The wild, normal diversity of the modern family

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Family is the bedrock of Australian society; the place where we locate safety, commitment, and shared growth, and 'the people who make you who you are', in the words of Ebony, one of the stars of the 2015 documentary Gayby Baby.

Still from Gayby BabyAs the controversy around that film demonstrated, Australia is also subject to debate over which kind of family is the right kind, and which versions are to be considered inferior or to be corrected.

This battlefield over family has had many manifestations in our nation's story; with particularly horrific consequences for Indigenous families purposefully ripped apart in the years of the Stolen Generations child removal policy, which many say is only being repeated today.

Misunderstandings and willful refusals abound in appreciating the many ways in which children and young people get the nurturance and education that we ask of 'family', while the still-idealised nuclear family remains the site of the most intimate violence.

Australian television, as Adolfo Aranjuez noted recently, is getting better at reflecting this. In Redfern Now, family is a refracting lens through houses, streets, the neighbourhood, personal history, and collective struggle; from Aaron, Robyn and Donna's household of dad, daughter and grandkid to partners Richard and Peter and their daughter.

In Offspring, family keeps multiplying as surprise siblings turn up and Billie decides to raise a new baby with the daughter of an old friend. In The Family Law, a family of five becomes headed by a single mum. In Please Like Me, a young gay man creates the lasting, nurturing bonds we associate with family, while the straight guy is unable to manage anything more emotionally complex than getting stoned.

As these recent cultural products demonstrate, diverse, non-nuclear and often non-heterosexual families have been increasingly the norm in Australia for many years now. In tracking these trends, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) refers to 'complex' households, but even they admit 'complex' is a bit of a misnomer; noting that homes 'where children may live with: a single parent; a non-biological parent; step or half-siblings; ... or a grandparent' are 'very much in the mainstream'.

As for households headed by same-sex couples, they have increased from 0.3 to 0.9 per cent of all couple families. And it's young people who are leading this charge — both in that same-sex couples in this count are likely to be younger than opposite-sex partners, and in that acceptance of the equality of same-sex couples is stronger among young people.

 

"Against such a cultural and statistical picture, it is curious that government and company policies which presume that households are composed of a married opposite-sex couple and their biological children are still being made."

 

Indeed, public support overall for equal rights between same-sex and heterosexual couples has increased — from 38 per cent in 2005 to 51 per cent in 2011. Further, same-sex couple families are making us a more imaginative and accepting society — AIFS cites research that shows their 'sons and daughters displayed more open-mindedness towards diversity in sexuality, gender, and family forms'. By now it is well known that a consistent majority of Australians support making marriage between same-sex partners a legal institution.

The variety of our family forms is not that recent, either. I'm a 36 year old white Australian who grew up middle class in the suburbs of southern Adelaide. I can count on one hand the number of households in the streets I lived on which were always-already made up of a mum-dad-kids scenario. The rest were wildly, normally diverse — three generations between two nationalities in one home; a sole parent and her kids in another; two houses occupied by divorced parents, their new partners, and their children in yet another; an extended Indigenous family in another again.

In all this complexity the research on children's attachment, development and resilience regularly shows that kids need meaningful, culturally appropriate relationships with caring and competent adults in order to thrive as human beings, and that these adults can be pretty much anyone as long as they fit that bill.

Against such a cultural and statistical picture, it is curious that government and company policies which presume that households are composed of a married opposite-sex couple and their biological children are still being made. Even more so that questions like whether marriage equality should be made law are controversial. We should be making it as easy as possible for children and young people to live in the families that support them, and it is increasingly clear that such households are more likely to look like the families in Offspring and The Family Law than, say, the Flanders family in The Simpsons.

This 'new normal' should be embraced by politicians, policy-makers, and service providers as it makes for a more secure community for children and a more bonded community for all of us.

 


Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, family, same sex marriage


 

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“The rest were wildly, normally diverse — three generations between two nationalities in one home; a sole parent and her kids in another; two houses occupied by divorced parents, their new partners, and their children in yet another; an extended Indigenous family in another again. In all this complexity the research on children's attachment, development and resilience regularly shows that kids need meaningful, culturally appropriate relationships with caring and competent adults in order to thrive as human beings, and that these adults can be pretty much anyone as long as they fit that bill.” What diversity? There are only two modes: where children are nested with both biological parents and where the nest is abandoned by one biological parent. The crux is which mode governs the daily life of the child. The rest (extended residency) is cosmetics. In one mode, the child is artless about the adult situation in its daily life because there is no need to think more about the situation. In the other the child learns how to contrive an artlessness about the adult situation. The cost of contrivance is, of course, an atomically solitary child who keeps one face for private and another for the world.
Roy Chen Yee | 06 December 2016


It is tragic, Anne that you mention stolen generations when precisely promoting the diversity you do as normal creates the same…children often unjustly separated from their biological roots and rather than lamenting the breakdown of the family unit you praise its deconstruction. It is one thing to be a loving guardian and another to be the parent though qualities of love, stability of course can be given by caring and competent adults under either guise, allowing for a child to develop but in terms of identity nothing replaces the longing to know the biological as many reports also show which is about the archetypal- the human psyche is as it is. The archetypal goes beyond mere construct and recognises the balance of masculine and feminine necessary to human flourishing. Yes there are complex situations we make the best of because it’s not about biology alone but that is different to the best situation possible being supported and nurtured which is underpinned by biology.
Gordana Martinovich | 06 December 2016


I think there is a somewhat belated attempt in current Australia to diversify the image of what is 'normal' in regard to individuals and the family from the supposed 'uniformity' of the 1950s and 1960s. Having lived through the period I can vouch for the fact that things were different then. There was definitely diversity in those days fuelled mainly by the British 'ten pound Poms' and the European 'New Australian' migrants brought out to provide labour for the then booming economy. Having come out as a 'refugee' from the Raj in India - someone with the choice of returning 'home' to England; migrating to Australia or Canada or 'staying on' and taking Indian nationality (something absolutely unacceptable to the likes of my father) - I was in a slightly different position to most locals and migrants. It took many years to feel at home. I became an Australian mainly by a process of acculturation and friendship. Friendship and later love and family were what anchored me here. I suspect, at core, this anchoring is what the supposedly 'different' groups you speak of, including LGT and ATSI people want. Some ATSI people want official recognition as Australia's First Nation (a designation originating in North America). It is an interesting time. I doubt Australia would be as cheerfully diverse and multi-ethnic without accepting 'Old Australians' like you. Credit where credit is due.
Edward Fido | 06 December 2016


Thoughtful and insightful reflections and commentary Ann. The other prevailing public policy myth, which impacts adversely on all children, is that so called 'intact' families are always happy, secure and safe places and that only children from so called 'broken' or non-traditional families have issues. More honest and realistic stories about families and their complexities would help everyone. Beautifully expressed and reflected back to us. Thank you.
Elizabeth Morgan | 07 December 2016


“… while the still-idealised nuclear family remains the site of the most intimate violence." But what I'm reading is that 'fatherless' boys (notably, but not exclusively, those whose father is physically absent) are by far the highest perpetrators of crime (including rape) and dominate other indicators of social dysfunction. And that estranged partners present a particular threat to women. And that current male partners of women in serial relationships are prominent perpetrators of fatal bashings of young children. Of course such outcomes aren’t inevitable, and no slur is cast on separated people, stepfathers or people in serial relationships – we all do our best to make good families, traditional or otherwise, and all families have issues. But that’s different from not genuinely appraising new family forms before declaring that they are equal, or better. For example, is it just a little too easy to make sweeping statements talking down stable biological parenthood? While the jury is still out given the small samples available at present (and the political nature of much research), scientific evidence suggests that while children of same-sex couples do better academically, they are emotionally worse-off than children of more traditional families. Might Eureka Street consider balancing this ‘new normal’ perspective with a piece on the deeply considered, I would say profound, church writings on the family? Or the benefits of relationship and parenting education?
David Moloney | 07 December 2016


The relationship between man and woman is the thing that keeps the human race going. This makes it so important that it must have a name. If the term 'marriage' is detached from that relationship. that relationship will have to acquire a new name. What will happen then?
Gavan | 07 December 2016


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