Cynthia M. Allen: Coronavirus pandemic proves how much we all need extended families

Cynthia M. Allen: Coronavirus pandemic proves how much we all need extended families

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In February — a lifetime ago — columnist David Brooks declared the nuclear family “a mistake” in a much debated piece for The Atlantic.

His thesis was that our vision of the ideal family — a mother, father and a couple of kids in the home together — is failing many people largely because a dwindling number of us are able to achieve and sustain it.

Americans are “hungering to live in extended and forged families” he wrote, declaring that modern social dynamics offer us “a significant opportunity to thicken and broaden family relationships.”

He couldn’t have foreseen this, but with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, we’re learning just how indispensable extended and curated families are to society’s survival.

Last week, I wrote about the unexpected blessing of spending our days with our children during this time of quarantine and isolation.

Those sentiments ring true for many people who are enjoying the sudden halt to the busyness of life. For those of us with comfortable homes, jobs that can be done remotely and stable relationships, this time may feel like a respite.

The problem is that fewer than half of American families live this way.

As Brooks bleakly describes, American culture is far-flung from this idyllic vision.

Only about half of American children will grow up with both biological parents.

More than half of Americans ages 18 to 34 are living without a spouse or romantic partner.

There are more American homes with pets than with kids.

Nearly one-third of older Americans and almost 40% of senior women live alone. Many are dying alone.

As of 2012, only 9.6% of households had five or more people.

The litany of statistics is depressing, especially in a time of prosperity. It illustrates an atomized and individualistic society and explains much of its wreckage — depression, inequality, addiction, isolation, abuse.

But in a global crisis like the one we’re living through, these harsh realities are magnified.

Without the sharing of burdens, pooling of resources and emotional support that our extended familial relationships provide, our small, isolated households have trouble weathering this catastrophe alone.

When schools were closed, we began seeing single-parent households, without relatives nearby, suddenly desperate to find child care.

When businesses started closing and leaving people out of work, the financial shocks, particularly to those without extended family to help fulfill basic needs, began to hit.

And now, with shelter-in-place orders issued, strained and broken families crippled by financial stress and without grandparents, aunts, cousins — whoever — to serve as emotional or physical buffers are beginning to erupt, leaving domestic violence shelters full and children vulnerable to abuse.

It isn’t difficult to see the vital role that healthy families play at this time. And in many cases, large, extended and curated families working together have a better chance of weathering this crisis and its aftermath.

I’m not suggesting that people should endanger relatives that might be more susceptible to illness. Minimizing human contact through social distancing beyond our nuclear families is intended to limit the spread of COVID-19.

But it seems likely, if correct precautions are taken, that even larger, multigenerational households that were living together before the virus hit could continue to do so. And much of the collateral damage and added stresses of life during a pandemic might be reduced if not alleviated by the additional eyes watching children, hands sharing work and salaries contributing to the collective good.

It is both an irony and a cruelty that in this moment, isolating ourselves with only the members of our household is the best way to ensure individual safety.

It is also proof that our long-term survival is far from certain if we continue to live this way.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at

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