I’m amazed at the number of people who equate having a husband and “a nuclear family” to having the ideal family structure. Even though I grew up with a single mother and a host of relatives who positively contributed to my development, I was convinced I had somehow missed out because I lacked a present father.
Years later, I’m an adult woman, wife, and mother of two. But my life is no easier than my mother’s life was; it’s just different.
Since my husband has a job that requires frequent travel, I spend a lot of time alone with the children, like my mom. But, unlike my mom, I don’t have the extended family support she had.
Recently, I’ve been questioning this notion of an “intact nuclear family” as the key to successful parenting — and I’ve come to the realization that our prioritization of individualism and the nuclear family is bullshit.
As Americans, we seem to prefer and prioritize an individualist way of life. We leave our families, go on to do our own thing, and obsess over self-sufficiency and independence.
But those aren’t the customs or traditions that I want my children to internalize. Of course, I want my kids to be independent and I am grateful that my children have a relationship with their father in a way that I never had with mine. But that doesn’t mean their father and I could ever be everything that they need. They need more than us.
At this point in my life, I feel as though I have been lied to. I was regularly told that what my mother did in raising us with extended family instead of a nuclear family was the wrong way to live life. But in many ways, this collective approach to child-rearing was far more conducive to a healthy family than my current situation. Because even though my kids are being raised by two parents, I am often alone (when my husband works long stretches away from home) and we don’t have extended family nearby. Given the opportunity, I would gladly return to those traditions of collective child-rearing and raise my children in a village-style environment.
Don’t get me wrong, having two people to raise a child is often easier than only having one. But I don’t believe the intention was ever for only two people to raise children.
Parenting — and life in general — demand so much from us. We can’t do it alone. We were never meant to. But without a larger understanding of the shortcomings of individualism, we will continue to perceive our need for community and support as deficits within ourselves.
This hits particularly hard for me as a black woman. Time and time again, we are stigmatized for extended family households. We are told that they way we love and thrive is wrong. I cannot believe that I ever accepted the lie that nuclear family parenting is the “right” way, or that it took so long to see the benefit to raising children in connection with a network of others who are invested in the success of those children.
Many of us challenge the notion of individualism in family life when we do things like ask our siblings to act as parents in our absence or send our children to their grandparent’s house so we can have a date night. Selecting godparents is another powerful way we challenge this “two parents can do it all” mentality.
Sure, it’s terrifying to trust someone else with our children. But it’s impractical to think we should be able to do it all on our own. Although we have our individual households, the ultimate goal is for us to grow up and be productive members of society. In order for us to contribute to society in a way that helps the “collective we,” we need each other.
What if we learned to look at community childrearing differently? Perhaps, instead of saying negative things about the parents who need additional help, we support all parents — especially those who are struggling — by stepping in when things get tough.
I think we’d be doing more than helping parents in need. We’d also benefit our society as a whole. It’s not hard to imagine that the more active a role we have in raising all children, the more accountable we will become to one another — and the less likely we’ll hurt each other.
Instead, we keep feeding our children the lie that everything will be better as long as we select a suitable partner to help us raise our children. One other person could never be enough to ensure that our kids have what it takes to prepare for the emotional ups and downs that come with growing up. This is especially true for children of color who are often starting from a position that lacks generational wealth and social position. Our kids need all the help we can give and they can only achieve that potential if we all lend a hand.
Of course, my life would be much easier if my husband were home more often. But it would still be hard to be geographically isolated from family. The problem is not leaving home; the problem is the seclusion so many parents feel in our society. Imagine if we found ways to work together to make parenting less isolating and more supportive.
There’s a common assumption that life is easier as long as you have a two-parent household. But while some of my single friends envy me for being married to my children’s father, I’m looking at them with envy as I watched their village expand and connect to help raise their children. Because at the end of the day, the more love that’s accessible to our children, the better we all will be.
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