What is “Nuclear Meltdown” all about?

Family values. Nuclear families. Intentional families. Extended families. Covenant marriage. Arranged marriage. Interracial marriage. Gay marriage. Gay divorcees. Broken homes. Single parents. Adoptive parents. Surrogate parents. Test-tube babies. Crack babies. War babies. Stepfamilies. Blended families. Quiverfull families. Polygamy. Polyamory. Possibility.

In 21st-century America, the only kind of family that doesn’t exist is a “typical” one. Over the past century, the law has opened up options like interracial marriage and, more recently, gay marriage. Divorce has lost its stigma. So has remaining single and/or child-free. You could argue that in terms of relationships and family structure, modern Americans enjoy a level of freedom never before seen in history, and rarely seen elsewhere even today.

Why? Is it social progress or moral decay? Is it due to our cultural melting pot? Is it a function of democracy? These things may play a role, but they would not have had this kind of effect without one primary force driving change.


Over the past couple of centuries, advances in science, medicine and technology have led to massive changes in human lifespan, health, communications and reproduction. From industrialized agriculture to the Pill, from the automobile to DNA testing, these developments have deeply affected the way we run our most personal relationships. Sex is divorced from parenting. Marriage is an emotional choice rather than an economic necessity. Babies survive more often, children reach puberty earlier, adults marry later, and we all tend to live longer. All of these things have had profound effects on how we relate and procreate.

The rate of technological change has been massive and fast. Socially, we’re floundering. Old rules governing sexual behavior, courtship, marriage, and family structure no longer work. The controversy over legalizing gay marriage illustrates our struggle to reconcile historic definitions of marriage with newer ideals of love and companionship. Some people advocate throwing all the old standards away. Many—probably most—people cobble together a patchwork of old and new. Still others cling to the past in an effort to curtail what they see as a decline in family values.

That won’t work. We can’t take a model for a family in the 1800s, or the 1950s, or the dawn of Christianity, and slap it onto a lesbian couple in Boston, a pregnant teenager in Boise, a polyamorous quad in Berkeley, or a child-free retiree in Burbank. For that matter, we can’t slap it on on a heterosexual two-parent family with a stay-at-home mom in Buffalo, either.

This blog will explore how the American family is changing, the causes and effects of those changes, and the battles being waged over them. I call it “Nuclear Meltdown” as a reference both to the “traditional” (not really) nuclear family and to one particular technology that changed the world in a profound way, for better or for worse.

I will examine demographic, scientific, and historical data to tease out the facts behind the rhetoric from all sides of the political spectrum. I will examine romantic relationships, marriage, sex, fertility, family planning, parenting, extended family relations, household makeup, and human lifespan and development. And I will invite discussion about how we can build and raise families within the contexts of our own moral and social ideals, informed by history, and with conscious choices about how we use the scientific discoveries and technological developments of our time.

Because they are not going away.