What is Family?
Generally, when you ask someone what is a family, they will typically think of parents with children and extended family members, who are biologically related to them.
However, a family can be made up of so much more than this ancient outdated definition.
Families share common values, goals, emotional bonds and responsibilities. Mostly family members contribute to the wellbeing of others in the family unit.
When we consider children, they may have many adults who are involved in raising them as Parents and Carers. Step parents, aunts, uncles, grand-parents, foster parents, adoptive parents, single parents all make up the families today. Pretty much anyone who performs significant caregiving and parenting for the child is considered part of the family unit.
One definition I found that accurately describes a family is following –
Family is a domestic group with a lasting association, which the members may or may not be biologically related. It functions as a unit for the purpose of resource sharing and providing mutual emotional support while perpetuating tradition and values.
Since 1st March 2009, The Family Law Act 1975 under the powers conferred by the five states to the Commonwealth, included ‘De Facto Couples’. A de facto couple, including same sex couples, must cohabit for a minimum of 2 years for the Family Law Act to apply, unless they have a child together, have registered the relationship or made significant contributions to the relationship. So even our family law act and the Courts, recognises that family units are diverse and do not necessarily include children.
When I grew up in England, we had aunts, uncles and cousins living with us in our home at various times. When we moved to Australia, we continued with the same family ethic, welcoming others into our home regularly. We had an Uncle Ed, who lived with us for years, however he was not related to us. My cousin’s fiancée Robert, also lived with us for years whilst studying at the University of Queensland, he was like an older brother to me.
All these people lived in my home when I was growing up, some were related, some not, yet they lived under the same roof, ate meals with me, contributed to my wellbeing and provided emotional support, that equals family.
Friends of mine who are a same sex couple, are a family even without children. They are recognised by Medicare, Private Health Insurance funds and Government Agencies as a family unit of 2 people.
Under the Medicare scheme in Australia, for the purposes of the Medicare Safety Net, a family is defined as either –
- A couple who are legally married and not separated, or a couple in a de facto relationship with or without dependent children OR
- A single person with dependent children
The legal definitions support the fact that a family is not merely biology and does not have to include children.
I wanted to share some client stories with you here and in particular the different types of family units, some were dysfunctional and did not cater to the wellbeing of the members, others did, some with children, some without.
The first client story is from a blended family and I should say here, that I really do not like this label or any family labels really, because labels are divisive. My client was a male in his late 40’s when he met his partner, she had 2 daughters from a previous relationship and insisted that her daughters call him, Dad. This was not a big problem really, until they had a son together and the son was never told that the 2 daughters had a different father!
When the daughters visited their ‘biological father’ interstate, the mother would lie and tell the son that his sisters were visiting with friends. The deception went on for years and when this relationship ultimately broke down, the 2 sisters went to live with their biological father interstate. The son who was only 5 years old was naturally very confused and distressed. He had his parentage explained in a family tree diagram and only then, was he was able to understand the concept of half-sisters.
The long-term impact of this deception, is worth noting here. One sister has not spoken to the mother since she left to live with her father and the other sister visits only once per year.
This family unit clearly did not cater for the wellbeing of all its members and as a consequence, its end produced a significant impact on all the children.
Another client story concerns donor conception. My client was conceived using donor sperm and her parents chose not to tell her. At the age 25 years when she went had to prepare for surgery, she was devastated to find out that her father was not her biological father. He had raised her and been there for her, however the deception around her conception was a confronting and not something that she was emotionally prepared to handle. She felt as though the rug had been ripped out from under her feet!
The family is currently going through a difficult time of negotiating and navigating a new relationship and there is much work to be done.
There have been many interviews with donor conceived children over the years and with the huge increase in the use of donor gametes, it is not surprising that sharing this important information about conception is becoming more popular.
Both these client’s stories relate to the lack of openness around family and the relationships within that unit and come back to that antiquated belief that family has to be confined within certain boundaries. The families in both cases, chose not to disclose important details with the members, thereby not contributing to the wellbeing of those members.
The wellbeing of the family unit, is dependent on the emotional support, morals and ethics that are shared. Both the above families are still in healing mode to repair the damage that was created by the non-disclosure.
Another client has 1 child from her husband’s first marriage and 1 child with her husband, so 2 children all together. She raises both children as her own, treats them fairly, equally and ensures they have all they need to thrive. Her step child is treated the same as her biological child, and they all both call her ‘Mum’. This is a highly functioning family unit, where open discussion is encouraged, biology here has very little to do with the parenting.
One of my same sex clients, has a beautiful partner, loving extended family and no children as yet, again they are family and when they have children will just be a slightly bigger family unit. The concern that this client struggled with as she was ttc, is feeling a societal pressure, that somehow she isn’t meeting the biological imperative to have a child and that she does not have a family without children.
The belief here that a family cannot exist without a child is a fallacy and not supported by law, government agencies, the courts or the general public. It is narrow minded and not congruent with the dynamic world that we live in today.
Government agencies have also come to the party when it concerns inclusion for all family types, with ‘donor conceived’, actually being an option now when registering the birth of a child with Births, Deaths and Marriages.
The concept of family being just biology and gene sharing is archaic … it is the time, meals, birthdays, parties, pancake breakfasts, beach time, basketball, chauffeuring, buying school shoes, dentist, doctors appointments, gymnastics, swimming lessons, road trips, making school lunches, delousing, flights, buying clothes, homework and hugs, this is what it means to be a family!
So, to all the parents, step parents, single parents, foster parents, surrogate parents, intended parents, those ttc, grandparents, uncles, aunts and carers, thank you for all that you do to contribute to the family. It is because of you that the families thrive, have deep connections and cultural ties.
In summary let’s go back to my original statement – What is Family?
FAMILY is anyone who loves you unconditionally!
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