Someone is missing from the nuclear family

Lauren W. McCall & Katarzyna Nowak

Western women have everything we said we wanted. We go to work, have satisfying full-time professions (though not yet with equal pay), and have families, often with loving, co-parenting husbands. Why are we still not happy?

Why, for example, is there such a high rate of divorce? We (Western, heterosexual women) are losing attraction for – and divorcing – our male partners. Meanwhile, our institutionalized children lack the heritage skills and outdoor knowledge of the equally institutionalized elders they rarely see. Our families lack balance. Is it because we are asking our partners to fill the many gaps that have been created by the shrinking of the modern nuclear family? We’ve seen men feminize as they stand-in for all the divisions of labor no longer fulfilled by extended, trans-generational broader families and communities. What is missing from the nuclear family is the grandmother.

The grandmother, menopausal and long living, is the human birthright, a critical piece of the reproduction and child-rearing process. The extended developmental period of childhood, equally unique, evolved in concert with the grandmother, facilitating the otherwise impossible professions and multiple matings of the over-worked mother. How could we overlook the evolutionarily evolved wider network of grandmothers, aunts, female cousins and sisters in the raising of children, during the birth process and in lactation)? This traditional mommy group, our evolutionary heritage, with the unique human trait of synchronous but concealed ovulation, had the original evolutionary purpose of confusing paternity to ward off the infanticide so common among primates. But it became essential to child-rearing as the period of childhood lengthened in response. Children came to depend on this extended care network and women too, as we found so many opportunities opening up in our ever-complexifying culture. Why would we look to our male mate to fulfill the role of the mommy group (we are not penguins!)?

Humans are polygamous, yet we are trying to enforce social monogamy in a polygamous species – with what results? Institutionalized marital bonds whose boundaries are controlled by the capitalist State are an attempt at enforced social monogamy. In humans, this could lead to an exaptation – an unintended consequence – females’ enforcement of unnaturally high rates of paternal care from / by a single male individual that has pushed female kin out!


Yet we are inconsistent with what we are asking. In one part of our cycle (ovulatory phase), we choose males of a rough, dominant, even aggressive demeanor, while during the other part, we appear to be seeking a feminized, emotionally supportive and stable, paternal male.


We have to take responsibility for these conflicts. Only then will we realize and accept that we are not seeking a feminized male, but rather support during non-ovulatory phases from  a wider network of kin. Yet female kin have essentially been pushed out of our families because we have unnaturally limited the nuclear unit.

We are radically changing our socioecology through our ill informed choices – not grounded in evolution but swayed by the demands of the capitalist system and competitive national job market which has stripped the family down to its minimum. No grandmother and therefore no heritage skills, no childhood home and therefore no bio-ethic or connection to the ancestral habitat base. Is this what we wanted? Does this give us the results we wished for? How do we reclaim what the feminists promised?

Women can have the careers and families they want – but we need good grandmothers. The children deserve this too. The children don’t need nurseries/day-care centers (carpeted fishbowls away from nature!), impermanent teenage nannies, or feminized males as much as they need permanent allo-mothers. Otherwise, we are buying our wool blankets in pottery barn (“made in China”) rather than learning how to knit these from our female relatives! (metaphorical and literal here). A multi-generational matrilineal process is what we need to re-instate. Children have the luxury of time – they are looking to acquire skills. The only ones who have the time to be teachers are / or were the grandmothers. But because Western women reproduce relatively late (in their mid- to late thirties and early forties), by then the potential grandmothers have already found new lifestyles. They are either professional or retired with hobbies.

Our ancestral state is one of male hunting bands leaving the women’s group behind. When we are not ovulating, we are not actually seeking males, we are seeking other women! Grandmothers, sisters, aunts, in-law females are uniquely equipped to care, cook, cooperate, and multi-task around the home base. We expect our men to compete well in the larger world and work full time and to co-parent (– or be stay-at-home-dads –) and be lovers – this is recipe for divorce and for over-domesticated, tame males we no longer respect or are attracted to. Overworked women are overworking their men.

Women have a lot of power in our choices – we must stop acting like pawns of the male-political capitalist state. Women have the power not only to reproduce, feed, and educate the next generation, but also the powers of education, sex and influence in the current generation – e.g. the Lysistrata strategy employed in Liberia to bring peace.  Now, Western women misuse these powers by channeling them into the capitalist system to gain more money and material wealth. Rather, we should use that power for our children, our Earth, and for our own personal happiness.


At the center of our ideal family remains the strong female in a male-female pair bond, albeit with outside matings accepted for both sexes. Our point is that this relationship can be strongest if childcare is shared with a broader childcare network made up of permanent relations among multiple generations, kin or non-kin. Why waste this extraordinary gift of nature to our children? We can reclaim the grandmother in whatever set of loving, permanent ties we deem valuable, or have available. The strong female with career and family needs a permanent multi-generational support network, in order to 1) save our partnerships from divorce, 2) save Biophilia for the sake of our children and The Earth and 3) preserve heritage human skills. Let’s intentionally choose valuable traditions and inform which parts of our culture we carry on sustainably (e.g. artisanal manufacturing, agricultural and horticultural knowledge, food processing, livestock rearing) especially in the context of the current ecological crisis.



2 thoughts on “Someone is Missing from the Nuclear Family

  1. These are thought-provoking points. I think that the decline of the village community or neighborhood community structures play a role in how nuclear families work now. In addition to grandmothers, kids in tighter communities have teachers, cousins, babysitters, aunts, uncles, neighbors, parents’ friends, etc. Urban families also don’t have much Nature to let kids have unstructured play without much risk of stranger violence.

  2. Pingback: ESSAY: Human Females Should (Could) Be More Like Elephant Females – Voices

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