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Sometimes I can’t resist a smile when I hear wistful talk about the nuclear family and its importance to a good society. You see, when I first became aware of the term, it was applied not to a desirable way to rear children but to the polar opposite.

When I married and bought a house in the early seventies, I moved from an urban village to a suburban town. I was part of a movement which was discussed as a cause for concern. Growing up, my extended family lived within one postal district; everyone was a bus trip or even a walk away. Many other families were closer still, with grandparents, aunts and uncles in their immediate vicinity. By the 70s young people were moving to suburban housing estates built on expensive, rezoned lands, where everyone was of an age and income, and lived very similar lives, disconnected from routine daily family contacts. Public transport and other infrastructure had not been a condition when approving housing estates. Visiting became a chore and the better off kept up wider family contact by buying a car. Concerned debate focussed on the role of planning in pulling communities and the extended family apart, and reducing society to, yes, nuclear families. Perhaps if “atomic family” had become the term, subsequent debate would have been clearer.

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