For time immemorial, family groups in one form or another have been the basic building block of social structures. This fact has not changed over the centuries, but the definition of a family certainly has. These days in most of western Europe, standard sociology theory maintains that there are five types of families, being nuclear, extended, single parent, reconstituted and childless families. But many of us live in groups whose shared bonds definitely qualify as familial without necessarily conforming to any definition.
Of course, we all know about the modern nuclear family defined as a group of people linked through marriage or blood, typically centred around a married couple and their dependent children. This type of family unit still forms the majority, but only just. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of family that used to be considered unusual not so long ago, but are now as normal and everyday as any other.
Single parent families
There have always been single parent families but in the past, the status of single parent tended to be seen as a misfortune brought about by the death of a spouse or divorce or even moral laxity. Of course, bereavement and divorce still exist and many lone parents did not choose their situation. However, the judgemental approach to single parents, particularly to single mothers, has evaporated like the morning mist over the past half century. These days, a woman, or, less frequently, a man who is a single parent is likely to have chosen their status.
This shift must be largely due to increasing financial equality, with many women perfectly able to support their child or children on a single salary, as well as the more tolerant social climate in which many of us live. A further issue to take into account is the growing awareness of fertility issues and in particular the availability of assisted reproductive techniques. As a result of these, many women who would like to go it alone are able to access the help of an IUI (intrauterine insemination) programme using a sperm bank and sophisticated donor-matching techniques such as IVI’s Perfect Match 360°.
A further aspect of the societal shifts altering the family dynamic is the freedom that women now have to delay motherhood by means of freezing their eggs or freezing embryos. This gives women, including single women, a whole new world of freedom to decide when is the right time for them to become parents, even after their fertility starts to decline around the age of 35. It is also a lifeline, as far as family plans go, for women who are about to undergo treatment (for example cancer treatment) that has the potential to damage their future fertility.
Families headed by a same-sex couple
Same-sex couples are so much part of the fabric of society, it’s very easy to forget that same-sex marriage is still only recognised in 14 out of 27 member states of the European Union, and in the majority of those it has only been recognised for roughly the past decade.
For lesbian couples wishing to start their families, the same opportunities that single women have regarding IUI treatment using donor sperm have always been a possibility. More recently, however, women can share motherhood in a more direct way. IVI’s ROPA method is a technique which gives a couple formed of two women the chance to actively share motherhood through IVF, with one partner as the genetic mother providing the egg and the other as the biological mother, carrying the pregnancy.
For male couples who choose not to go for adoption but want their child to be the genetic offspring of one partner, surrogacy can be a solution. However, surrogacy for either altruistic or commercial purposes is completely illegal in many European countries including France, Germany, Italy and Spain and is only legal for altruistic purposes in some countries such as Denmark, Ireland and the UK. It is therefore essential that anyone considering this route is familiar with the legal framework where they live, and that they take specialist legal advice.
Extended families, usually formed around a core of a couple and their children with aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents all part of the mixture can create a rich and warm environment for both adults and children. In anthropological terms, this is known as a conjugal family. These types of families tend to be on the decline in Europe as people gain the financial means to live in nuclear family groups.
A couple without children is still a family, and if the condition of childlessness is a matter of choice for the partners, there is no problem. Only if the absence of children is not a matter of choice but of infertility, then of course it is a problem calling out for a solution. Not all infertility can be remedied by modern methods of assisted reproduction, but it’s surprising how many can. If you would like to find out more about assisted fertility treatments, do contact us at IVI.
Other types of family
How many types of family have we left out? There are certainly more than five types of families; intergenerational families where childcare is shared between grandparent(s) and parent(s), communities or communes where childcare is shared between all members of the group; there are families of all kinds where even pets are genuinely considered to be family members. There are also friendship groups that to their members can feel more like family than their genetic kin… the list goes on.
Whatever the type of family that we live or grow up in, we can probably all agree that, much more than blood or legal relationship, love and mutual support are what really lie at the heart of family life.