Beyond the Nuclear Family

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By now in this era of ours, many of us have come to discover that the definitions of what a parent is, and how a family should operate are far more complex than perhaps we thought in generations past. This is, of course, a good thing. When it comes to things as important as these, it is necessary to be relieved of our illusions.

nuclear familyPerhaps more accurately, it’s important to expand those initial perceptions so that we can see all of the details that we might have missed when it comes to who our supporters are when it comes to parenting and family.And I’m willing to bet that for most people, that support goes well beyond the efforts of Mom and Dad in a singular household, and beyond the false idol of the Nuclear Family cultural ideal.

One of my best and most useful realizations since my daughter was born was this: being a parent isn’t about having to do a job at which I am in constant danger of messing up. I am not, as it turns out, the single point of failure where the welfare of my daughter is concerned. Unfortunately, I think there are many cultural currents that suggest that we must be towering pillars of strength, and rugged parental individualists who always win the day by sheer acts of will. According to these ideals, we have to be these self-sacrificing demi-gods, chock full of wisdom under any conditions, while denying ourselves and own happiness and health, just so that our children can have better lives. And of course, we must do it without anyone’s help.

But it seems to me that when it comes to being a good parent, success isn’t about being a superhuman, child-rearing messiah. For me, it’s about being willing to enter into a process of becoming the best version of myself as I can, so I can show that to my 5-year old daughter. It can’t be about simply becoming good at a job that I’m doing in some kind of parental vacuum. The doing should really come out of the being. But, this is hard to do in isolation. I actually can’t imagine how anyone could do it that way. For my part, I need headspace to do this well. I need times of reflection, and alone time. And for that, I need the perspectives and support of people I love and trust around me. I need community.

I am now a single, part-time parent, although I consider myself on-call until my daughter is 18. I see my daughter twice during the week in the evenings, and all day Saturday, and Sunday morning. Never has the nuclear family ideal been so out of reach for me. But, even when I was in a traditional family unit, that ideal was very much still out of reach, largely because I wasn’t reaching for it. I had help being a Dad, and still do. I couldn’t have done without it. Everyone needs help. And this need certainly extended, and extends, beyond me, and my (now ex) partner.

When I think of the support it took, and takes, to maintain a healthy parental state of mind where I can actually be an effective Dad, the cultural mistruth of the isolated, steady-as-a-rock, self-contained family unit and iron-willed parent becomes more and more insubstantial. More insubstantial still becomes the idea that I always have to have the right answer for every situation, and that I have to deny myself constantly to serve this job of parenting in order for my daughter to grow up well. That’s too much pressure for anyone to bear, including my daughter who doesn’t need some stressed out person as her Dad. I don’t believe that martydom is as effective as gratitude.

The recognition that others in my life and their generous and loving efforts to support me and my daughter are nothing short of awesome has been an incredible force in feeling that success is being achieved where doing my part in raising my daughter is concerned. How would my daughter be as happy and healthy as she is if not for the efforts of her Gramm? What about those of her Nana? Both of these women have stepped in countless times to help my ex and me when life throws us curve balls.

And what about her Aunties and Uncles? They are as invested in my daughter’s welfare as I am, and as my ex is. They share our burden, and we help out in return with their kids. This is not to mention my friends, and my ex’s friends, who regularly give love and affection to our daughter to show her how much she’s valued as a person, and sometimes a stern word for the purposes of showing her where the boundaries are. They are making a valuable contribution to the development of our daughter. They all teach her something. They teach me things too. And thus, the road to becoming is taken, for everyone.

I am still Dad, of course. My daughter and I have a unique connection, after all. I still have the ultimate responsibility to be the best parent I can be to honour that connection, regardless of the circumstances. That is my calling. But, I don’t think my daughter is going to look back and examine what a good, or bad, job I did as a Dad. I think she’ll look back and remember what kind of person I was when she was growing up, and how that vision of me as her Dad helped to shape, perhaps, the person she’s started on the road to becoming herself.

And I think too that she’ll remember all of the people in her life that contributed to her growth, while at the same time giving her parents space to actually enjoy it along with her, rather than having reduced her childhood development as a set of tasks or obligations. Being supported by a community of people who love us enables this process to unfold as it should. It makes parenting a more meaningful quest, because it gives everyone room to breathe, to think, and to make decisions based on real character and honest values. It gives everyone space to be at peace, and to become who they need to become, children and parents all.

My daughter, and her Mum, and me, are supported by a network of people willing to help out. They love us, and they want to see us all happy, healthy, and in rested states of mind, so that we, once again, can be that person, not just do that job. And we feel the same about them, and their kids.We need each other, and that’s not about falling short of some Nuclear Family ideal.

It’s our family. And it has no limits.

Author: Rob Jones

Photo: Karenee Art

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