This story is part of Black Ballad’s takeover of HuffPost UK, a week-long series by Black women on parenting, family, and our post-Covid future.
The nuclear family is often seen as synonymous with achieving optimal citizen status. Our lives are inundated with references to it: celebrations of marriage, talk of “blood ties”, and images of couples with their own biological children.
I’m certainly not the first to argue against the idea of the nuclear family as the natural pillar of love (see the brilliant US academic Hortense Spillers). We can love and care for biological relatives, of course, but in a rapidly changing society I join many others in calling for an urgent extension of this practice.
Communal living that disrupts the nuclear family has always existed, but many will still find it difficult to imagine this for themselves. However, changes in the home mean that living as part of a blended family is more likely for many of us.
Blended families are nothing new, but living in opposition to ‘the familial ideal’ means positive portrayals of our lives are scarce. Successful blended families are grounded in the love and care of existing children and previous partners – too often, the stigmas surrounding blended families are the product of society’s outdated idylls.
However, as we continue to re-imagine our lives during and beyond Covid-19, the idolisation of the nuclear family is swiftly running out of legitimacy.
My relationship with my partners’ daughters and their mum is a radical feminist act of solidarity, one I have written about before for Black Ballad. So much of who I am is nurtured by my relationship with these women. While not being related, we have a close bond and their presence is still one of the most unpredictable gifts presented in my life.
In our mealtime chats during lockdown, they continuously pushed me to think more imaginatively about society. So here is a future to ponder: could Covid-19 speed up the possibility of more people rejecting the nuclear family?
Central to how I think about blended families have been the writings of Black feminists such as Patricia Hill Collins, who has continuously encouraged a critique of our widespread admiration for nuclear families.
Although blended families can still be hostage to the way that inequalities (capitalism!) infiltrate the home, the rich history of Black feminist thought on “family abolition” addresses emancipatory frameworks of love and care, which can offer fundamental lessons for newly blended families.
This potential for blended families is not about positioning them as beyond criticism – I’m aware that many people reading this will have had negative experiences. Likewise, many will have been part of loving nuclear families.
We can acknowledge this while also recognising that ‘traditional’ families are predisposed to breakdown. And by focusing on the care practised in ‘successful’ blended families, we can start imagining radical possibilities beyond what Sophie Silverstein describes as the “genetic lottery” of the nuclear family.
Throughout most of my childhood my mother’s partner made my home life uncomfortable and abusive. Regardless of a family’s makeup, many young people were locked down in such spaces; many were stuck with adults who they never chose to reside with, who do not love or protect them.
I’ve recently found myself thinking how I would have survived those conditions as my teenage self during the lockdown.
I’ve also been thinking about how happy blended families have been suited to the sudden change in our ways of living and (constantly) being at home. Our collective efforts and the associated skills that have allowed us to live in opposition to tradition could be of critical value in these moments.
“The time we spend nurturing relationships make blended families ideally situated to adapt to locked-down life – we’ve practised”
Fellow blended family dwellers will tell you about the importance of space, communication and adaptability. Living with the utmost consideration of others when it comes to our interactions is a radical way of approaching relationships. Timing, emotional space, and understanding are not something we can take for granted. The time we spend nurturing these relationships make us ideally situated to adapt to locked-down life – we’ve practised!
For those of us raised in families where adults created oppressive environments, the thought of entering a family with existing children or broken-down relationships is something many of us vow to avoid.
But life happens, and the things we promise to escape as young people re-emerge as the best things to ever happen to us. Rather than relentlessly promoting the nuclear family setup, it’s in these unexpected relationships where society could discover the most compelling case studies and variety of approaches to ‘family’ which prioritise love and care for all.
This article was commissioned for HuffPost UK by Black Ballad, the lifestyle platform that tells stories of human experience through the eyes of Black British women and elevates their voices. If you would like to read more, become a Black Ballad member to get unlimited access to content, events and discounts, and to connect to its community of like-minded women.