Our stories: exploring UK family lives
Dr Jai Mackenzie, a Research Fellow in the School of English, explains how digital networks are giving a voice to marginalised families and invites others to share their family’s story.
Families matter. Children, parents and carers remain high on the political, academic and cultural agenda in the UK, and in the past year have often been the focus for new rules, regulations and policies around work, education, wellbeing and mental health in a time of national crisis.
But what is a ‘family’? The traditional nuclear family ideal of the heterosexual, married couple with 2.4. biological children is now more outdated and exclusionary than ever before, in a society where the shape of the family is becoming increasingly diverse, and not always rooted in biological ties. For example, in 2019, 14.9% of UK families were headed by lone parents, and same-sex families had increased by 40%. In 2020, 16.6% of adoptees in England were adopted by same-sex couples, and 11.3% by single people[i].
Nevertheless, the nuclear family ideal has endured, and family groups who do not fit this mould continue to be marginalised - in health and social policy, in the media, and in everyday discourse. To give one example, in August 2019 the South East London NHS trust made single women ineligible for the free IVF treatment that was available to couples, on the basis of widespread (but robustly challenged) stereotypes and generalisations around single mothers being less competent as parents, and a burden on the nation. These guidelines were released despite decades of research challenging discriminatory ideas that new family forms pose a threat to society, to ‘family values’, and to children themselves. In the face of such ongoing prejudice, charities such as New Family Social, Adoption UK and The Donor Conception Network have stepped forward to provide under-represented family groups such as adoptive, single and LGBT+ parents and carers with a platform to share their experiences, campaign for better representation and support, and build an invaluable social and support network.
In recent years, social and other digital media have played a vital role in facilitating the growth of such family-led networks for peer support, advocacy, and campaigning. However, there has been little research that investigates the role of digital media in the lives of diverse family groups in any depth. The Marginalised Families Online project works to bridge that gap, exploring the lives and digital support networks of UK parents who have brought children into their lives in a number of different ways, including adoption, donor conception, surrogacy or informal co-parenting arrangements.
"The nuclear family ideal has endured, and family groups who do not fit this mould continue to be marginalised - in health and social policy, in the media, and in everyday discourse."
During the course of this research, I found that my participants made use of digital technologies and practices in many different ways. Most of the parents used private Facebook groups as a key source of information and advice, as they navigated complex social, medical and legal practices, supported their children’s developing sense of self and identity, or helped them come to terms with early childhood trauma. Such groups also provided invaluable peer support, a sense of community, and a feeling that they were ‘not alone’.
Two of the single adoptive parents, Cheryl and Jenny (both pseudonyms), regularly used their Twitter accounts as a route to social action and advocacy for adopters and adoptees. Jenny used her platform to challenge government officials with responsibility for educational policies that are damaging to adoptive children (who are, on average, 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school[ii]). Cheryl tweeted as a way of calling out problematic representations of adoptive families in the media, for example in advertisements and greetings cards.
Rachael, a solo mum who used donor conception to conceive her young daughter, curated a popular blog and Instagram account, where she writes about her daily life in an effort to normalise solo motherhood and raise awareness of different family formations. Sarah built an extensive network of solo mums over several decades, using a mailing list to share information, news and media campaigns relevant to single women and their donor-conceived children. Peter, who conceived his daughter with the help of surrogacy and egg donation, relied on messaging apps such as WhatsApp to maintain intimate connections with distant friends, as well as forging new relationships, when he became a new parent, in a new town, for the first time.
Many of these parents talked about the value of sharing their stories via social media posts, blogs and podcasts, in the hope that others might read about their experiences and feel inspired, feel less alone, or gain a better understanding of different family configurations and experiences. By telling their stories, parents were able to narrate their lives in their own words, as well as gaining support and solidarity from others with similar experiences.
I was lucky enough to hear these parents’ stories first hand when I visited them in 2019. Many of them felt that, in order to move away from stereotypes, stigma, and outdated ideals, it was important to normalise family diversity in the UK through wider and more sensitive representation, discussion and understanding.
With this in mind, I worked with the Nottingham Institute for Policy and Engagement and Lakeside Arts to create a short film about four of these parents, who between them represent a range of family forms. This film, ‘Our Stories’, is a starting point - a call to recognise, normalise and celebrate family diversity, and I hope it will reach many households across the UK. Watch it, share it, and talk about it with your own family, friends and colleagues. And when you’re done, why not tell your story?
The Marginalised Families Online project is funded by The British Academy and the University of Nottingham. You can read more about the project, watch the film, and share your family’s story, at www.marginalisedfamilies.co.uk
[i] From Office for National Statistics; Department for Education
[ii] From Adoption UK’s 2019 ‘Adoption Barometer’ survey
Dr Jai Mackenzie
Dr Jai Mackenzie is a Research Fellow in the School of English.