Beyond the Nuclear Family
Bella DePaulo is a visiting professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara. As a social scientist, she has focused on friendship and single life as well as on interpersonal deception. Among her published books are three related to the role of singles in society, including Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.
Robert M. Milardo is a professor of family relations at the University of Maine, whose research focus includes family relationships, marital relationships, kinship, friendship, and aunts and uncles. The latter is the topic of his latest book, The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles.
In a recent interview with Gina Stepp, these two experts came together for a discussion about “collateral” kin and the important contributions they make to healthy families and strong communities.
GS The nuclear family is a relatively modern construct. What are we missing when we overlook the larger family such as aunts and uncles, whether single or otherwise?
RM I think for many people the idea of the nuclear family doesn’t really ring true. I did grow up with two parents who stayed married all their lives, more than 60 years, and I had siblings, but my family was never nuclear. It was always a very permeable household; there were always people coming and going and plans being made for who was going to buy the donuts for the next group gathering.
BD I can certainly relate. I grew up the same way. Every occasion included all the aunts and uncles and cousins—and food! Aunts and uncles would just show up at your door sometimes.
RM Absolutely. And the funny thing is that when I visit my cousin Denise—she’s the oldest of six siblings—her household is the same way. Her brothers and sisters and their children and spouses are always coming over. Whatever the reasons for meeting, there is always a lot of food involved.
I don’t think families like Bella’s and like mine are necessarily the exception. The idea of a nuclear family doesn’t seem to represent how families really live. Many do, but many do not. I think public rhetoric says families are organized that way. We often talk about them as unique households, but we really often live across households. Let me give you an example. I interviewed a woman of about 50 who had four sisters but no children of her own. The sisters got together weekly and planned things together. They’d do shopping trips together overnight, they’d go to shows together; their lives revolved around each other. So it would be silly to talk about her family life as if it were nuclear—as if it were based in a household. It’s not based in a household, it’s based across households. And there’s flexibility to it too, because she doesn’t go every week. Sometimes she has other things to do.
BD And the fact that there’s more than just one other person contributes to that flexibility. One of the implications of everyone thinking in terms of a nuclear family is that all these people who have the experience Bob describes think they are outside the norm. Even though they realize that the family life they experience is across households, they assume they must not be living the typical family life—just like when people used to watch shows like Leave It to Beaver and think, “Why doesn’t my mother vacuum in high heels?” At the cultural level, so much of our talk is nuclear-family oriented, and one of the things that happens as a result is that the role of people who are not parents (including aunts and uncles, but not just them) is made invisible. We may fail to recognize the role most people are playing, because it doesn’t get highlighted by the nuclear construct.
RM As if they are not there. They’re not part of the discourse.
GS What are some of the vital functions aunts and uncles perform that we aren’t paying attention to?
RM Well, one is that they do what we call “other-parenting.” They provide child care when parents need help; they can complement or supplement what parents do across the parenting spectrum. That’s one really important function of aunts and uncles. They can also influence the well-being of children simply by befriending them, mentoring them, even offering them some understanding of why their parents ask them to do the things they do. But aunts and uncles also mentor parents, often having a very important influence. Parents can share some of the difficulties or frustrations they’re having—say, in raising a teenager. Aunts and uncles can provide another perspective. If they are parents themselves, they can talk about their own parenting experience; if not, they can still be supportive of what parents are doing. Those two functions—the effect they have on parents and the effect they have on children—are core. They’re really essential.
BD A book that I’ve found really interesting relative to Bob’s point is Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today by Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl. They use the concept of personal communities, asking, “Who are the people in your personal community?” They’ve found that some people have very insular personal communities, where it might be mostly just one other important person—like a spouse or, for some, perhaps a therapist or some other professional. But others had much more extensive communities, and these were the ones who tended to be much better off psychologically—those who were not just focused on one person or a small number of persons.
GS You would think that a more extensive personal community would contribute to a wider capacity for psychological resilience.
BD Exactly. If you only look to one person or a small number of people as your core, you have a certain vulnerability that you don’t have if there are layers of support. And that’s where aunts and uncles come in. The aunt/uncle role is really interesting, because it’s a family role, so it’s blood-related, and yet it’s not so obligatory as a parenting role. What aunts and uncles do can have a special meaning to the nieces and nephews, because they realize that this isn’t required. An aunt or uncle who spends a lot of time with nieces and nephews is expressing that they really are interested.
GS I suspect that what Robert calls “chosen relationships” would convey a similar special meaning.
RM Yes, an aunt or uncle can be related by blood or by marriage, or it could be a close friend who is treated as an aunt or an uncle. In fact, children may even call them “Aunt” or “Uncle” even though there is no direct blood relation. We sometimes talk about these people as chosen kin or fictive kin. I like “chosen” better.
BD It sounds a little less like make-believe.
RM Yes. And I think aunts and uncles, whether they’re related by blood or marriage or are selected, are best suited for the role they play because of one important fact: they can be lifelong relationships. They’re irreplaceable relationships. Aunts and uncles have so much knowledge about the key players, such as their siblings and other family members, and this key information that stems from a lifetime of shared experience positions them similarly to grandparents; but they have a unique perspective, because there is typically less of a generational difference. Because that relationship persists over a lifetime, it’s irreplaceable. Compared to anyone else in their life, that makes them special. Now, that doesn’t mean the other people in their life aren’t important too, and Bella makes that point nicely when she refers to Ray Pahl’s book with Liz Spencer. It’s not that these other people in our lives aren’t important, it’s just that aunts and uncles bring to bear a unique perspective because the relationship is lifelong. So, for example, it was not uncommon for people to talk to me about being present at the birth of their niece or nephew, and having shared in virtually every important experience in that niece’s or nephew’s life. That’s the potential that’s irreplaceable. It’s like having your own biography cowritten with another person.
BD Another implication of our focus on the nuclear family is that sometimes the sibling relationship is shortchanged. I perversely like to ask scholars who have spent their professional lives studying personal relationships, “Who’s the person with whom you’re likely to have the longest-standing relationship.” It often takes them a while to come up with (if they ever do) “siblings.”
GS I’m glad you brought that up. It does seem fairly intuitive that brothers and sisters who get along well turn into aunts and uncles who want to be involved across households.
BD Yes. Now, some of the stories I hear also include the negative side, where aunts and uncles sometimes feel left out in important ways. For instance, one woman tells a story of being present at a niece’s or nephew’s birth, like Bob was talking about, and yet when the pictures were taken she was asked to step aside, so that the pictures that would be sent out would just be the mom, the dad and the newborn. So this may be one of the areas where our stereotype of the nuclear family is played out—in the public display of family rather than the actual practice.
GS It’s interesting that Robert found in his research sample that the importance of kinship was amplified for women and perhaps particularly for childless women. Have either of you seen indications that this may be changing as current generations of men become more engaged in child rearing?
RM That’s a really good question: whether or not there’s any change in the participation of men in “uncling.” I can’t think of any study that addresses that issue.
BD My readers sometimes ask me about that. They want to read about it and discuss it—especially the men who read my Living Single blog and feel that “uncling” is important in their lives.
RM Actually, the reason I started this study of aunts and uncles was because I was interested in interviewing men involved in caregiving roles. At the time there was a reasonably well developed literature on fathering, so I thought it would be interesting to look at uncling. I was particularly interested in looking at examples of the ways in which uncles could be involved with children, from those who are really dramatically involved to those who are only marginally involved. I was very curious myself about whether there were examples of men doing really positive things with children who were not their own. And of course, there are lots of examples.
I want to make one point clear regarding kin-keeping, because I think it’s very important. It is true that there’s not a lot of research on the issue of kin-keeping; in other words, who is responsible for maintaining ties with kin. But the research that has been done only marginally finds that the majority of kin-keeping is done by women in the family. Usually one woman in the family is the major kin-keeper; she’s responsible for making sure that the anniversary parties and other important family occasions are held. However, there’s a large minority of men who also do it, and they have sort of been forgotten. They don’t fit the stereotype and are left out of the discourse about families. Two studies found that about 25 percent of men interviewed were involved in kin-keeping activities. This is rather a large proportion, actually. Are they doing the same degree of work women typically do? I don’t know the answer to that.
GS It would also be interesting to know whether that, too, could be changing as men become more involved with children and families.
BD And you know, another part of that, Gina, is that it may be happening from the other direction, as Bob often points out—that it’s the nephews who instigate it. For example, my oldest nephew is great at keeping in touch. He is better at keeping in touch with me than I am with him. Part of that is that I’ve gotten away from the telephone; I use my e-mail and modalities like that, but he will pick up the phone and call. I’m out here on the West Coast and he’s 3,000 miles away on Wall Street—a 20-something-year-old.
GS Which raises another question: Considering the existing literature on father-daughter relationships, which suggests that daughters gain a great deal of confidence from the right kind of fathering, are uncles just as important to nieces as they are to nephews? And similarly, can aunts contribute just as much to nephews as to nieces?
RM That’s a good question. I didn’t ask uncles directly about their relationships with nieces, nor did I ask aunts about their relationships with nephews, but they routinely talked about that. Some of them clearly had close relationships. Not only might an aunt have a close relationship with a particular niece or two but also with nephews. Maybe they take on slightly different characteristics, I don’t know. In future research it would be interesting to look at how they differ. I have relationships with both my niece and my nephew. It just goes to show you—the cliché that “it takes a village.” I love that image when it’s applied to families. Men can have a very positive impact on children’s lives at all ages, and the children can have a very important impact on the men as well. It goes both ways. I was just talking to a fairly young aunt about how her niece has changed the way she thinks about herself. The niece is under a year old; she’s an infant. And the aunt didn’t anticipate becoming so involved so quickly, but her niece’s birth had a really dramatic effect on her, and it changed the way she thinks about herself. It’s a good example of how becoming involved with children influences your own perception.
GS What are some of the reasons aunts and uncles (single or otherwise) may not choose to be part of the lives of their nieces and nephews to the same degree as the aunt you’re speaking of—or perhaps at all?
RM One of the reasons might be that they didn’t get along with their sibling growing up, so now they have no interest in having a relationship with their sibling’s children. But there might be any number of reasons for someone choosing not to fill these roles, and we certainly don’t want to demonize anyone for that decision.
BD I like to read some of the literature on single parenting. So much of the time, single parenting is equated with inadequate parenting. But significant research finds that children of single mothers can do just as well as and sometimes even better than other children. Why? One possible answer is that this might be when aunts, uncles, grandparents and others in the family do become motivated to step forward and fill the gap. Some of these kids might actually end up with a more extended network of active and engaged family relationships than some others who may be in a more insular nuclear family.
GS And of course, we’re assuming that the mentoring provided by aunts and uncles is positive. But what is the effect on overall family cohesiveness when the mentoring takes on a negative cast; for instance, if aunts and uncles model inappropriate behavior or badmouth family members rather than interacting in more constructive ways?
BD Well, if they’re colluding with kids against the parents, that’s certainly going to be very bad for family cohesion. It might be fun for their relationship at the moment, and it might give them a special connection for a time, but from a long-term perspective that kind of behavior is not going to be helpful for the family or for the individuals themselves.
RM It’s true, sometimes aunts and uncles don’t model the ideal behavior, and sometimes this has negative effects, but sometimes it isn’t as negative as you might think. One nephew I interviewed said that what he learned from his uncle was that he didn’t think he wanted to get divorced a lot. Others learn that they don’t want to be alcoholics, or they learn other positive lessons from the negative examples of their aunts and uncles. But of course, the ideal situation would be that they’re modeling good behavior and giving examples of how nieces and nephews can live their lives.
BD Yes, and one of the unique contributions that single aunts and uncles can make is simply to provide examples of other options for being successful. If they can see a single aunt or uncle living a full life as a single person and contributing in a positive way to society and to the family, that’s a role that’s different from the one their parents are modeling, but not less important.
GS If we find ourselves in a situation where, for whatever reason, our “extra-nuclear” family members are not involved in these roles—whether they choose not to be or are limited for other reasons—what alternatives do we have?
RM Chosen kin, certainly. There is no reason not to choose aunts and uncles for children from among close friends. Supportive, extended kin relationships of the kind we are talking about here are important for children, for adults, and also for the wider community.
BD That’s so true, and these layers of relationships do have a huge impact.