Family Structures: Breaking the Traditional Mold

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Alexandra O'Sullivan

I’m not cheap, I’m free.

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A few years ago, I was at the doctor with my 4-year-old son, who had a stomach bug. The GP was commenting on what a cute boy he is, which he is.

‘Does his dad spend much time with him at home?’ she asked.

‘I’m separated from his dad,’ I replied awkwardly.

‘Have you re-partnered?’ she continued with her intrusive and unnecessary questioning.


‘Good!’ she replied enthusiastically, as if my single status was appropriate penance for not creating a nice, neat nuclear family.

I shot back an assertive ‘but I’m dating!’ and folded my arms defiantly. She did not ask me whether my ex had re-partnered, and I felt the shame of single motherhood reverberating around her office as I hustled my son out the door.

Why do some people still judge single mothers this way? I’m looking at you, David Archibald.

Do we stigmatise single mothers because, subconsciously, we can’t accept a woman as the head of a household?

Traditionally, the man was the head of the household, and women and children were expected to follow his lead. We may no longer enforce this rule overtly, but there exists a lingering sense that this family structure is more appropriate than any other. Men ‘wear the pants’ after all. The world is patriarchal, and the family unit is just a smaller version, a mini patriarchy. A patriarchy is hierarchical. The world is sometimes uncomfortable when women take on leadership roles in larger society, breaking the normal hierarchy, so perhaps it is also uncomfortable with women taking the lead in raising families? Perhaps we would rather see families as neat, familiar hierarchies, with the man at the top and everyone else arranged underneath, mirroring what we are used to seeing in larger society?

Society relies on the self-sacrifice of women. Women do disproportionately more unpaid labour than men. The sacrifice happens outside the family, with volunteering, and within the family, with domestic work and child rearing. From the outside perspective, it makes sense for women to be the stay at home carers, as they can breastfeed. However, this assumption of roles often places undue strain on families and creates an uneven power dynamic. In a capitalist society, money equals power, so the person earning the money has the power. The other person is reliant. This has implications for situations of domestic violence, where many women cannot leave due to financial abuse. It is also a way to ‘keep women down;’ women cannot reach their potential if they are expected to carry the burden of the unpaid and undervalued work in families and larger society. As Gloria Steinem said, ‘women are not going to be equal outside the home, until men are equal in it.’

These gender roles become imprinted on children, which can be damaging, especially if the power dynamic of the household has tipped to the point of being abusive. If a young boy sees his father out doing the ‘important work’ and his mother as a servant type person, then he might become an adult who has an unconscious expectation for all women to be like that. If a young girl grows up watching her mother in the same way, then she may become someone who, without thinking, takes on that gendered role of self-sacrifice. This might be convenient for the way society functions, but it is not an arrangement conducive to future gender equality, nor one that will help to diminish domestic violence. Expectations of gender roles that are unequal, are likely to lead to tensions, and possibly even violence, in the future.

This doesn’t mean that the nuclear family is inherently flawed, but it does mean that it is not infallible or superior to other families. There are many family configurations that can work well, including inter-generational households, blended families, single parent households and same-sex parents. An inter-generational family structure has the benefit of adults ‘sharing the load.’ If adults are less tired and stressed, it benefits the children. Same-sex parents are a contentious issue, largely because I believe many people are confused by an inherently non-hierarchical family. Who ‘wears the pants’ in a same-sex parent family? While there may be other things that tip the ‘power’ in this partnership, such as class or race, it is not unequal due to gender, and that kind of equality is unfamiliar, and therefore uncomfortable, for some.

The idea of equality takes on a new light for separating parents. I find it interesting how, quite often, our idea of child raising changes once parents are no longer together. I see a big push for 50/50 shared care, as the only ‘fair’ solution. If fathers are not equal carers in a nuclear family, why must they be so when the family falls apart? I am not making an argument against 50/50 shared care. I believe families and their needs are too diverse for a one size fits all solution to custody, and children’s well-being is paramount, so it’s whatever is best for them in each individual situation. I also believe that many wonderful fathers deserve to care equally for children, both before separation and after. I just wonder why we are more comfortable with women bearing the burden of child raising, when they are partnered, than when they are separated. Is it because the man has lost his status as head of the household, so he must regain power any way he can? Then, suddenly, he must have equal rights to the children. Or equal control. I can’t help feeling that my GP’s reaction was, subconsciously, concern about my child’s father not losing that control over the family. Not being ‘replaced,’ in other words.

Nobody should ‘replace’ parents, but many people can add to a child’s life. Strong role models, not necessarily traditional ones, are important. These can be aunts, uncles, friends, coaches, teachers, cousins or siblings, because children should have many diverse viewpoints from which to build their sense of self. Whatever the configuration may be, the best family (whatever that may look like) is one that shares responsibilities and work equally. Where everyone is noticed as equally important, nobody is silenced, ignored, overworked or underappreciated, and love is abundant.