Parenting young kids is exhausting. Should we rethink the nuclear family?

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by Sophie Brickman

“Mothers tend to assume the majority of child-rearing responsibility. But without communities and multigenerational living setups we wouldn’t have survived as a species…”

The other morning, I found myself nursing the baby while scrambling eggs for my kindergartner

and cajoling my preschooler to stop sucking on her marshmallow scratch-and-sniff marker.’ My husband, Dave, and I welcomed a third child into the family in July and spend much of our days flinging kiddos back and forth, relying heavily on a network of relatives and paid help and plotting Nasa-level strategies to get out the door.

As I deftly transferred the eggs to a plate, ever so lightly steaming the back of the baby’s head, I flashed back to a conversation I’d had before he was born. Back then, during the early days of the pandemic, we’d moved in with my parents, something decided upon after their doctor forbade my mother and father from passing the door jamb. We quarantined separately, then hunkered down together for six months. Despite its complications, the experience was wonderful for all three generations, and particularly so for us in the middle, who can always use extra sets of loving hands for baby wrangling. When I found out I was pregnant again, and with the impending tsunami of three-on-two parenting headed my way, I started poking around to see how other people were doing it.

That’s how I found Avary Kent. She’s part of the Alt-Parenting movement, which seeks to redefine the traditional family structure, and is raising her daughter, Tavi, with two men in Oakland: Zeke Haus, her husband and Tavi’s biological father; and David Jay, an asexual activist who’d always wanted a child but wasn’t quite sure how to have one – until he befriended Kent.

The trio has been featured in various mainstream outlets, with Jay’s story often taking center stage, but I was more curious about Kent’s experience. Mothers reflexively tend to assume the majority of the child-rearing responsibility. Can that imperative – be it biological or cultural – actually be divvied up equally? Could you devise a system to take the onus of child rearing off two – and if we’re being honest, usually one – main caregivers? I wondered.

“Absolutely,” Kent told me when I reached her by phone. And it started to happen, she told me, right after birth. “Sure, I had to feed her every two hours, but I always had fresh support because every other night, the boys would trade off getting a full night’s rest. I joke that it saved my marriage with Zeke

because we never hit that stress and tension point that comes from just being under-slept.”

I’m in the thick of nursing again, but more to the point, fear I’ve been in a state of anxiety-fueled semi-awakeness since early 2020. Did I flip my lid when the “strip of bacon” Halloween costume arrived from Amazon one size too large (the kindergartner asked that we go as “breakfast”) and then demanded that, in the name of gender equality, Dave spend the rest of the evening searching the internet for a better-fitting pork product? Did his usually steady demeanor start to fray? Maybe.

Not only was Kent’s warmth and frankness reassuring and approachable, particularly to someone who considers herself about as basic and mainstream as they come, but her message made utter sense. Kent told me of a night when Tavi had been inconsolable for hours. “It felt like an eternity,” she remembered. “So David and I just sat together, by her bed, while she imploded. She’s crying, and I’m crying, and he’s holding my hand. Knowing I had this other person with me, it was huge.”

I’d found it so hard to listen to my daughters cry during sleep training that I had to leave. The minute I closed the front door behind me and stepped outside, I felt awash in relief – but also guilty that Dave was doing this particularly grueling task solo. If he’d been there with someone else, I’d likely have felt a whole lot better – so long as that someone else wasn’t also going to have sex with him after the baby fell asleep.

OK, but what if you can’t find a completely devoted third parent who happens to be asexual, and thus doesn’t introduce the inevitable tensions that would arise from throwing attraction and power dynamics into the mix? Kent acknowledges the uniqueness of her situation while pointing out that there are still things mainstream parents can learn from her path – if only by realizing that other paths do exist, and that intentionality is critical. The trio drew up a contract before Tavi was born, which I found on Alt-Parenting substack. Parts of it read like a military negotiation handbook – there are weekly meetings, for example, and each party can “block” the other when it comes to important decisions – but the point is that the gargantuan task of raising a successful human often comes down to a series of decisions, which many parents reflexively attack like Frogger, without any guiding principles.

The closest thing my husband and I have to a parenting contract is that after I do the third “last book,” he’ll sing Billy Joel’s Lullabye to the girls on repeat until they fall asleep, and if he comes out before they’re fully down, I get to burn any clothes he hasn’t put away. But, blocks and weekly meetings aside,

Kent was careful to underscore that she doesn’t believe they are doing anything particularly new.

“The nuclear family is not that old, is deeply flawed, and is very broken,” she said. Villages, communities, multigenerational living setups: they’re the way we’ve lived for millennia, and are deeply rooted in our cores. Literally. Without them, we wouldn’t have survived as a species. “I very much believe the three of us are pulling back to a much more traditional form of family,” she said before we hung up. “We haven’t invented anything new.”

Dave returned from his business trip. I can now nurse the baby while he scrambles the eggs. Would a third set of hands be appreciated? Absolutely.

Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age.

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