The Insanity of “Traditional” Families

Families are changing. And that’s not all bad news. I have a theory that rising divorce rates, declining marriage rates, and the growing acceptance of variations of the family model (single parents, grand-parent guardians, gay parents, etc) are really quite normal. At least normal in the sense that this shift away from a traditional nuclear family, with rigid gender roles that place undue burden on women, is the beginning of a march back to better outcomes for more children.

If you are still captivated by the belief that a “traditional” nuclear family, that is, one with one father who is male, one mother who is female, and children who are biologically related to those two, is the very best thing for humans to be raised in, you are not alone. I was convinced of that myself. And I still believe if a single parent does not have an elaborate support system of family and friends and a good economic base, children would be much better off living with two parents who hold a biological interest in their welfare.

But there’s something even better for kids and it has little to do with a family model that looks like an episode of Leave-It-To-Beaver. The idea that a lone woman should be left alone in a tract house in the suburb for fifty hours a week with a screaming bunch of small, hungry children is insanity. No wonder the news is chock full of stories of mothers abusing or murdering their children, or why postpartum depression is the darling diagnosis of our generation.

To understand what is “natural” for our species, there are a few physiological and anthropological facts about homo sapiens that you need to know. I might remind you that for roughly 3-million years some form of humanoid lived a nomadic hunter/gatherer existence. We have been farmers for less than 7500 years and we’ve been laborers and office workers for about two hundred years. Our biology hasn’t chanced as fast as our environment and our supreme intelligence expanded and was nurtured during the hunter/gatherer phase of evolution. This phase moved us along. I believe that in recent years intelligence, empathy and ability to connect and bond is on the decline. (I’ll explain more later)

These are the six pieces that will help you solve the puzzle of what is most natural for human child-rearing:

1. Human Babies Take a LONG time to Mature. A sacrifice for walking upright is that homo sapiens give birth to extremely immature offspring. Most animals are up of all fours and running with the herd just hours after birth. Humans take 3-5 years on in arms and close protection to keep them safe. A huge burden to mothers.

2. Mothers Can’t Always Count on Fathers. Human’s have the widest range of paternal investment of any primate. A father’s investment in his own offspring ranges from a single deposit of sperm to a doting “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the Robin Williams film character who gets a job as his children’s Nanny just to care for them.

3. Hunter/Gatherer Mothers Worked Outside the Home. Of course her workplace, the Savannah, was a baby friendly environment because she wore her baby to work. When that little bundle became ambulatory she would leave the toddler in the encampment with sisters, older siblings, cousins, uncles, and grannies. And she worked only about twenty hours a week.

4. The Grandmother Gene. We are the only species except Orca whales who has menopause, 40-50% of a woman’s lifespan where she is active, healthy, wise, and nurturing.

5. We Hand Our Babies to Others. We are the only primate that will hand our baby to a stranger minutes after birth. Try wrestling a baby chimp from his mother and you’ll lose an arm. She holds and baby clings for at least nine months with no one being allowed to touch. Humans are quick to share their burden.

6. One in five women do not bear children themselves. There are currently 20% of women in their 40’s in America who are not biological mothers.

Get the picture? If Dad couldn’t always be counted on, Mom needed to earn a living, and neighbors, relatives and grandmothers were available, how do you think families looked? No way they consisted of two adults in a hut with their children.

In fact, according to my favorite anthropologist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, of University of California, Davis, it was this co-operative parenting that helped our brains, emotions, and social structures become so advanced. In her book, Mothers and Others, The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, she blows the lid off any notion that a nuclear family is anything but a recent invention by farming and industrialization. And she makes a clear case that early life exposure to CONSISTENT multiple attachments is the best thing for children. The wider variety of consistent faces that an infant had to decode and communicate to without words, the smarter the baby. I put the word consistent in caps because attachment injuries and separation anxiety are very damaging to children, and emotional stress prevents brains from developing to their fullest capacity.

So, when I hear about the modern villages within urban settings that are cropping up with single parents, gay parents, concerned uncles, and grandmothers nearby, I exhale. The apocalypse is not near. Babies are being loved. Far more important to a child’s development is consistency of attachments, emotional connection of caregivers and number of interested adults. Now that’s natural!

4 thoughts on “The Insanity of “Traditional” Families

  1. My sentiments exactly –only put down with far more eloquence and substantiation! And I would add that suburban living is a social experiment that is proving to have tremendously high costs to our emotional, behavioral and physical health is too high. We were not meant to mother our children in isolation and to be separated from our babies.

  2. You are saying what I have thought and practiced (attachment parenting) for years but you back it up with research so your argument is even more powerful. Thank you for using your heart at the same time as such a good head!

  3. Nice try, but in my neighborhood there are many lesbian women couples with kids living without men, and it is great for them. However, for almost every one of them there is a man somewhere who is working his ass off to pay for it, as one of these two women are usually the lucky recipient of a big fat divorce settlement. These lotto winners are not going to continue forever, men are waking up and just not getting married. We can get sex with women without it, and we know if we tie the knot and don’t allow the women to boss us around, she can kick us out and take our money. The working spouse in the divorce, almost always the male, has to support the non worker like some kind of slave for life. This is not a sustainable set up, as the male of the species is waking up and not buying in. Just pick up a copy of “Marriage Strike” and feast your beadles, our anti male society is in for a big change in coming decades and if you want a glimpse of the future, take a read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *