Complicated Families are All Alike: The Future of Families

I've had a number of emails recently, as I've written here, at The Chatelaine's Keys (Yes, I know the site is down - there was a billing mixup that required a fax to fix - we don't have one at home and we got a foot and a half of snow on Friday, too much to bother struggling out for. The blog will be back soon, now that Eric is at work where faxes are more prevalent than out here on the farm.) and on facebook about the process of preparing to foster and eventually hopefully adopt more children that asked what this had to do with peak energy and climate change.

I'm a little reluctant to write too much about this before I've had the kids for, say, a decade. It is easy to write much about what you don't really know. So please take it as a given that I am, in some measure, speaking of theory rather than practice. I have been privileged to hear the stories of other people who have actually done the work that I anticipate doing, and I would not presume to compare my knowledge or experience to theirs. At the same time, it is a part and parcel of what I'm doing - at some basic level anyone who is honest about the implications of our environmental and economic crisis must acknowledge that we are likely to see, as Joseph Tainter has shown in his critically important work, a shift from more complex institutional structures to simpler ones.

This has profound implications for families and households - over the last decades, families have gotten complicated. I'm not referring primarily to the "new modern socially complicated family" with its in-laws and out-laws, exes and ghosts of the past, and living reminders of it and the future. In some ways that is truly different - in only a few societies in history could gay and lesbian people form a family, for example. But the differences simply aren't as great as they might seem. I should also obviously add my standard caveat whenever I write about family - that family includes both biological and chosen families. In fact, again, that was always true, and still is.

Consider a family of the 18th century England. The odds that it was a truly nuclear model - or even an extended nuclear family were pretty poor. With high mortality rates from illness and childbearing, nearly half of all children lived with someone who wasn't a parent due to remarriage. In some cases, it wasn't that unusual to bury several wives or husbands and recombine families. Consider George Washington who married a widow and raised her children. Consider all those novels about orphans sent to live with distance relatives, or the perception of "wicked" step-parents struggling with children not theirs by biology. Now add an unrelated servant or two, if you were affluent, or an unmarried relative or two if not, the occasional orphan, and you have families fully as complex as the ones that are pictured on tv in shows like Modern Family.

Consider our own more recent history - somehow a combination of television and family have convinced us that there was an era of nuclear family wholeness - and it is true that the 1950s stick out as a decade of unusual small family cohesion, in which a new experiment, the suburban nuclear family was invented. We all know that in many ways this failed, of course, but we still tend to look at the 1950s as a period that established an ideal norm. But of course, that's not necessarily true. The divorce rate, which skyrocketed during the 1940s as people married too fast for war reasons, and in which traumatized men came back from the war unable to settle in, never did decline to pre-WWII levels. Neither did levels of women working outside the home.

No, when I speak of complicated families, I mean the complications of fossil fueled industrial capitalism - peak oil activists have done a really good job of showing the degree to which oil underlies the economy, and is the background of many of the basic assumptions of our lives. We have done less work on the ways that family and household structures have been shaped by oil - just as cheap energy remade our landscape and created suburbia and car culture, it created our household landscape and our assumptions about how families could and should work.

Consider two assumptions - first, that women with young children can and should be employed in the formal economy and away from home (if they choose for a certain privileged class, whether they like it or not for many). Underlying this assumption, which has many good and positive benefits, is an enormous amount of energy. This includes the manufacturing energy that makes infant formula and high-test breast pumps that allow working women to be physically distant from children under two, and the ubiquity of home refrigeration which supports that. Consider the school buses and heated and cooled large regional schools that reduce transportation burdens, and the organized activities that enable parents of school aged children not to be home during much of the day. Consider the high energy jobs that support the modern presumptions of schooling.

Next, consider the assumption, basic to our present society, that your elderly parents when they begin to get older and cease working will not live with you. What underlies that? Well, first of all heavy participation in the stock market and industrial investment system - because we realize that few people will actually save enough or receive enough societal support to live comfortably on their own, we presume and in some cases force universal investment. What about the senior assisted living homes, the nursing homes the apartments and complexes that enable independent, semi-independent and dependent living away from home with limited visiting? What about the Medicare system that ensures you (hopefully) don't have to pay for Grandma's arthritis medicine, and the car that allows her to retain her independence for years longer than if she had to walk everywhere?

This is not a judgement on those systems, but it is important to remember that families have been transformed into fairly complicated systems by industrial fossil fuels - that those systems are both implicated in our problem (ie, you burn just as much carbon in a good use, going to visit Grandma and Grandpa as you do on your way to, say, a strip club - in fact in many cases our particular Grandmas and Grandpas are far more distant than the nearest strip club), and also vulnerable to them (funds to pay for assisted living depend on the value of housing and stock market assets which in turn depend on energy markets, etc...) It is fair to say that the level of familial complexity, at least of the energy sort, is likely to decline with other kinds of complexity, and that that is likely to make your family more socially complicated. That is, if Grandma can't stay at the assisted living place any more because she has no more money, odds are good she's going to either go to already overburdened state resources, or home to you. If you have to nurse your child in situ every time they need to eat, and if your local school district has no money for activities or busing, someone in the family isn't going to be able to have a full-time job. This is the reality.

As families get less complex in the industrial sense, they get more complex in the social sense. Grown kids come home to live with Mom and Dad, who at least (we hope) may have a paid off house. Families fracture under marital stresses, and recombine again. Health declines under lowered access, and family members step in to cover care. More and more of the burdens that have been spread over insitutional, energy and other resources get returned to the family.

The family, at least if it is anything like mine, is probably not wholly ready for this, and under considerable strains. Besides the strains of job loss and pinched budgets, of becoming extended family after being nuclear, there's the strain of finding ways to remake yourself and your notion about what is supposed to happen. For example, millions of younger people are now living with their parents in a society that is accustomed to seeing living with Mom and Dad as a sign of immaturity or failure. Remaking this mental image is an ongoing and sometimes stressful project. In a recession that has heavily hit men, millions of unemployed fathers are now home with the kids, in charge of domestic labor in a society that sees economic contributions from father as the most meaningful thing they can do. This is not easy to deal with.

Moreover, one of the things we are likely to find is that there aren't enough biological families to go around. I hear over and over from older people without children concerns about how they will manage when they get older in an increasingly complex world where many assumptions are changed. The most vulnerable people in our society - the elderly, children in unstable families and the disabled are likely to find that as more and more people are cast back on the simple structure of family, that it gets harder to find enough family to go around. Who cares for the elderly aunt and uncle whose only daughter lives a continent away, or who never had children? Who cares for the mentally ill second cousin whose own parents are too frail to do it? Who supports the unrelated individuals that are part of your community and cannot stand the strain? The answer is everyone who can - or people suffer and fall through the cracks.

As social support networks fail and systems fail, it becomes more and more important that we expand our community sense of responsibility to take up the slack where it is most evident. There will be people who are not covered, families that cannot step up, that are destroyed by increasing stresses, there will be losses that have no one to bear them, people who can't give anything. Stepping up and reconstituting your family is part of the collective project of any of us who have extra resources to share.

That doesn't mean your choices will look like mine - perhaps you will open your table, but not your whole home to the teenage daughter of a friend who has no job and needs support. Perhaps you will shore up the local social support networks for the disabled or elderly. Perhaps you will take in that aunt or the neighbor, or combine resources with another single Mom. Perhaps your brother in law will make an extended stay on your couch. Perhaps you'll offer some odd work and a couch to sleep on to a community member made temporarily homeless, or perhaps you will work to keep the shelter open in an era of declining donations. Perhaps you can aid a refugee family or provide support to economic victims. Perhaps like us, you might adopt or foster a child, or you adopt a family friend as an honorary grandparent, or open up your home to friends who are couch surfing. There are a lot of possibilities, both in the expansion and "simplifying" of families and also in the extension and redefinition of family into the larger world.

So this is what we can do - we can begin the process of reconstituting our families to the economic, environmental and social realities that we actually face. We can look at our home and see space and time and energy and love for a couple more children whose families have not been able to catch them in any kind of safety net, or perhaps for an adult with no one to turn to.. We can recognize that there have always been some casualties of our society and that there will be more and more of them, and that we individually can't provide perfect support for all of them. But that we can do our part, the part we both want and need to do, and can move from one complexity to another, from industrial complexity to the new, complicated family.

The good thing about this, is that socially complicated families are all alike in one particular way - I know this because I am the child of one. Happy families are all alike - but complicated (as opposed to unhappy) families are also similar in some important ways - among them their innate resilience and adaptability. My parents divorced, my mother is gay, my family includes children of biology and adoption, of marriage and partnership, chosen and biological family. I have a whole host of relatives for which English has no word - what do you call your lesbian step-mother's first cousin who stands roughly in the role of aunt to you, but has an adopted child from Vietnam the same age as your kid? Well, we go with "aunt" and "niece" for her daughter, fairly generationally accurate names that make little sense, but work. We have already done the work of re-defining family and how it works at least once - we can draw on that as we rebuild again in new ways.

Such families tend to be thought of as in many ways a bad thing, held up against more stable, more nuclear families as an ideal. In some ways, this may be true - my husband and I, both children of divorce when quite young, know that our children feel a security and stability we never felt. There are gifts, however, to the complicated family - one becomes accustomed to making places for new people. There is an emergent flexibility, an attentiveness to making sure everyone is recognized and included. Such things are almost instinctive, and rarely full articulated. You get a big, moveable, constantly shifting family that can be difficult to navigate - or deeply enriching. And there are lots of people to share burdens - to spread out the weight of change, to share the process of reconstituting identity with.

We are going to find ourselves losing industrial complexity - poorer, closer to home, less freedom to roam, more stress. We are also going to find ourselves gaining social complexity as we reach out and spread our wings over people who might have been "out-laws" in the old nuclear model, and now are brought in. The only hope we have in order to protect the most vulnerable people is to open up our understanding of family, and to bring in those in danger of being left out. That doesn't mean abandoning all hope of social supports, but it means as we work to shore up the social safety networks to also reinforce and open up the base supports - our families.

I can understand why my current obsession with cleaning my house for homestudies and pulling together bunk beds might look like it isn't about peak oil and climate change. In the most basic way, however, it seems to me entirely contiguous - I've always known my work on preparation won't help everyone, but maybe if I help a few people and they help a few more, you can reach out enough to make a difference. I don't wish to press anyone to do things they aren't ready for or don't want to, but the world is awash already with people in need, and will only be more so - I am adding children to my family because i want them, and also in the hopes that maybe if I open my doors a little more, someone else will look around them and see a door they might open too.

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It's going to be interesting. We're undergoing changes here, too. My oldest child has moved back- bringing his PhD with him, and has muscled his way into becoming my business partner/eventual successor. This summer, he's getting married- and they'll live here. We're feeling our way into figuring out what new building to do; where it can/should go. There will likely be new kids added. We talk about adding other people, too.

Since we're off-grid, there are basic constraints to work within; water supply, electricity generation capability needs to increase; where, how, when, etc. Road access, firewood access; sanitary facilities.

It will all certainly be very different from the long time practices of our neighbors, who typically would, of course, just build a new modern plugged-in house to accomodate generation movement, complete with new mortgage.

The expansion of your family will also provide the opportunity to introduce, and prepare, that many more young people for the "interesting" times ahead.

Its website says the organization provides referrals to agencies and businesses that provide home âhome health care, affordable housing, legal services, senior centers, assisted living facilities and disability related organizations.â

This is an utterly necessary discussion. Everywhere I turn I feel as if the discussions of peak oil, resource constraints and economic problems are being discussed with "technological solutions" without any time or attention being given to the social and psychological problems. I grew up with an indoor composting toilet but I cannot imagine how I'll get my renters to use one. Or to understand that resources are tight in the house and they need to use less/take turns etc.

My husband and I have a huge old home (working on insulating it) and rent out our extra rooms. I try different methods to grant privacy and reduce conflict. Unlike many landlords things like TP and laundry detergent are a part of their rent. I barely cover our utilities with their rents but it's a trade-off and balance I'm working to change with insulation, repairs etc.

I keep coming back to the fact that we don't have any more recent social institutions beyond the commune a few co-op living situation as templates for how to handle family (which can demand different rights/needs) and the expectation of privacy and independence that just isn't currently dealt with in our western culture. I look to Japan where adult, unmarried, children and aunts often live in multi-generation households still and find some answers but just struggle with how little this is discussed.

I want to find and experiment with better ways and some expectations up front so there is less strife when the pressures for the alcoholic aunt who is loosing her townhome and the miserable soon to divorce aunt come knocking on my door. We could have/make space for them but at what cost and under what agreement?

Please write more about your experiences with this. We sorely need discussion and awareness of the social/psychological bits to this. Thank you!

I think one reason our elderly parents go into assisted living and nursing homes is that people can now live for years with medical and nursing care are beyond the means of most untrained people to supply.

At some point, when my father reaches the point that he requires lifting and turning, my mother and I, even working together, will not be able to do this for him, and unless we can enlist the help of others, he's doomed to death from bedsores--a very simple example.

And is a nasty thought: can I trade the relatives I don't want for as-of-yet-unrelated usedful people?


It occurred to me that bringing outsiders, child or adult, into a nuclear family might liken to a form of social travel, broadening one (intellectually and emotionally) through becoming aware that other people have pasts and values - and those values and pasts may be very different.

I also like the idea of good families sharing their values and discipline, as well as skills and knowledge, with those that will form the next generation. The more children today with a good family background - or at least, exposure to one or two - the better for the families they form in the years ahead.

That, and I cannot wait to see what the next generation of interpretations of Chatelaine's Keys will be like. You know, the ones your offspring will write!

Hi there,
Indeed, our families and our society is changing rapidly. Our "culture" and "values" are still far too much aligned to the traditional family.
Many times complex families are referred to as "broken homes" or something similar.
This implies something is wrong with it. It needs fixing? These days about 40% of the marriages end up in a divorce. Gays living together and gay marriages are becoming more and more common.

The world has changed a while ago. Many people, ngos and our juridical system have not adapted to this new reality. That leads to many problems.

Good post, but I have to quibble with one part:

Consider two assumptions - first, that women with young children can and should be employed in the formal economy and away from home (if they choose for a certain privileged class, whether they like it or not for many). Underlying this assumption, which has many good and positive benefits, is an enormous amount of energy. [...]

That may be the case now, and I don't know what the situation was like historically in the USA, but here in Europe, the women of the working class always had to work in the formal economy, children or no. (As did the kids, as soon as they were old enough. We used to have kids working down coal mines from about the age of 4.) And they managed it without breast-pumps, refrigeration, or public schooling. In fact, free public schooling was introduced in the UK largely as a means of getting all those "latch-key kids" off the streets.

And in the informal rural economies of the pre-Industrial era, the women were all working plenty hard, with the kids who were too young to work alongside them hanging off their skirts.

There's a third, unspoken assumption in play here, about the nature and length of childhood.

Now, I'm not saying that a return to the bad old days of child labour, malnutrition and rickets is a good thing, but if we're unpicking our assumptions...

I have been seeing the trends of what I call the reconstituting of extended families for some time and have experienced it in my own home as well. I have told many that the economic declines created by peak oil and related economic crises will have profound effects on how we view family. My husband found a full time position after being out of work for a year and I have a 3/4 time position. My son and daughter-in-law along w/their two children live w/ us. My son attends college 5 days a week from 8 am to 4pm and provides childcare in the evenings so my daughter-in-law can work second shift. In this way we share childcare b/t all of us and one parent (the one who was found work first) is able to earn some income. In addition, we have my son's best friend living upstairs in a make shift studio area b/c he is underemployed and cannot afford to live on his own. My mother is considering the sale of her home and moving in either with my sister or myself b/c of the mounting medical costs not covered my Medicare. All family members use commuting to assist w/ reducing transportation costs. It seems that our family keeps growing and we keep distributing costs over everyone. We all pitch in to do what we can and we have all had to learn that a complicated family life means learning more communication and coping skills, and while I'm sure my son yearns to rule his own roost, he may have to settle for ruling his own room.

Ben de kendi deÄerleri ve disiplin paylaÅımı iyi ailelerin fikir yanı sıra beceri ve bilgi, bu ile yeni nesil oluÅturacak gibi. Ãocuklar bugün iyi bir aile geçmiÅi ile daha - ya da en azından maruz kalma bir ya da iki - onlar önümüzdeki yıllarda form aileler için daha iyi.

Hey Dunc - You are right of course, although "away from home" was intended as the critical emphasis there - while a certain portion of the working class always worked away from home as servants, and another portion worked at home - ie, lived in, as servants, the preponderance of the out-of-home work is a modern industrial invention. One study I read recently showed that about half of all women in the Depression were working women - but overwhelmingly worked from home. Taking in laundry, childcare, elder care, cooking, etc... The 17th century equivalent was spinning - paid like burger flipping, but you could do it at home with your kids. There's an enormous difference between doing those things with your kids present and in a society where kids must be absented from the workplace, structurally speaking. But yes, I agree.


Interesting post. We too have had folks live with us from time to time when they were in difficulties. Both of our children have established separate residences but in the same area. This sometimes is a good solution. A discussion of how to accomodate difficult relatives and friends would be much appreciated.

All family members use commuting to assist w/ reducing transportation costs. It seems that our family keeps growing and we keep distributing costs over everyone. We all pitch in to do what we can and we have all had to learn that a complicated family life means learning more communication and coping skills, and while I'm sure my son yearns to rule his own roost, he may have to settle for ruling his own room.

Thank you for this very thoughtful essay on changing definitions of families, as more are economically stressed, flexibly configured voluntary families. It reminds me of what pioneers my mom and stepfather were, opening our home to many others in need for varying periods (way back in the 70s and early 80s). When I was growing up in our blended family (four of us from my parents, 3 from my stepfather's first family), I resented how Mom and Dad (my stepdad) kept inviting their foreign graduate students to live with us. I felt like we had plenty of unmet emotional needs of our own without bringing unrelated people into it. But after I'd left home and was living in Japan, they got very involved with sponsoring and resettling an extended family of Cambodian refugee, who are all, almost 30 years later, gainfully employed American citizens and assets to their community. I'm proud of what my folks (especially Mom) did. I'm living with a partner, we're in our 50s now, without kids, trying to get back on our feet financially, and contemplating a potentially impoverished old age isn't pleasant. Will we be able to fit in someone else's family, such as my nieces or nephews? Here's hoping.

By Jeanmarie (not verified) on 01 Mar 2011 #permalink

Good luck, Sharon. I recently finished the home study process and was certified. I am looking forward to the challenges ahead. Best wishes to you.