As society changes, our families are changing too. Yet as Ruth Callaghan writes, a successful family is not defined by its structure.
It’s the catchcry of many conservative politicians — whether they are worrying over same-sex marriage, the rise of de facto relationships or the resistance to some people having children.
Marriage and the nuclear family, they argue, represent the natural order of things.
And with the help of some media commentators, anything outside the father-mother-two-child model has been described on a spectrum from “unnatural” to “social engineering”.
Former Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has made the preservation of the nuclear family a priority of his new political party.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is similarly vocal, while a recent proposal by Australian children’s television show Play School to feature a family with two dads prompted days of angry media coverage and condemnation by the Australian Christian Lobby.
But how traditional is the traditional family unit, and how problematic is it that the ‘normal’ family structure is changing?
The Australian Institute of Family Studies has spent years examining the nature of families in Australia, looking at how social trends shape the family.
According to the Institute’s Director, Anne Hollonds, almost half of children experience a non-traditional or so-called complex family at some point.
A study of 8000 children published last year by the Institute found 43 per cent had complex family arrangements, a broad term that included families headed by single parents, or those with non-biological parent figures, grandparents or half siblings in the home.
“Two in five children will experience some form of family complexity before they reach the age of 13, with the potential for this to impact both positively and negatively,” she says.
“In a general sense, we need to understand that the nuclear family is very popular but there are many other different forms of households and versions of how children are being raised.”
With complexity can come additional challenges, Hollonds says.
“For example, it’s more common now post-divorce for children to live in two households rather than just visiting one parent every other weekend,” she says.
“The issue of housing affordability then comes into that, and transport, and it is harder for families to look after themselves when the external environment is hostile for family life.
“It is hard even for an intact family but when children are travelling from one household to another it can be a huge challenge.”
The pattern of complexity can also vary over time.
Most children — nearly 90 per cent — are born into a home with two biological parents.
That falls to 72 per cent by the time children are aged 12-13.
Single parent households are the next most common arrangement, followed by families with one biological parent and one non-biological parent.
It is also increasingly common for same sex couples to have children living with them — 12 per cent of all same sex couples have children at home, rising to 22 per cent of female couples.
“Families change over time. They are not the same and their needs change,” Hollonds says.
“We tend to categorise families as well-functioning families and those that are vulnerable or disadvantaged.
“It is a very static view that doesn’t represent the fact that families move in and out of need.”
So do complex families work? Research by ECU’s Dr Bronwyn Harman suggests they do — with the right support.
“Families are so complex now they are almost impossible to define,” Harman says.
“We have come a long way from the 1960s when you had mum, dad and five or six kids.
“A family can now be any combination you can think of. I really don’t think I could name all the permutations.”
This makes it very difficult for a one-size-fits-all government approach to family support, Harman says.
“It is really hard now to talk about families and government policy because families are so diverse,” she says.
“It is impossible to have a blanket policy. I think we perhaps need to have an overarching policy for each type of family, but to ensure it can be adapted to individual cases.”
The good news, says Harman, is that no matter what the family arrangement, it is possible for children and adults to thrive.
“Every family type struggles to some degree, but if I am generalising the two that have most difficulties are those headed by teenage parents and those headed by single fathers,” she says.
“In these cases, they need greater understanding of their issues and greater acceptance.
“Families with four or more children and families headed by people who are not heterosexual are, in my research at least, the happiest I have found.”
While many complex families are by design — formed through conscious choices about how and with whom we want to live — that’s not always the case.
It’s particularly an issue for those who thought they had finished their child-rearing years, but are now raising grandchildren.
ECU researcher Dr David Coall and his colleagues are researching the experience, needs and health of grandparents who are primary carers of grandchildren.
A recent Senate Inquiry suggested Australia had nearly 50,000 families in this situation but the real number is likely to be much higher.
“They are an overlooked group, especially ‘hidden’ grandparents who care for their grandchildren but who don’t have formal custody,” Coall says.
“We have found about 85 per cent of grandparents raising grandchildren do so because of drug use in the middle generation.
“A lot of the time they don’t feel like grandparents. They feel more like carers.”
The fear that drug-using parents might take back their children to retain welfare payments is enough that many never seek financial support through Centrelink, he says.
At the same time, they incur schooling and household bills and may sacrifice their own health needs for those of the children.
Professor Ruth Marquis, also from ECU, says grandparents receive some rewards but to look after the next generation day in, day out, remains an enormous task.
“These are people who make huge sacrifices and many have chronic health issues related to ageing,” she says.
“They are dealing with relationships with their own children; the children may have abandonment issues.
There is a lot of grief and loss but also huge resilience.
“I call them unsung heroes.”
When Charles Dickens was writing the tale of orphaned lad Oliver Twist in the 1830s, he was capturing a world in which children led short, brutal lives of hard work and misery.
Across the globe in Western Australia, Nyoongar children fared significantly better.
Working closely with Indigenous elders, ECU academics Dr Francesca Robertson, Dr Noel Nannup, Dr David Coall and Lera Bennell have sought to compare the experience of children living in WA at the time of settlement with those growing up in Britain.
Their findings show childhoods that are worlds apart.
The Nyoongar family structure, or moort, was highly organised at the time of settlement, governed by rules that extended to the time of marriage, origin of partners, and process in which the gene pool was kept diverse.
But the culture also had defined roles and stages for children to progress through as they developed.
“There was a high level of mutual respect between genders,” Robertson says.
“There was men’s business and women’s business. Men went off hunting, women went off gathering, and they came home and sharing took place. There was also a high regard for attachment between children and mother.”
Families were not only smaller than European families — in part because Nyoongar children were not weaned until four to six years of age — but multiple adults would be involved in a child’s care.
“It wasn’t like Western systems where you are grandmother just to your children’s children.
You achieved the status of grandmother, dembart, and you are then grandmother to all the younger ones,” Robertson says.
“If you are a woman, you can be a mum to some, aunty to a lot and then grandma to an awful lot of children.”
While the nuclear family is hailed as traditional, it was not a universal experience in Britain at the time of settlement.
The wealthier a family was, the more likely it was to share its household with other, non-related adults, such as servants, labourers, a governess or nanny.
Even among poorer homes, children did not always live with their parents, and some researchers estimate up to one in five families sent children to live with others, as servants, apprentices, or for education.
Few had grandparents, as the British life expectancy at birth was as low as 41.
Colonisation and disruption to traditional lifestyles have had an impact on how Nyoongar families operate, but Robertson says many traditional systems are still in place.
And that can be an issue when trying to apply policy settings designed for Western families.
“In Western systems, we believe one person is responsible for that child,” she says.
“That’s just not how it works in Aboriginal systems.”
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