Families, Weapons, Warfare, Annihilation and other Varieties of the Nuclear Age
We should more properly refer to Nuclear Families as Nucleus Families, as the term derives from the central properties of cells from 1846, and atoms from 1914. It was first applied to families in the 1920s but took hold in the heyday of its realization, the gingham and valium drenched ‘50s. But whether this normative family structure associates with Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), apocalyptic Fallout or Winters, or thermonuclear global catastrophe remains to be seen. For better or worse Nuclear Families are not about to self destruct, but as long as they remain heteronormative and monogamous and place the burden of childcare on women, they deserve to. American anthropologist George Murdock, describes the Nuclear Family thus: ‘The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’. ‘Socially approved sexual relationship’. Let’s come back to that, for monogamy is the keystone of the Nuclear Family, and whether the stability of children’s lives should be keyed to what their parents do with their genitals is, I think, one of the unbidden and unresolved issues of our age. For Senator Cory Bernardi this Nuclear Family structure is working. Unquestionably. In his recent book he claimed criminality among boys (soon to include protesting in Victoria and already being a biker in Queensland) and promiscuity among girls (call in the mobile lobotomy van) is linked to being brought up in single-parent families. Senator Bernadi called for social policy to be drafted by ‘those who understand the primacy of natural law’. ‘It is perfectly reasonable and rational therefore for the state, if it is to have a role in social policy and the affairs of marriage, to reinforce and entrench those aspects of traditional marriage that work, not undermine them and promote alternatives which have led to social chaos’. Let’s start with ‘tradition’. The Nuclear Family has in fact only been viable as an economic unit (anyone who’s gone through a property settlement quickly realizes how indelibly these material ties bind) under proto-industrial nascent capitalism in Western Europe in the Seventeenth Century. The Nuclear Family has its origin from aristocratic and feudal guarantees of patriarchal primogeniture but took shape as normative under the transition to agrarian capitalism, changes to household economies, the growth of markets and population - all of these factors determining historical and socio-economic influences on family formation. The need to secure paternity for agnatic bloodlines of inheritance became increasingly important to the commoner under these changes to landholding patterns and property. If I seem to be talking about the dark ages here, recall that the Centuries-old rule of succession in the British Monarch, was only scrapped to allow for female heirs in 2011. But the legacy continues in our romantic attachment to sexual exclusivity. Let’s turn to the question of whether nuclear families are in fact working in the present. In Australian nearly one in three marriages end in divorce. 48.4 % of all divorces granted in Australia in 2011 involved children. The Median years between marriage and divorce are currently 12.2 years. In the UK the number of nuclear families fell from 39% of all households in 1968 to 28% in 1992. The startling figures aren’t often qualified by the obvious caveat that many of these people once lived in Nuclear Families, and their children have grown up, or they’re yet to start a family. Nevertheless, no matter how far we may stray from its familiar pattern, the Nuclear Family is a point of reference for us all, and people living out of its bounds testify to constantly searching for the language to explain their circumstance. So tradition? Not so much. Natural Law? Highly unlikely. Current members of the Liberal party having any real grasp of these concepts? A demonstrably preposterous proposition. ‘Alternatives which have led to social chaos’. Is there any need to substantiate opinion with fact, or even Look Things Up? Hell no, when you’re a Liberal sitting member you can let rip like bean fed cowboys on the frontier of cognitive function. Now, before I can turn to the question of monogamy and the damage it does to the stability and functionality of the Family I need to say a few words about women, public discourse and ideas of family fealty. When I set up a feminist mothers’ advocacy campaign, the Mothers of Intervention in 2000, I noticed with surprise a certain hesitancy in mothers to engage with a critique of the contemporary conditions of mothering. They felt, as I sometimes did, they were confessing out far too loud that the love and care they gave to their children was personally unsatisfying. Some expressed they didn’t want their mothering to be valued in terms of money. I was even asked by a reporter when advocating for maternity pay, ‘but isn’t it a labour of love?’ When I later publish a feminist critique of monogamy as an op ed in The Age it was received as outing my own lover as deficient and an act of unconscionably shrewish betrayal. The implication is that anyone living within a monogamous relationship should not engage in public debate about it as a structure of power in which men and women are differently positioned, for the conclusions that will be drawn about their personal situation. The sticking point here is a taboo on exposing the truth about monogamous relationships: that some 57% of men and 54% of women admit to infidelity and while these do not account solely for divorce rates, infidelity is still a major trigger of separation. So for over half of the population I am broaching very uncomfortable terrain. There is also a taboo on women publicly discussing men’s sexual performance, following centuries of often violent public enforcement of women’s moral conduct within highly oppressive constraints. We have to start asking whether monogamy is a viable structure, particularly one that should underpin children’s emotional infrastructure. The violence women and children are vulnerable to under what we might call turbo-monogamist men who define their masculine identities around sexual possession should be cause enough. I am not merely talking about sexual satiation, as complex as this is. Recent court cases such as Simon Gittany throwing his girlfriend off the balcony, the murder of Sarah Cafferkey by her boyfriend in Point Cook, the drowning of the Farquharson boys, and Arthur Freeman hurling his little girl off the Westgate bridge are the outlying extreme of violent men’s expression of sexual possessiveness. We should be able to talk more openly about what we might call sexual adversity and the myriad health impediments to sexual function. Those couples who have found enduring satisfaction in monogamous relationships should stop being sexually triumphant and condemning. When celebrities and public figures fail to meet the ideal we should be able to reflect on their situation in broader terms than their moral failings, and contextualize it within an informed critique of monogamy. After all they are only the most public proof of overwhelming evidence that it isn’t an ideal most people find easy to live up to. The other key stressor in the formation of the Nuclear Family is the organization of care, particularly childcare – I say at the risk of appearing an unloving mother. If there is one thing we can understand from both the experience of mothering and feminist analysis it actually does take a village to raise a child. The insularity of one-on-one mothering, the patterns of boundary testing that this incites in bored little kids, the exhaustion of caring in isolation produce maladaptive patterns of sociality. Mothers are sinking into guilt-induced maternal depression and children are bewildered at the physical and emotional limits they strike up against under their care, limits that might never be reached if she was better supported. The Nuclear Family isn’t, I don’t think, about to collapse in a perfect storm of Mutually Assured Destruction waged by sexually repressed husbands and wives, or neurotic children. Because the truth is, if you can get them to work, and are willing to include all comers committed to caring and loving one another and you have the wherewithal and support, families are of course wonderful sanctuaries of connectedness and warmth, productivity and idiosyncracy - and even for parents a haven of mutually assured rompish delights. But it is hard to get them working well. They are under increasing pressure, and we need to remove the taboos around talking openly about its failings, dissatisfactions and ambivalence and think harder about the present constraints on realizing an ideal most of us hold very dear. Most of all we need to resist the definition of family as a heteronormative nucleus and accept and nurture the increasing diversity within this enduring form of sociality. This op ed was presented before Melbourne Free University. A shorter version would've run on The Conversation, but the fallout from The Age piece was such that my partner (who for the record is a thoroughly compelling snog) and I decided against it.