Family Formation Processes – Discuss the shift from the traditional nuclear family to the contemporary, often increasingly, ‘unclear family’ (Simpson)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, industrialisation in the Western world led to a shift from an agrarian to a “job” based economy, creating employment opportunities that resulted in a tectonic shift in the mechanics of influence within kinship systems in these societies and the associated family formation processes.

This made it possible to form self-sufficient, “nuclear family” units consisting of biological parents and offspring in one household, operating relatively independently from the traditional kinship networks of control (Furstenberg 2020).

However, in the second half of the twentieth century, the number of divorces in the Western world skyrocketed, and rapidly increasing numbers of families transitioned from what had by then become the traditional nuclear structure to alternative, hybrid “unclear” forms, as highlighted by Simpson (1994) in his article “Bringing the `Unclear’ Family into Focus: Divorce and Re-Marriage in Contemporary Britain.”

Family Formation Processes

Divorce is a major driver for change in the constitution of family structures in the Western world, but it is by no means the only one. Furstenberg, Harris et al. (2020) identified three different types of family formation processes that result in “alternative family forms” over the last fifty years.

These are split into three broad categories.

The first cluster is formed around variations of marriage, cohabitation, divorce, separation, and remarriage.

The second cluster is associated with the use of assisted reproduction technologies, as well as adoption and fostering.

The third cluster, on the other hand, relates to the formation of “families of choice,” which are not necessarily based on blood or legal ties (Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

The Creation of Unclear Families

Whatever the process that led to the alternative family unit, the resulting “unclear family” structures have once again transformed the Western’s world’s cultural construct of kinship and everything it entails, including language and the terminology used to describe such families, systems of descent and inheritance, gender roles and household leadership, and residential arrangements (Simpson 1994).

Starting with the first cluster it is important to note that as divorce rates started to rise, other changes were also taking place in Western societies. Attitudes towards sex before marriage, children born outside marriage, cohabitation, and single women having babies and raising them without ever living with the biological father (“parenthood without partnership”) have changed dramatically, bringing with them multiple permutations and combinations of family setups (Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

The impact of the emancipation of women

The emancipation of women is one of the factors that explains why divorce has become so much more frequent. Up to the 1950s, for example, white middle-class women in the US were mostly economically dependent on their husbands, which led to them crafting “affectively central roles” as loving mothers and homemakers to compensate for their lack of leverage in the relationship. (Tanner as cited in Jackson 2015).

As societal norms changed and more women started to build careers alongside building families, they still retained their responsibility for the domestic, which led to a shift in some families towards matrifocality, where women are still the centre of the family while also becoming increasingly financially independent from the men (Jackson 2015).

This effect becomes even more marked as women go through serial remarriage or different sexual partners, often having children with more than one man, fostering a culture of matrifiliation, where the mother is the constant, with children resulting from relationships with multiple men identifying with the maternal side of the family, since this is where their ties as siblings originate (Jackson 2015).

The strong association between mothers and childcare means that in most cases of divorce it is the woman who retains main custody of any children, since this is usually perceived to be in the best interest of the child (Jackson 2015). Similarly, when women have children outside marriage and do not live with the father, the default family arrangement is that the child lives with the mother (Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

In such cases the women retain the primary role as homemakers and caretakers, while also taking on the role of provider by working outside the home. This means that they usually require assistance with childcare during working hours, for which they usually lean on their own mother and sisters, encouraging strong matrilateral ties of affection between children and the maternal grandmother and aunts, as opposed to the paternal side of the family, which once again strengthens the matrifiliation mentioned above (Jackson 2015).

Family Formation Processes – The Creation of Divorce Chain Kinship Groups

In the 1970s, Bohannan (cited in Furstenberg et al 2020) coined the term “divorce chain” to describe how family bonds change after a divorce and new bonds are formed after remarriage, bringing together “blended” families living together in the same household, and by extension interconnecting multiple webs of kinship made up of people related to each other through bonds of blood, law or affection, further complicated by totally different experiences and histories.

It is important to note that whereas in traditional nuclear families the bonds between family members are formed naturally, as children are born and start to bond with the maternal and paternal sides of the family, in the case of second marriages a lot of work and investment in time and resources goes into building strong emotional ties and a “sense of family “we-ness”” within the newly constituted family (Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

Relationships need to be negotiated and sustained between biological parents (one living with the children and the other living elsewhere), stepparents (who might have their own ex-partner and children from that relationship, along with related living arrangements), stepchildren and biological children within the new family unit, and of course the extended kin network of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins (Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

Family Formation Processes – The Creation of New Kinship Bonds after Divorce

The depth and enduring nature of the bonds formed in these alternative “unclear” families depend on various factors.

One of the most important one is timing, since the age of children from a prior marriage at the time the new household comes together makes a big difference to the relationship formed between them and the stepparent, as well as by extension the step-grandparents and related kin. The younger the children are, the more likely it is that they will all come to see each other as kin (Suanet, van der Pas & van Tilburg, as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

The way the biological parent speaks about the new partner of their ex-partner can also make or break whether the child sees the newly introduced adult as their kin, particularly if the children are still minors (Coleman et al, as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020), with the mothers in particular acting as gatekeepers of the emotional ties the children form with the paternal side of their family (Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

Another critical factor that has a strong influence on the norming and forming of “unclear” families is the financial position of the adults involved, since navigating all these relationships and enabling children to maintain relationships with a network of family members often requires considerable resources, both in the form of time and money.

This is illustrated clearly in the two case studies used by Simpson (1984), where the working-class family with limited resources struggles to “shape” all the new relationships resulting from divorce and remarriage, while the more affluent family was able to build a vital and loving extended family network that supported the children and gave them a strong sense of belonging, both in the kinship network they were born in, as well as the new kinship network they acquired after their parents remarried (Simpson 1994).

The difficulty of maintaining family ties after divorce is evidenced by a grim statistic – 43% of parents (in most cases fathers) lost contact with their children within two years of divorce (Simpson 1994).

Family Formation Processes – The Use of Assisted Reproduction, Adoption or Fostering

Moving on to the next category of “family formation processes” as defined by Furstenberg et al (2020), over the last half century we have seen the creation of family units resulting from the use of assisted reproduction technologies, as well as adoption and fostering.

Building kinship bonds after adoption

In the case of adoption, families go through the same process of creating family “we-ness” as do families formed after remarriage. It becomes critical for the adoptive parents to establish their own relationship with the adopted child, as well as between the adopted child and the surrounding family network (Jones & Hackett, as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020). As in the previous case the age of the child and the financial circumstances of the family impact the effectiveness and success of this process

Additional complexity occurs when the adoption is an open one, and the newly formed family retain a relationship with the biological parents of the child, and through them, with the biological kinship network. This situation is becoming more common in the US, and the result can be families with “unclear” boundaries, but it appears that if navigated sensitively, there are considerable benefits for all concerned – the adoptive parents, the birth parents and the child.

A study conducted in Minnesota has found that in cases of open adoptions where relationships with the birth parents are maintained, all parties are satisfied with the outcome (Grotevant et al., as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

Building kinship bonds after fostering

Foster families have many similar features to adoptive ones, but in this case the relationships in the newly formed household are less stable and the potentially transient nature of the child’s stay with the family leads to weaker bonds in many cases, although of course the age of the child and the duration of the fostering influence the resulting kinship bonds (Biehal, as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

Building kinship bonds after using assisted reproduction technologies

Families with children born using Assisted Reproductive Technologies come in different shapes and configurations, ranging from heterosexual couples who set up a “traditional” nuclear family, to same-sex couples or single women who want to have children without a partner.

The family units and kinship networks formed through these processes are further complicated, and made more “unclear” if surrogate mothers are used (who might, or might not, remain in the life of the child after giving birth) and when donors of the eggs or sperm used in the process are biologically linked to the parents, creating “linked families” or “donor sibling networks” (Hertz, Nelson, & Kramer, as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

Family Formation Processes – Building Families of Choice

The last set of processes relate to families created by choice, resulting in voluntary kinship (Stack, as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

Research has indicated that these voluntary kinship networks are most often created by people who do not have satisfying blood or legal ties, as might happen when people get divorced or widowed, or when extended family members have passed away (Braithwaite et al, as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

One must note that in some cases families use multiple types of family formation processes, further increasing the complexity, and in some cases the sensitivity and lack of clarity of the situation.

A good example relates to families formed by people of the same gender. Changing cultural attitudes regarding homosexuality have made it possible for families formed by same-sex couples to be more open about their “alternative family” status than they ever could be before.

In these cases, the children living with the same-sex parents could either be the result of previous relationships with members of the opposite sex (thus falling under the first set of family formation processes discussed above), or the result of assisted reproduction technologies, adoption and fostering (falling under the second set of family formation processes as defined above).

In many cases, moreover, these families often go through a process of “intentionality” and “redefinition,” building a kinship network and community based not solely on family ties, but also including close friendships, essentially defining their “family of choice” (Oswald, as cited in Furstenberg, Harris et al. 2020).

In conclusion, it is important that more research is done into “unclear” families, to ensure that family policy reflects and supports the changing shape and reality of families in Western societies, however the family members have come together.


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