Susan Golombok is a Professor of Family Research and Director, Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge. She is the author of Parenting: What really counts? and co-author of Bottling it Up, Gender Development, and Growing up in a Lesbian Family.
Since the latter part of the 20th century, dramatic changes have taken place to the structure of the family so that the traditional nuclear family headed by a heterosexual married couple is now in the minority. A number of factors have contributed to the diversity of family forms in which children are raised today including women’s enhanced educational and career opportunities, the increasing numbers of women employed outside the home, the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the rise of the women’s and gay liberation movements, greater involvement of fathers in the day-to-day lives of their children, and the introduction of assisted reproductive technologies. As a result, a growing number of children are being raised by cohabiting, rather than married, parents, by single parents, by stepparents, and by same-sex parents, with many children moving in and out of different family structures as they grow up. More remarkably, it is now possible for a child to have up to five “parents” instead of the usual two – an egg donor, a sperm donor, a surrogate mother who hosts the pregnancy and the two social parents whom the child knows as mom and dad, or mom and mom in the case of lesbian mothers and dad and dad when the parents are gay fathers.
So what is known about the psychological well-being of children raised in alternative family forms? Is it the case that the traditional two-parent family is best for children? Or can children do as well, or perhaps even better, in certain new family forms? Research has shown that some family types are more associated with negative outcomes for children than are others. Single-parent families, stepfamilies, and families with cohabiting parents, are generally more likely than traditional families to result in difficulties for children. In contrast, children with lesbian or gay parents, and children conceived using assisted reproductive technologies, appear to be functioning well. So how can we explain these differences? The answer seems to lie in the circumstances surrounding the different family forms. Whereas the former set of families generally experience greater adversity than do traditional families, in terms of financial hardship, marital or relationship difficulties, and mental health problems – all of which are associated with impaired parenting and children’s emotional and behavioral problems – this is not the case for families formed by same-sex parents and through assisted reproductive technologies. It may also be relevant that the latter types of family are, by necessity, planned.
Thus, it is not family structure in itself that influences the psychological well-being of children. Instead, the quality of parent–child relationships, the quality of parents’ relationships with each other, and the quality of the wider social environment appear to be more important for children’s adjustment. Whether children have one parent or two, whether they have a genetic or gestational link to their parents, whether their parents are married or cohabiting, whether their parents are male or female, and whether their parents are of the same sex or opposite sex, seem to matter less for children than does the quality of family life.
Historical time and place are especially relevant to the study of family forms that either did not exist or were invisible before the latter part of the 20th century—lesbian mother families and families created by assisted reproductive technologies—and highlight the role of societal attitudes in family functioning. In the 1970s, prejudice and discrimination were features of non-traditional family life; lesbian mothers lived in fear of losing custody of their children, donor insemination was shrouded in secrecy and “test-tube” babies were viewed with suspicion. Although prejudice has not been eliminated, more positive attitudes generally prevail today, creating a more favorable environment for children. Since the turn of the century, same-sex marriage has been introduced in several countries and in some US states, donor conceived half-siblings growing up in different families have begun to make contact with each other, and “test-tube” babies have become commonplace. Nevertheless, children’s experiences will depend, to a large extent, on their immediate social environment, including their extended families, their community and the geo-political context in which they are raised.
Family forms that are currently emerging, or that are still on the horizon, will provide novel ways of addressing questions about family influences on children’s socio-emotional development. The demographic shift toward older motherhood is a topic of current interest, with women beginning to freeze their eggs in order to postpone pregnancy, as is the new phenomenon of gay fathers having children through surrogacy and egg donation. Even single heterosexual men are beginning to have children in this way. In addition, men and women who were previously unknown to each other are now using the internet to create families together.
In the not too distant future, scientific advances will enable children to be born through mitochondrial DNA transfer and thus, for the first time, with genetic material from three people—a mother, a father, and a woman who donates her mitochondrial DNA. This procedure is being developed to allow women at risk of having children with serious mitochondrial disease to have healthy children. Moreover, artificial gametes will soon make it possible for women to produce sperm and for men to produce eggs. This will enable both partners in same-sex couples to be genetically related to their children. Research is also being conducted on “artificial wombs,” and human cloning remains a theoretical possibility. These are just some of the family circumstances in which children of the future will be raised.