It was so cold in America. So lonely. As soon I finished university I just left and went to Sri Lanka, a place I’d never lived before. The west was fun but it was never a home. Home was family. It felt like the very concept was down here as well.

Marrying into a compound

And yet, I was a coconut. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. I moved out, for example, something a young person here would rarely do. Could rarely do, really. Almost no one can make rent on an entry-level salary here, it’s assumed that parents are subsidizing room and board.

As a return-to-sender, I lived around family but also moved out first chance I got. I really didn’t understand what the full immersion experience was until I married my wife. Immediately after our wedding we walked out of the church and into the garlanded car. I reached out for her hand. She reached for her phone, to talk to her parents. In marriage, I think, you just have the same fights in different incarnations for years. This was one of ours. The rest were mostly about food.

I’m family”, I said. “We’re family,” referring to us two. What I didn’t understand was that she was also her family and that I, despite appearances, was also mine. That took some time. We had both cultures inside our marriage for while, and it had to mix, which is to say, we fought about it.

Then we had a health issue and everything collapsed. My idea of family collapsed into one word, which was help. The issues we’d debated seemed so academic, so far away. I just didn’t care anymore. I remember clearly, a switch just went off in my mind. This is not important. Only health.

Then we had kids and my idea of nuclear family completely decayed. I just wanted to sleep. We moved in. I joined what I had hitherto, somewhat dismissively, called the compound.

Life in a big family

To jump rudely out of linear time, my children are at their great-grandparents right now. I can hear them from the street. Grandparents are one thing, but with great-grandparents, all bets are off. Every day they go there to eat guava and cheese, and usually take a dump. It’s a blessing. I don’t even remember my great-grandparents’ names.

Most people live in a multi-generational home, but this family lives in multi-generational homes. Almost everyone lives down the same street. As such, there are walls, but everyone is in and out of each other’s houses. Resources are shared, constantly. Ladders, cars, food — constantly food.

When we were a young couple I resisted this and tried to create our own western sitcom — friends. With health and then kids, this all collapsed. Are friends going to change nappies or deal with whatever mystical feeding ritual the child requires at 2 AM? Nope. So you move back with family. Most Sri Lankan couples actually skip this step and live with family from the beginning. Resistance is futile.

Honestly, how do you children?

I try to read western parenting advice but it barely translates. Western parenting is based on creating something that leaves at age 18, which we would consider complete failure. Like, what did you do?

The idea of ‘launching’ a child is appalling here. Young people go off for a little bit and then rapidly return to orbit, crashing to earth with grandchildren. It’s not just that parenting styles are different, the objectives are completely different. We’re not even trying to do the same thing. Honestly, what you’re doing seems sad. I would miss my children if they went away. Why would you want that?

On more quotidien level, the daily stress seems overwhelming — laundry, cooking, picking up, sleeping, never getting time off. A lot of the advice is about that, and these are simply problems we do not experience. Largely because we’re rich (we have more staff than Parasite, which is another story), but also just. Almost every family is multi-generational and two people raising a baby alone is quite unusual. Because, tbh, it’s insane. Sleep deprivation’s a hell of a drug.

I read stories about western parenting and I’m honestly like how? I mean, you can get nappies on Amazon which is cool, but you have to change them all yourself. America has no laws for parental leave, but teenagers can buy AR-15s. This seems like a bad combination.

Honestly, how do you children? It seems exhausting. The west bemoans increasing divorce rates as a cause of family breakdown, but really it’s an effect. You can’t put that much pressure on one relationship. It’ll go nuclear.

The bad parts

There are of course, bad parts of big families. If you’re in a good one it’s great, but if you’re in a bad one it’s downright dangerous. In our own family we are lucky in that there are no duds, no molestors, no property disputes, no conflict. There aren’t even any assholes. Everyone, on both sides, is basically fine, besides fat people inappropriately noting that ‘you’ve got fat’. This is lucky. Very lucky.

The one major benefit of the western nuclear family is that you can, by default, get away from toxic families, which is no small thing. Here it is such a drastic and frankly uneconomical move that people often stay. Which is awful. Even if you’re gay, you can get pushed into a heterosexual marriage, which is obviously awful for everyone. There is pressure to stay in abusive marriages, in broken marriages, in dangerous situations. Many people just can’t be themselves. This isn’t unique to more familial families, but it does add a huge amount of pressure.

Until a generation back, in my own family, people got cut off for marrying off-caste. That wall came down by the time my parents married, but it’s still very real, just open the matrimonial section of the newspaper. Caste is not immaterial. I’m still the only person in my generation to marry out-race, besides one Norwegian which is like 🤷🏽‍♂️. For my cousins these were choices, but in many cases they’re not. Or they’re not much of a choice. The stories of lost first loves are many. This is the foundation of the film industry.

The ability and, indeed, the imperative to get away from shit family is an important western innovation and one we must appropriate. Every good home must have a door. What we have now are temple doors, which lock from the outside. This is bad. I know people that have formed their own families from friends, but it’s really difficult. When so much is centered on the family, you can be desperately alone without it, and poor.

The central innovation of the nuclear family was fundamentally economic. A single man in America could support an entire family, which has now collapsed and which barely exists here at all. I know almost no one who buys a home or even car on their own, it’s usually bought a generation down, but that obviously elides a deep class stratification. For poor families this simply isn’t possible and the fundamentally feudal nature of this society is a problem.

But capitalism has collapsed into feudal oligarchy as well. Western millenials can’t buy a home at all, and it’s considered a cultural shame to move back home. Which is where I think a cultural shift would be helpful. Because it’s really not shameful at all. It’s just a return to what the rest of the world considers normal. It’s a literal return to family. At the same time, I think a cultural learning for us is helpful, towards families of choice.

It takes a village

On the whole, I highly recommend blowing the nuclear family up. It just doesn’t work. The old ways are better, and once you fix the door, it’s best.

Most of the world doesn’t ask what’s family. The bigger confusion is what’s an individual. This life is not without its drawbacks, but it’s how we’ve lived as social creatures for millions of years, and it works pretty well. Obviously, it takes a village. Anything else is like living in the wild.