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Nuclear vs Extended Family: A Woman's Role

Nuclear vs Extended Family
Photo by Mike Scheid on Unsplash

Family structures look different all around the world and have changed throughout history. One constant, however, has been the role of the woman as caretaker and nurturer. The two most prominent family structures we see today are nuclear families and extended families, but is one more liberating for women than the other? What are the differences between nuclear family and extended family? 

Table of Contents:

What Is the Difference Between the Nuclear and Extended Family?

So, what are the characteristics of an extended family or nuclear family? By understanding how these two family structures work, we can better discuss their impact on women. It's important to note first that these are just the typical characteristics. There are plenty of nuclear and extended families that deviate from norms and traditions. 

5 Characteristics of the Nuclear Family:

  1. Two parents: Traditionally, a nuclear family would consist of a married man and woman. Modern definitions, however, recognize nuclear families that include same-sex parents and unmarried parents.

  2. Minor children: Minor children don't have to be biological children of the couple. To be a nuclear family, they simply must be socially recognized as the couple's children.

  3. One household: The family lives in one residence, meaning the parents aren't separated and children don't have to move from one household to another.

  4. Shared values: Nuclear families generally share family values, moral principles, and traditions that are passed down from the parents to the children.

  5. Children leaving: In nuclear families, children typically leave the home when they reach adulthood, though some wait until they get married to move out.

5 Characteristics of the Extended Family:

  1. Multiple generations: An extended family, or joint family, consists of at least three generations. This normally includes adults who are not parents to the minor children in the household, such as grandparents.

  2. A core family: Most extended families include a nuclear family at its core, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins being extensions of that family living in the house. 

  3. One household: Like a nuclear family, an extended family lives in one household.

  4. Shared responsibilities: Financial, household, and parental responsibilities may be shared among the adults in extended families.

  5. One leader: An extended family is typically led by one person. This individual may be the highest earner, the most senior member, or the original owner of the home. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Nuclear Family

The nuclear family is the dynamic most familiar to those in Western Europe and North America. Even though American's, for example, favour nuclear families, more than half do live within an hours drive of their extended family. Here's a breakdown of some pros and cons of nuclear families to women.


  • Women have more control over parenting without elders interfering. 

  • Women have more opportunity and space to strengthen their relationship with their partners (if they make it a priority).

  • Women may have more freedom to pursue a career and a healthy work-life balance.


  • Women often bear the sole responsibility of childcare, and passing on culture and traditions.

  • Women may experience financial insecurity and childcare issues if their partner is not very involved or dies.

  • Women can feel lonely and a lack of connection without extended family. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Extended Family

Though most Westerners probably can't imagine living long-term with those outside of their immediate family, this familial structure is the most widely adopted in the world, and is prevalent across Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. So, what are the pros and cons of extended families to women?


  • Women may receive assistance with finances and parenting from other adults in the household.

  • Women can feel a sense of community, togetherness, and security by living with more loved ones.

  • Women have relatives to assist with parental responsibilities and the passing down of culture.


  • Women often become caretakers for not just their children but their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews as well.

  • Women may have parents and/or in-laws critiquing and contradicting their parenting. 

  • Women can lose decision-making power and authority.

What Roles Do Women Play in Society?

Neither of these structures inherently favours women over the other, but we can see various examples of women's roles in these dynamics. The roles of women in society are reflective of our roles in our families. We're the caretakers and nurturers, but we're also the disciplinarians, organizers, and workers. We're the caretakers of not just people but history. We're educators to our children, sharing our culture and knowledge that could've been lost to time.

So, what happens when our dreams extend to something beyond our role in the family? What happens when we want to pursue a path that deviates from these traditional family structures? As women, we have a collective responsibility to our community and respective cultures, which are deeply dependent on us. How do we balance this responsibility with our personal interests, our desires, and our dreams? What about women who have zero desire to be mothers or wives?

Support for Women
Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Where’s the Support for Women?

There's no simple answer to these heavy questions. If we want families (extended or nuclear), communities, and workplaces that support women, there needs to be thoughtful conversations across generations and genders. 

Society demands women become mothers and then fails to support those who do so. For example, the "Motherhood Penalty" impacts women's earnings and disproportionately affects women of colour. There's also the rampant racism in perinatal care. Mothers are failed before they even give birth.

A world that supports women pursuing their dreams is a better world. The advancement of women, particularly in workforce participation and financial independence, drives economic growth. If you want to create a workplace that has a more inclusive, anti-racist, and supportive company culture, let’s schedule a talk today.

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