There are very few times I sit in awe a piece of writing. But I did earlier this week. It was David Brooks’ newest long-form piece in The Atlantic: The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake. It’s a wonderful exploration of the changing structure of the American family. How it’s changed all our lives and mine. I recommend you give it a read. But one thing from the piece stood out to me the most: the family you make.
“For tens of thousands of years, people commonly lived in small bands of, say, 25 people, which linked up with perhaps 20 other bands to form a tribe,” Brooks writes. These bands did everything together. They fed, protected, even raised each other. While it sounds like what we define as a family today, Brooks argues, it was very different. These kinships weren’t biological like our concept of kin today, they were people they chose. “Extended families in traditional societies may or may not have been genetically close, but they were probably emotionally closer than most of us can imagine.”
I live in one of those small bands today, at least I feel I do. I surprise people when I say I’ve lived with the same group of roommates since my freshman year of college, but it’s true. During my freshman year, I let the Carolina Housing computer place me. It assigned me a roommate and six other suitemates. I walked in the first day not knowing any of them. Of course, I stalked them on social media before. I tried to learn as much as I could glean, but by move-in day I still had no idea who I was living with.
We weren’t close friends at first. I hung out with people I knew before Carolina. I went back home a few times those first weeks but slowly we gravitated towards each other. Sharing a single toilet helped.
We started a group chat and got meals in the dining hall more and more often. Over those shared meals, we got to know each other’s stories, what made each of us tick. We became closer. We started to hang out more and more.
Next thing we know, it’s time to figure out where to live again. The Chapel Hill real estate market is the most cutthroat, insane thing I’ve yet to experience. Seven of the eight of us decided to move together a little up the hill from Hinton James to Morrison to do it all again.
Sophomore year we got a new suitemate to fill the empty spot in our merry little band. We got a transfer student from an NC community college a year above us. He fit in almost immediately. We both grew together and apart that year. I left the country for a semester and some of our little band moved on.
Junior year we moved into two separate groups. Two of the original eight left to be closer to north campus. Seven of us, including our former suitemate from freshman year, split into two groups. We lived in on-campus apartments. It was harder to move as a band this time. We lived apart for the first time. But we stayed together somehow. Always looking out for each other and trying to spend time together whenever we could.
This year is when everything fell into place. I and three others finally moved far off campus to an apartment. While four others remained on campus for various reasons and one graduated.
Living together in the apartment the four of us have grown closer. We’ve congealed into a family of sorts. We look after each other. Make sure everyone is doing well. And generally, we enjoy living together. Members of our little tribe still on campus come and visit often. Each of them has developed their new band closer to where they sleep. Yet, we still manage to spend time together when we can.
Keeping the rest of my friends close as possible has helped develop my family in Chapel Hill. I don’t know if I could have gotten this close to graduating if it was not for them. The bonds I’ve developed here at Chapel Hill may change as we graduate and move across the country. And I don’t know if our band will remain as close once we don’t share a kitchen and living room. But I have hope in the kinship I’ve developed with them over the past four years.
But I know two truths. First, Brooks’ is right in the way we as a society should start looking at the family. Individuality is important, but its community that nourishes the soul. Second, is I’ve found an extended family and nothing, not distance, not time, is going to change that.