Stories of family love

‘We are family: What really matters for parents and children’ by Professor Susan Golombok is published by Scribe. Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne and PhD student Laura Cox asked Susan about the book.

Annie: Why is the idea that children need a mother and a father so pervasive?

In the 1950s and 60s, most people had a mother and a father. Back then, divorce was seen as scandalous and shameful, unmarried women who became pregnant were expected to give up their babies for adoption, and until 1967, male homosexuality was a criminal offence. The idea that children need a mother and a father wasn’t questioned. Instead, the prominent psychological theories of the day – psychoanalytic theory and social learning theory – were based on the premise that mothers and fathers play different, but complementary, roles in children’s development and adjustment, so a parent of each gender was seen as essential for children’s wellbeing. Since that time, there has been a gradual acceptance of non-traditional families, but families with a mother and a father are still held up as the ideal. 

Today, some people champion the traditional family for religious, cultural or political reasons, whereas others favour it because they believe that children are more likely to flourish in a family with both a mum and a dad. This is partly because the early investigations on non-traditional families focused on children who had experienced their parents’ divorce, which was associated with difficulties for children. The research on new family forms, described in We Are Family, tells a different story. Studies of families with lesbian mothers, gay fathers, transgender parents, single mothers by choice, and families created by egg donation, sperm donation, embryo donation and surrogacy, show that the quality of family relationships matters more for children’s social and emotional wellbeing than the number, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or biological relatedness of their parents. 

Laura: What impact do you think television and social media have on the wellbeing of different types of families?

As television and radio programmes such as Eastenders and The Archers began to include different kinds of families, I think it brought about a greater understanding and acceptance of family diversity, particularly for older audiences, as did soaps such as Modern Family and Transparent, which presented new family forms front and centre. Social media have also played a role, for example, by facilitating contact between donor conceived people and their donors and donor siblings, i.e. genetic half-siblings born from the same donor but raised in different families, which has generally been a positive experience for those who wish to find out about their origins. 

On the other hand, while the Internet can be a source of information and support, it can also have the opposite effect through online bullying. Another downside of the Internet is that people are inadvertently finding out that they were conceived using donated eggs, sperm or embryos through genetic testing kits in combination with online genealogy databases such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe. All it can take is a saliva sample for someone to discover that they are not the genetic child of their parents, and who their genetic parents are. This can be a devastating discovery for those whose parents hadn’t told them that they were donor conceived. A donor’s own children, who may not know that their parent was a donor, can be identified in this way too, and may be shocked to be contacted by someone claiming to be their half-sibling.

Annie: Your research shows that ‘children can flourish in all kinds of new family forms’. How did it feel to share your findings and ultimately change child custody outcomes?

It wasn’t easy in the early days. My first study, which I began in 1976, was of children in lesbian mother families. At that time, lesbian mothers inevitably lost custody of their children to their former husbands as it was not considered to be in the child’s best interests to remain with a lesbian mother. When I was called as an expert witness in these custody cases, the barristers acting for the father would do their best to discredit the research. It was very frustrating. Slowly, however, the research began to be taken seriously, especially when an increasing number of studies came to the same conclusions. 

By the millennium, lesbian mothers were no longer losing custody of their children because of their sexual orientation, and, in 2008, the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act allowed both partners in lesbian and gay couples to be the joint legal parents of children born through assisted reproduction. Our research on other kinds of new family forms has also contributed to policy and legislation in the UK and internationally. This has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our work. A current example is the Law Commission’s ongoing review of UK legislation on surrogacy, which has considered the findings of our research on children born through surrogacy in their deliberations on how to update the law.

Laura: In the book you talk about going all over the country visiting families as an early stage researcher. How did your research methods evolve over the years, and what did you think was most effective for getting to the heart of what matters most for families?

The fundamentals haven’t changed. I was originally trained in interviewing families for research by Sir Michael Rutter and his team at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. This approach involved in-depth and flexible questioning of parents and children to produce detailed information about relationships and family life, followed by the coding of the information generated by the interview according to a standardised coding manual. This allowed quantitative data to be produced not only from what was said, but also from how it was said, paying attention to non-verbal cues such as facial expression and tone of voice. Although the focus of the interview changes from study to study, depending on the type of family being investigated, the overall approach, which has proven to be a reliable and valid way of assessing family relationships, remains the same. 

Today, we also use observational assessments of parent-child interaction, as these tell you something different about family relationships, and, combined with interviews, produce a more all-round assessment of family functioning. Although I was brought up very much in the quantitative tradition, when I moved to Cambridge in 2006 to direct the Centre for Family Research, I met researchers who were studying families using qualitative methods. I learned from them the value of combining quantitative and qualitative approaches, as they each address different kinds of questions to produce a more nuanced picture of family life. 

Perhaps the biggest change of all has been in the tools that help us study families. When I started out, there were no sat navs or mobile phones, and I had to cart a cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorder around the country with me. I was dependent on public phone boxes if something went wrong, and the maps I used to locate the families were of the paper variety. It’s hard to imagine it now, but not only did we not have laptops, we didn’t even have personal computers. The methods we use today may be no more reliable or valid, but they certainly make life a whole lot easier!

Annie: Sharing the ‘stories of love’ in your book seems really important. I was fascinated to read about other families like my own, especially as I have no friends with a similar family structure and haven’t always found it easy to talk about my family because of the reaction I get.

Speaking to children about their thoughts, feelings and experiences has always been an important part of our research. One of my favourite studies was an investigation of the school experiences of children with same-sex parents that we conducted in collaboration with Stonewall. The children told us that their classmates sometimes made negative comments that were distressing, such as the use of the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ as an insult. Others were rejected because of their families, and when children saw others being picked on because they had lesbian or gay parents, they didn’t feel able to be open about their own family. 

What I particularly liked about this study is that the children themselves came up with a set of ten recommendations about how schools could do things better. These included: teachers shouldn’t assume that everyone has a mum and dad; different kinds of families should be talked about in school; families like theirs should appear in the books that they read and the films that they see; and schools should clamp down hard on homophobic bullying, something that doesn’t always happen. Many schools have taken these children’s concerns on board, but, sadly, some schools are thwarted in their attempts to do this, as happened in 2019, when protests against teaching children about families with same-sex parents erupted outside primary schools in Birmingham. 

Although one aim of the book was to discuss the issues and research findings relating to diverse family forms, a more important ambition was to let the families speak for themselves. I think that one reason why some people are so prejudiced is that they don’t know much about families that differ from their own. When they hear their stories, they realise that although they may seem different, in terms of family life, they are essentially the same.

Laura: The future of family forms is discussed in the book and there are many aspects to both build on and investigate for the first time. If you were starting as a new researcher today, what do you think you would focus on?

The early studies of each new family form focused on comparisons with traditional families because of the assumptions that had been made about them. Today, the more interesting questions relate to factors associated with variability in outcomes for children in different kinds of families. For example, how does stigmatisation affect children with LGBT parents? What protects children against the negative effects of stigmatisation? And how can schools be more inclusive and supportive? For children born through third-party assisted reproduction, what are their thoughts and feelings about their egg, sperm and embryo donors, and surrogates? 

Also, because of the concerns that have been raised about new family forms, studies have generally examined whether the children are at risk for psychological problems. However, the differences that have been identified between new family forms and traditional families have generally pointed to more positive outcomes for new family forms. Now it’s time for research to focus on the benefits rather than the deficits in parent-child relationships and children’s psychological wellbeing.

- ‘We are family: What really matters for parents and children’ by Professor Susan Golombok is published by Scribe.
- Read our 2015 interview with Susan.

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