Reproducing an impact

Jon Sutton reports on Professor Susan Golombok's talk at the Society's Annual Conference.

One evening in the hotel bar at this conference, the conversation turned to that perennial bit of soul searching psychologists seem so fond of: ‘what has psychology actually done?’ Is our subject punching well below its weight in terms of demonstrable, useful contributions to the world? Fresh from watching her impressive presentation, my first witness for the defence in the face of this accusatory onslaught was Professor Susan Golombok (Director, Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge).

Golombok, whose new book is titled ‘Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms’, has made a real, tangible difference in our understanding and acceptance of families that did not exist or were hidden from society until the latter part of 20th century. It is now possible for children to have five parents: sperm donor, egg donor, surrogate mother, and two social parents (mum and dad, or mum and mum, or dad and dad). Back in 1978, the first children born through donor insemination were met with headlines such as ‘Ban these babies!’ (London Evening News). British politician Rhodes Boyson urged: ‘this evil must stop for the sake of the potential children and society, which both have enough problems without the extension of this horrific practice’.

Against this backdrop of moral outrage, Professor Golombok set out to add a dash of ojectivity to the debate. What are these modern families really like? Does the parenting differ? What are the psychological consequences? Golombok recognised the opportunity for natural experiments on different patterns of family structures.

She focused on assisted reproduction families, and families with two same sex parents. In a UK longitudinal study of families with children born through surrogacy, donor insemination, egg donation or natural conception, Golombok assessed parenting and child development at one, two, three, seven, 10 and 14 years of age.

At age one, parents of children born through the assisted techniques showed greater psychological well-being and adaptation to parenthood than did the natural conception parents. There was greater emotional involvement with the child, arguably over-involvement. At age one, 56 per cent of egg donation and 46 per cent of donor insemination parents planned to disclose the genetic / gestational origins to their child, but by age of 10 only 47 and 29 per cent respectively actually had.

Golombok suggests that parents should disclose origins to their children early. Importantly, she’s arguing from an evidence-base: in her research, those told when young do not appear to be distressed. At age 7, non-disclosing mothers showed higher levels of emotional distress than disclosing mothers, and also less positive mother-child interaction.

What will happen when families with donor-conceived offspring search for their donor relations? This becomes an issue in the UK in 2023, when children born to sperm donors who turn 18 will have the right to find out about their biological parent. It’s already possible in the US, since donors have a unique ID number. The Donor Sibling Registry has 46,000 members, and children searching it tend to find around five half siblings. However, many find more than 10 and there are some ‘sibling constellations’ of way more than 100. Golombok said that most searching the registry were more interested in forming a relationship with donor siblings than with the donor. ‘What really surprised me was just how strongly I felt towards them. It changed my concept of “family”’, said one. Golombok pointed out that family relationships based on genetic connections between children are being formed across multiple family units.

Switching back to her early work, Golombok recounted how children were taken away from married lesbian women in the 1970s due to fears of teasing, or atypical gender development. Her systematic studies of post-divorce lesbian mothers found no differences in quality of parenting. Children of lesbian mothers did not differ from children of heterosexual mothers in either psychological problems or problems with peers. Boys were no less masculine, girls no less feminine. But, said the critics, only school-aged children were studied: did problems develop later? No: Golombok’s work with Fiona Tasker in 1997 found no difference in the quality of the relationship with mother or father in adulthood, and no difference in psychological well-being in adulthood. They were more likely to have experimented with same sex relationships in adolescence, but as adults, most identified as heterosexual.

Golombok’s research has clearly played a role in countering false beliefs, in tackling public attitudes which may have been based on prejudice and assumption. There’s still work to do though: low-level stigmatisation still exists, such as the use of the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative term in schools.

Concluding, Golombok reminded the audience that family structure matters less for children than the quality of family relationships. Children are most likely to flourish in warm, supportive, stable families, whatever their structure, and are likely to experience problems in the opposite families, whatever their structure. It feels like it shouldn’t need saying, but it did and still does. Psychology said it, and of that we can all be proud.

- See also a 'One on One' and 'Why I study' with Professor Golombok in our archive, and a 'Careers' interview.

More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on this site over the coming days and weeks, with extras in the July print edition. Find out more about next year's event

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