We Are Family: What Really Matters For Parents And Children
Published by Scribe UK
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Susan Golombok, professor of family research and director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, has been studying changing family structures since the 1970s, when she began a study of the wellbeing of children with lesbian mothers. As changes in attitudes, law, and assisted reproductive technology have taken place, Professor Golombok has followed these developments, keeping children's wellbeing at the forefront of her research as she explores the experiences of these families.
'We Are Family' follows the path of Professor Golombok's research in this area, building from her early research to cover donor conception, surrogacy, single parents by choice, gay father families, and families with transgender parents, before taking a look at the newest developments in creating families – from technological innovations such as mitochondrial donation and artificial wombs, to new forms of co-parenting. In each chapter Professor Golombok combines personal stories of the difficulties and prejudice faced by those trying to raise families that differ from the traditional norm (married heterosexual parents and their biological children) with clear explanations of the processes involved in forming these families (whether that means assisted reproduction or the difficulties of establishing custody) and statistics to show the bigger picture.
Throughout the book, there are clear themes that emerge from the research, one of which is the importance of honesty and openness with children about where they came from and how they are different from other families. As a donor conceived person myself, I have always been incredibly grateful for having been raised aware of this and by parents open to talking about it.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has (for some time now) advised that parents tell their donor conceived children about their origins, but in following up with a set of families previously interviewed, Professor Golombok found that less than 10 percent of them had told their children they were donor conceived, a statistic I found distressing, and which Professor Golombok herself describes as 'startling'. The parents' reasoning – not unlike that of teachers, extended family members, and many more individuals throughout the book – seemed to be based in fear – fear that, if they found out, children would feel like outsiders, or would reject their families. By speaking to these families and to the children themselves however, Professor Golombok instead found children born via surrogacy inventing terms like 'surrosister' to describe their surrogate's children, and the child of a newly-out trans parent corrected people on their parent's pronouns. Rather than resent these differences the children were far more likely to accept them and to integrate them into their own vocabulary, actions and identity.
Another theme through the book was the damage caused by outdated assumptions, and how although progress is being made, some deeply ingrained ideas persist in the wider population. The belief that gay parents will inevitably raise gay children (and that this would be inherently bad), the idea that egg and sperm donors are only motivated by money, the fear that surrogates will try to keep the children they have carried – Professor Golombok discusses and consistently disproves these beliefs, though is unfortunately restricted by a lack of research in the field generally, and by the limitations of her own research – which is reliant on volunteers, who are more likely to be willing to share their experiences if they have been positive.
The limitations of research are exacerbated by the book's rigid chapter structure – in seeking to show that all the families represented can be positive and loving environments in which to raise a child, and encompassing the history of these types of families, the narrative becomes a little repetitive. This also creates a slightly jarring shift as the final chapters move to cover lots of different developments in a small space, creating a rush of single case studies with a noticeable lack of depth compared to the rest of the book. In just two chapters, Professor Golombok touches on single fathers by choice, co-parents without a romantic relationship, the growth of egg banks, and genetic testing kits that include access to genealogy databases, as well as new and predicted scientific breakthroughs such as mitochondrial DNA donation, synthetic eggs and sperm, and artificial wombs. Of course, these latest developments will have had the least research performed, but the nature of the previous chapters makes this far more noticeable.
Regardless of the discrepancies between sections, the scope of the book is certainly impressive, covering over 40 years of technological and social developments in this field, all explained clearly and with the stories and input of real families. The resulting book has something to offer anyone involved in these families, whether an older child wanting to understand more about their origins, a parent considering starting a family wanting to be more informed about the experience, or a friend or relative seeking to better understand the family's situation. 'We Are Family' offers a comprehensive look at how the idea of what makes a family has changed and what that means for families and children.
The central question in 'We Are Family' is whether the children being raised are happy, safe and loved, and overwhelmingly the answer shown in the research is 'yes' – as Professor Golombok herself writes; 'what matters most for children is not the make-up of their family, but their parents' love'.
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