Families come in all shapes and sizes

…And not only shapes and sizes, but also ages, sexes and complex ethnicities! In the last few decades, the family, as we know it, has changed beyond recognition from the traditional two-parent heterosexual family that was once commonly regarded as the norm.

Today’s family structures are hugely diverse – single-parent families, including those headed by a man; families formed following remarriage or new partnerships; extended multigenerational families; families in which children are brought up by grandparents families with members from different ethnic backgrounds; lesbian and gay families, both two-parent and single parent; and others. And, of course, those which have been formed or enlarged by adoption and fostering…

Image of white boy with two dads
So what’s happened? Culture, class, gender and sexuality all produce different family types and relationships. There has also been a huge shift in how people live, love and parent. Changing patterns of how relationships are established, maintained and broken have also played their part. But although the structures themselves have undergone rapid transformation, the way in which certain family types are perceived has been slower to change and remains bound up in prejudice and myth.

Nuclear families were deemed to be, and still are, in some quarters, the only ones to provide a stable and moral environment in which a child can thrive and flourish. Surely such thinking is outdated? After all, families of all types can offer commitment, love and care (and a moral environment) to their children. And evidence, both research and anecdotal, is available to support this.

Is this diversity mirrored in the adoptive and foster families created today? Or are family-finders still focusing on the two-parent heterosexual family as the ‘ideal’? In some places, this remains the case. In others, there is a perceptible shift. Practice is changing, albeit at a varying pace. And there is a growing realisation that different family structures are just that – different family structures. Of course family structure is important, but it is the dedication, enthusiasm, flexibility and openmindedness of the adult or adults in that family and their love for children that count for most in the long run.

Sadly, prejudices remain. There is an anxiety that non-traditional families, especially those created through adoption and fostering, may not be a ‘proper’ family. Lone adoptive parents may experience particular difficulties, and need to have a strong network. Lesbian and gay families may face prejudice. Male carers may, at worst, be regarded with suspicion. While all of this may be true, it does not mean that such families cannot offer the much needed security, love and comfort to a child who has already lost their birth family and perhaps others along the way.

Shaila Shah

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Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in September 2007.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 12 June 09

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