Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

The Bourgeois Nuclear Family

Isabelle Herbst

The bourgeois nuclear family is considered to be stuffy. It is not seen as being a place for innovative social relationships. Such innovative relationships are to be found in alternative housing arrangements or in open relationships. The bourgeois nuclear family tends to be seen as boring and mainstream.

But these clichés obscure the real question: How do we want to live? Or how do we want to live out and experience our own relationships? Relationships with concrete people? Or also to things, to living beings, to a place or to a landscape? For doesn't the bourgeois nuclear family also illustrate that a relationship always consists of a network of relationships? And that not only people are involved in this network of relationships? But above all also things and places - things that can be owned as well as places that can be inhabited?

Thus the petit bourgeois living room is also a cliché in our time. It is impossible to imagine it without a set of couches, the huge flat-screen TV, the coffee table, the armchair and shelf units. It's interesting to see which elements you can leave out of this and the cliché, which is so often also lived, still functions. But as soon as you visit a petit bourgeois nuclear family, the visitor is actually surprised by the ubiquity of this cliché.

So how, then, do we want to live? Isn’t this the basic problem underlying every form of togetherness, even if it is just a relationship simply consisting of two people? And doesn’t it also relate to how being and living for oneself is possible while being together intimately with someone else? Self-determination of the individual is here combined simultaneously with consideration of and help for the needs of others but is this actually possible? This problem also exists by the way in hip, open relationships as well as in housing projects not to mention in the bourgeois nuclear family itself. It, therefore, ought to be possible to modernize the bourgeois nuclear family on the basis of these values. The nuclear family does not necessarily have to practice open forms of relationships, it does not have to be a patchwork family and it does not have to function as the meaning of life of a bourgeois existence. A new image could be that of a base camp from which those who are actively involved set out on new expeditions: be it going to work, visiting friends, engaging in political activism in social movements - in other words, doing the activities of a citizen.

What might such a nuclear family actually look like? We can already observe some of the first seeds of the new nuclear family when we go and visit real, existing nuclear families.

We clearly see a web of relationships at work in the nuclear family. There are times when everyone is together, at common meals, celebrations, outings, etc. But it would be very uncomfortable if we wanted to do all activities together. Accordingly, there are times when everyone is together (family time), times when a part of the nuclear family is together (care time), times when everyone is doing something for themselves (work time and free time).

In general, the problem of individual freedom in the nuclear family, especially for children up to elementary school age, is the freedom of the adults involved. They often take turns, as can be observed in modern nuclear families, caring for the children. Some go so far as to write weekly schedules in which the respective tasks are equally distributed: taking the kids to daycare/school, picking them up from there, putting them to bed. This gives the adults the option of either going to work earlier, coming home later, or spending the afternoon with friends or acquaintances, enjoying culture, going for a walk or simply being alone. The other adult, on the other hand, can maintain his or her relationships with the children, do something with them, go to museums, go shopping, do handicrafts, play sports, etc. Similarly, the weekend can be divided up into separate and common times.

Furthermore, the family is often still an economic unit and is treated as such. Even unmarried couples, should they happen to live together in a household with their own children, are obliged by the state to support each other. By the way: this makes it even more senseless to get married in the first place. The New Marriage is the custody of a common child. However, the freedom of one adult towards the other lies in having separate finances. This is the only way of ensuring that one adult does not take on the role of breadwinner or provider and the other adult takes more care of the children or provides for the household. Rather, household activities, such as cleaning, laundry, shopping, are shared equally. This works better if the corresponding things in the household are separated from each other: the parents then have their own refrigerator compartment, like in a shared apartment, and each one goes shopping for themselves (and the "for themselves" also includes the children), the dirty clothes are collected separately: each adult for himself or herself and for the children. The children's clothes are also washed when an adult does his or her laundry.

According to all of this, then, the freedom of the family members, which makes it possible to come together for common activities, lies in various forms of separation. Each family member has their own space. The idea that there is a children's room, a bedroom, a living room and a kitchen can be abandoned so that not only the children have retreats where they can be by themselves and for themselves but the adults as well.

The modernized, bourgeois nuclear family thus aims at equality, personal responsibility and the granting of free spaces - for everyone involved. The older the children get, the more they can grow into this network. They take on various responsibilities and thus communal tasks, can be for themselves and then come back to what is shared. Even when the children have grown up at some point, they will always be welcome to return to this common ground, of their own volition, full of trust and a sense of responsibility, insofar as this new form of nuclear family has succeeded in not being torn apart through internal quarrels.


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