Alexandra Shimo is a journalist, meditation teacher and the author of several books including Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve and Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History.
Climate change, inflation, war, an endless pandemic: the factors and circumstances hurting one’s mental well-being right now are almost too numerous to detail in full. But some community and health experts have pointed to another influence that can be a weak link in an already fragile chain: the nuclear family.
The nuclear family has long had a mythic role in North America. There’s a strong belief, promoted by sociologists and government that the nuclear family is the linchpin of society, and that national economic growth is dependent on its health. But appearances aside, the reality is that the nuclear family is fragile, and requires much state support to function. When those supports were removed during the lockdown (for example children with autistic and special needs lost their programming; children lost after school care, etc.), many families, including my own, were pushed toward a breaking point. Even now, we remain there.
Of course, I was blissfully unaware of any of this, and probably would have continued my welcome state of ignorance, had my wife not informed me a year ago that she was completely burned out, and needed to recover in the sun in Mexico. Help, I thought. No problem, I said. Our little nuclear family – two queer mums, incorrigible cat, and then-five-year-old son – needed help to cope with the endless pandemic, and it wasn’t clear where it was going to come from.
With my wife down south, I hit the phones, asking old and new friends if they could come over and babysit. This being mid-December, 2021, when Ontario had thousands of new cases of COVID-19 a week, everyone whom I spoke to was also very busy with their own family, and often struggling with child care or elderly parental issues. People had their presecured living arrangements and therein arose a failure of the imagination: After a long history of this being the dominant living arrangement, few had thought through possible alternatives. And so we were stuck, and as I realized how stuck we were, I began to panic.
Nuclear families are not new: They began to dominate North American life first at the start of the 1900s, as young men moved away from home in the country to take jobs in the city, Steven Ruggles, professor of History and Population Studies at the University of Minnesota, told me. That dominance was solidified after the Second World War, when fertility rates rose with postwar incomes and job security. Average family incomes in Canada more than doubled from 1951 and 1974, and with real incomes rising, many families realized that they no longer had to live in the extended family units that had long supported farming communities, where everyone in the family had a job either in the family business or agriculture.
“In 1850, over 70 per cent of people 65 or older lived with their grown children,” Dr. Ruggles explained. “That dropped, and now 25 per cent of seniors live with their adult children.”
Postwar, the nuclear family was promoted in North America as being ideal for economic growth, explained Dr. Ruggles. Cold War sociologists, such as Talcott Parsons, championed this living arrangement as flexible and mobile, in order to contrast it with the multigenerational homes dominant in the Soviet Union. And as Canada’s economic growth rates rose, it seemed like the evidence proved the sociologists’ claims. The nuclear family incentivized the accumulation of wealth, as without a family homestead to return to, a growing proportion of wealth became invested in one’s home. Canada prioritized each nuclear family having its own home with the creation of legislation such as the Dominion Housing Act of 1935, the Federal Home Improvement Plan of 1937, the National Housing Act of 1938, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1946, the changes to the Bank Act of 1954 and the amendments to the National Housing Act of 1973.
With wealth tied up in the home, the nuclear family increased pressure to create more income. In a nuclear family, the menial or person-centric jobs that used to be done inside the extended family network are outsourced. A cleaner, a nanny, a life coach, a therapist, babysitter, child’s tutoring: all of these became professionalized. These shifts heightened income inequality: Those menial tasks once done by extended family were either funded when the finances existed or people made do and lived without. These changes mirrored what was happening on the national stage: From 1982 to 2010, earnings inequality rose by 24 per cent as measured by the Gini co-efficient, a popular measure of income inequality.
With the divide between rich and poor increasing, there was a growing opportunity for the state to step in and help. But several indicators suggest what was once a nanny state became more of an inattentive babysitter: Between 1973 and 2005, the amount the state paid out to replace lost earnings via unemployment benefits dropped from 22 per cent to 12 per cent, according to a 2009 report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Canada’s ranking among OECD nations by generosity of unemployment benefits fell accordingly: In 1961, Canada was nine out of 16 OECD nations; by 2005, the nation was tied for last, according to the same study. Those figures lead to structural imbalances: Canada ranked 20 out of 31 industrialized nations for its overall poverty rate, according to 2013 government figures, and according to a 2020 UNICEF Canada report, the country was 30 out of 38 “rich countries in the well-being of children and youth” under the age of 18.
What this meant was that households experienced the pandemic in very different ways. There were those who could support the additional labour now necessary for a family to function, i.e. the affluent for whom expensive meal delivery services and exclusive nannies are a given. And there was me (and pretty much everyone else), who had to juggle the increasing demands of job, school tutoring, cleaning and child care.
“COVID-19 exacerbated these existing problems that I think for a long time, we have ignored,” said David Pettinicchio, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Of course, the national saint of public policy (Jane Jacobs) had predicted these problems well before the pandemic, with her final 2004 book Dark Age Ahead. Put simply, the modern nuclear family, the ur-unit of culture, cannot cope with the demands of inflation, rising rental costs, precarious work and social isolation, she argued. The modern nuclear family was “rigged to fail,” she wrote, even before COVID hit.
In my household, that burnout took a toll on my partner first. Caseload at the national charity that she founded, Up With Women, tripled during the lockdown. She began to work most weekends and evenings. Then, she found it difficult to get up in the morning and on weekends. At first, I thought she was just tired, and I tried bribing her out of the bed with her favourite foods, such as scrambled eggs with truffle oil. Any reprieve was only temporary. Lia started to cry more often.
We discussed her going into therapy and taking antidepressants. But Lia is autistic, and after more than a dozen calls, we could not find an autism-specialized therapist without a waiting list, and she did not want to take antidepressants without first exploring other options.
To cope with a partner who was burned out, and a kid who was acting out with the disruption of the lockdowns, I began to use my iPad less as a source of entertainment and more as an emergency babysitter. It worked for about a week. But my five-year-old son soon found all the worst forms of online entertainment, including YouTube’s most violent fight scenes from movies, and twentysomethings and adolescents giving profanity-ridden commentary on the video game of Minecraft. When I removed the iPad, he began to shout and hit me. By November, 2021, I began to have difficulty sleeping. Later, the insomnia would be so bad that I would check myself into the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
I was not alone, according to a 2021 Hospital for Sick Children study. With more strain on parents, especially moms, children absorbed that stress, according to the research. The doctors studied two groups from April to June of 2020: 1,000 parents of children aged between 2-18, and nearly 350 youth between 10 and 18 years old. The researchers analyzed six categories of mental health: anxiety, attention span, depression, irritability, hyperactivity and obsessions/compulsions. Deterioration was reported in at least one category for 70.2 per cent of school-aged children (6 to 18 years old) and 66.1 per cent of preschool-aged children.
“Our data show that during the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s mental health and parents’ mental health are associated, and that each effects the other equally,” said Dr. Daphne Korczak, child and adolescent psychiatrist at SickKids and principal investigator of the study. “Our findings also show that greater stress from social isolation, including the cancellation of important events and the loss of in-person social interactions, was strongly associated with mental-health deterioration.”
The fragility and stress are at odds with the historic picture of the nuclear family: In North American propaganda from the 1950s onward, the nuclear family model was advertised as being strong, robust and modern, explained Dr. Ruggles. But at its essence, it prioritizes one set of generational relationships: the parents and the kids. It is a secure and stable model if everything is going well. But if the system is destabilized, and it is not given the right support, it can falter. There is no one to take over if both parents become ill. There are no breaks if one of the parents becomes incapacitated, sick or immobilized. There is no network of support to strengthen the unit, and create resilience.
This instability has rippled through the family unit as the pandemic has dragged on. The continued strain on the nuclear family unit was felt by families across Canada with a 12-per-cent increase in domestic violence calls to the police during the first four months of the pandemic, according to Statscan.
“The toll of COVID-19 on mental health has been huge, numerous systematic reviews show high levels of loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression and mental-health deterioration during and after lockdowns,” explained Amber Peterman, professor in the department of public policy at University of North Carolina. One meta-review published in The Lancet in November, 2021, estimated a 27.6-per-cent increase in major depressive disorders globally, with females and youth most affected.
When I began to try to expand my nuclear family unit to stop it collapsing, I thought about whom I could bubble with. My best friend was immunocompromised, and neither wanted to put the other at risk. I called a close friend, and she said she had flu-like symptoms and was waiting to find out if it was COVID. Three former babysitters were called, but no one was free. I asked our neighbour to babysit but he said he wanted to spend more time with his son who was home for the holidays. What I longed for was the type of family unit as epitomized in fun shows like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Crashing, where people would wander into each other’s houses and cook for each other. This was the dream that I held onto as I began to struggle. And failing the dream, which realistically had probably ended 30 years ago, what I wanted was for someone to take my son for a few hours so I could sleep.
Feminist and queer critiques of the nuclear family, beginning in the 1970s, were among the earliest, explained Jessica Fields, professor of Health and Society at University of Toronto Scarborough and professor of Sociology at University of Toronto. Some feminists objected to a family unit that was organized around a gender specific division of household labour, and the way that division created housework for the females of the household. In the 1980s, queer theorists built on these feminist critiques, adding their own observations. They wanted to build a new type of family, one that survived and thrived beyond the institution of marriage, which at the time was not legal to them anyway. This was especially true during the AIDS crisis, when many queer men and women found that their families of origin harboured homophobia. “HIV and AIDS really showed that, for many gay men, they couldn’t rely on their families of origin to provide them with the care that they needed,” Dr. Fields explained.
Out of those critiques came theorists such as Leah Samarasinha, or members of the Disability Justice Collective, such as Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, Stacey Milbern – disability activists who began to talk less about the nuclear family and more about “communities of care.” A community of care is not one’s biological or legal family, although it could be one of those. It is people who are tied to one another through a commitment to take care of each other, no matter what. It might be about sharing a home, economic or emotional resources, Dr. Fields said. Or simply those who come in the middle of the night with a cup of milk, or those who are available for you in a pinch.
As these new ways of conceiving family were informed and often shaped by trauma, it became important to ensure that each member of the family could give what was demanded, so he/she/they would not drown with the obligations. This was especially important if any of those in one’s chosen family were disabled or disadvantaged in some way. To summarize this concept, those creating these queer critiques developed expressions such as “robust networks of care,” popularized Simon Fraser University professor Hannah McGregor, and explored conceptions of intimacy that might exist beyond the nuclear family.
Those ideas came into the mainstream during the pandemic, as many sensed the need to change given the extenuating circumstances. The pandemic sharpened a longstanding need to adapt the nuclear family into a more collectivist approach, towards a greater sense of purpose. It “brought many families together but it also was hard on different members of nuclear families living side by side in lockdowns. Community became more important than ever,” according to Maureen Fair, executive director at West Neighbourhood House.
For example, in several neighbourhoods across Toronto, mutual aid groups arose, whereby someone would post a telephone number on a telephone pole, and anyone in need could call it to get groceries or medications delivered, help with computer or other technical support, or any other outstanding needs.
In Montreal, people came together through the community group “Caremongering-Montreal: réponse communitaire a COVID-19,” where people would post messages asking for help either for themselves or others, either offering or asking for prepared meals, groceries or money.
In Vancouver, there has been a shift toward more co-housing, with the development of places such as Tomo House (”Tomo” standing for “together more,” according to developer Mark Shieh). Under this model, residents own their respective units, and share common facilities.
“The nuclear family is similar to the suburban dream,” explained Victor Willis of Toronto’s Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre. “Those were models that were promoted at a certain time in our history. All of these modellings are up to some tough scrutiny and we are now rethinking how we live together.”
For me, the past year has been a lesson on resilience as I’ve had to deal with my partner’s depression, a child who acts out, spiralling food prices and record-breaking inflation, the constant threat of a Third World War, the loss of biodiversity, a bruised and burning planet, and a pandemic that never quite seems to end. I’ve felt the need to build “robust networks of care” both within my queer community and outside. I’m an introvert and a writer who guards her free time like the crown jewels in the Tower of London. But these qualities are of little use when trying to care for one’s five-year-old son while locked up in CAMH. My winter of discontent and past year showed me that the nuclear family wasn’t enough. My chosen family needs to grow.
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