The evolution of families

‘We are Family’ (Scribe) by Professor Susan Golombok, reviewed by Laura Cox.

Families are evolving. Until relatively recently, the traditional arrangement of a mother and a father married and living in the same household was the automatic definition of family. The way we view families is expanding, with increasing numbers of LGBT+ couples and single parents, and more advanced reproductive technologies.

We are Family by Professor Susan Golombok weaves together over 40 years of research on non-traditional family forms in tandem with changing societal contexts over time. Currently the director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge and a professor of family research, Golombok takes the reader through her own personal journey as a researcher, alongside the perspectives of the many families contributing to this research. The end result is a tapestry of stories told in a balanced yet personal way, linking together important questions and key evidence-based conclusions throughout. The book is highly accessible both to academics in the field and to wider audiences, and is especially of interest to those family forms that rarely get to see their stories told. We are Family contributes an in-depth account of how research on family forms has developed over time and in many different ways.

The book begins at the start of Golombok’s career, detailing how she came to study family forms as a Master’s student in London in 1976. The central concept of the importance of evidence in challenging assumptions is clear from the outset, as Golombok outlines several cases of lesbian mothers being separated from their children on the basis that courts did not know enough about how non-heterosexual parenting would impact child development. Although these prejudices are not unfamiliar in the world as we know it, the ubiquity of these decisions at the time is troubling, and the injustice of a couple of cases was shocking to read about. Research on family forms slowly but surely starts to help same-sex parents in the courts, but the focus shifts to how sperm donation and in vitro fertilisation (IVF) are viewed. There is a sense that resolution of one issue is just the beginning of another, and we follow Golombok through the twists and turns of matching research questions to new developments. The book shows that lesbian mothers are as warm and loving as heterosexual mothers, child development does not suffer, and the masculinity, femininity and sexuality of children is not significantly affected by the sexuality of their parents. 

Golombok explores sperm, egg and embryo donation and surrogacy, providing an almost panoramic view of how genetic and gestational roles are experienced by both those contributing and the resulting families that are formed. The book explores the use of networks such as the Donor Sibling Registry to connect donor children wanting to find each other, and the use of sites such as PrideAngel for parents wanting to create families in new ways, such as choosing a platonic coparenting relationship from the outset (otherwise known as elective coparenting). The main messages from this research are that children view those who raise them as their ‘real’ parents, there is a wide variety of experiences and additional people involved often just means a wider family network and connections in different ways (for example ‘surrosisters’). The bonds and friendships formed between participants is moving, and the exploration of motivations of donors and surrogates provides great insight against assumptions that these individuals participate only for economic gain. While these findings are positive, Golombok does also explore the challenges experienced by children who want to know where they came. Much like the challenges faced by children of same-sex couples and adopted children, problems are often due to external factors or how the child is given information about how to think of their family, rather than the family system itself. 

There are discussions about same-sex adoption, single parents, transgender parents and advances in reproductive technologies. The research demonstrates that these family forms are as strong and loving as other types, but the influence of normative narratives is clear. One common difficulty is that some children wonder why they don’t have a mother (or a father) or struggle with a parent not conforming to the gender they were assigned at birth because of how others interact with them. This suggests a wider issue of the impact of norms and representations in society, although this is not explored in great depth in the book. The inclusion of existing research or suggestions for future research in this area may have been useful at this point to gain a greater understanding of the complex influences at work here. However, solutions are given nonetheless, and an overarching conclusion from many of the stories is that schools have a vital role to play in supporting children of non-traditional family forms, especially in terms of taking away children’s burden of explaining their family differences to others. This is one example of many where Golombok also illustrates the role of researchers not just in courts and academia, but in shaping policy and recommendations. 

A major strength of this book is the careful placement of real, personal stories that help the reader get to the heart of what family really is. Golombok introduces illustrative families and takes the reader on a journey with them, so that the human impact of these research findings is never in doubt.  

We are Family is unique in showing how families in the UK have evolved over the last four decades. Almost all types of non-traditional families are discussed, or at least referenced for those that have yet to be investigated further, such as single father families and elective coparents. Golombok also provides a clear message throughout that the support and care given to children is paramount, and the exact people involved in creating a family matters less than previously thought. The research sheds new light on the profound and unique positives of these new family forms.  

The pioneering research and thoughtful commentary in this book show how families are becoming ever more diverse, but the core meaning of family is stronger than ever. We are Family is an inspiring example of how research can make a profound impact on the way we think and live, and provides both historical context for how family forms have developed and food for thought about the future.

-       Reviewed by Laura Cox, doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Lund University, Sweden. 

-       Read our Q&A with Professor Susan Golombok about the book.

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