To define ‘a family’ is a challenging task with the term representing a vast range of notions to different people at different occasions. A legal definition of a family in Australia is characterised by a heterosexual couple or lone parent sharing residence with their genetic and non genetic children but fails to include same gender couples, families separated by physical distance or other families of choice (Poole 2011, 127), Cultural diversity adds ambiguity into the defining of a family with different societies placing a greater level of involvement to a broader group of kinship ties.
For example, Indigenous communities often regard the raising of children as a whole community duty compared with parents in Westernised countries whom typically reserve the right to make the decisions on how they want to raise their own children. Many Asian cultures include extended family relatives when considering their intimate family with a heavy emphasis placed on children to care of their elders (Saggers & Sims 2004, 66). Another challenge for defining a family is apparent as we progress through different stages of life and our interpretation of what family we currently belong to is also evolving.
For example, when a young couple is asked the question ‘do you have a family? ’ it is fair to assume that the enquirer is more accurately curious as to whether or not they have children of their own. Conversely, when questioning a young child about their family they are likely to give a response detailing their parents and siblings (Baker 2001, 4-5). To allow for a deeper introspect this essay will focus on the immediate family, specifically romantic partnerships with or without biological and non-biological children, living together or apart in modern Australian society.
Specifically it will investigate the demographic changes that have contributed to the diverse family compositions, the evolving roles and responsibilities of individual family members as a result of shifting society existences and will explore the diverse intimate relationships that exist between varying families Diverse family compositions Until recent times, sociologists generally accepted the ‘nuclear family’, namely a heterosexual couple living together with their biological or adopted children, as standard in both a statistical and ethical sense (Baker 2001, 8-9).
Demographic changes in Australia such as an aging population and lower fertility rates in conjunction with an altered perception of what is considered socially acceptable have contributed to the decline of this conventional family structure, resulting in a society comprised of families of increasing diversity (Poole 2011, 126-127). Whilst the nuclear family remains the predominant family structure in Australia, other family types are increasingly accepted and apparent including people living alone, cohabiting relationships and same sex couples (137-138).
The diversity of what is considered a family is heightened when children are involved as it creates further family structure possibilities such as families headed by couples, lone parent families, families encompassing biological children and siblings, families comprised of non-biologically related people and families with no children at all. The vast increase in divorce, remarriages and the forming of new partnerships in Australia heavily contributes to the creation of these family types and living situations often meaning children are spending less time living with their biological parents.
These new circumstances include: blended families, existent when a family is comprised of at least one genetic child of both members of a partnership and at least one genetic child to only one member; step-families, existent when a family is comprised of a couple and at least one genetic child of only one member of the partnership with no other children; and patchwork families, existent when families include children resulting from multiple marriages and divorces (Poole 2011, 137).
The advancement of conception aiding technologies has also hindered what was once considered the standard family structure. Same sex couples, individuals and reproductively challenged people now have the necessary resources to conceive a child with the help of donor semen, donor oocytes or even surrogacy creating further diversity in what denotes a family (Poole 2011, 127). Roles and responsibilities within the family Another major contributor to the changes in what defines a family is the role and status of individual family members.
Until recent times, women commonly married younger and were expected to give up employment to perform domestic household duties and raise the children relying on their husband as the exclusive income earner to financially support and provide for the family (Poole 2011,128). Resulting from the feminist progression of the 1970’s and 1980’s, mothers today expect the right to be able to keep their careers or recommence studying soon after giving birth to children (Briggs 1994:1).
Many women are no longer satisfied with raising a family as their only role, incorporating career objectives into their life goals and valuing the acknowledgment, liberation and companionships that employment enjoys (Poole 2011, 141). Additionally, it is no longer economically viable for all women to be able to solely rely on their husband’s income to provide for them and their children due to an increased level of divorce, higher costs of living and an increased rate of male unemployment (Briggs 1994, 1-3).
Today, almost half of the employed population is currently accounted for by women, however studies suggest that despite women becoming increasingly successful in achieving equality in the workforce, they are simultaneously performing the same domestic duties within the family once expected of a non-employed housewife including cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry and childcare (Saggers and Simms 2004, 71).
This has resulted in many women struggling to achieve an adequate balance between meeting their career and family desires, leaving many women with the difficult task of deciding how much of their career objectives they are willing to sacrifice through cutting back on hours and responsibilities compared with how much of family life they are willing to compromise such as postponing having children, having fewer children and spending less time with partners, relatives and any children they do have (Poole 2011, 141).
Men also struggle to achieve a work life balance as they work longer hours than women do and often express discontent with the amount of time they are able to bond with their partners (Poole 2011, 141). However, fathers and father figures today are spending more time with children than in previous times in history, although this time is mostly spent on playing and recreational activities as opposed to the caregiving duties typically carried out by the mother (Saggers and Simms 2004, 71). Relationships and interactions within the family
Whilst examining the structure, duties and practices of differing families is beneficial in deriving a scaffold for what constitutes ‘a family’ in a formal regard, modern day sociologist’s place a great deal of significance on considering the deeper elements contributing to the formation of a family through considering relationships and interactions between family members. These intimate relationships can be loosely categorised into four types: couple relationships, kin relationships, parent-child relationships and sexual relationships with differing families being comprised by some, all or none of these interactions (Poole 1994, 128).
In modern times, individuals place a heavy emphasis on the requirement for intimate relationships resulting in many people embarking on the quest to find a romantic partner to build a relationship with based on honest and open communication. People are also more demanding in these types of relationships than ever before, not only placing greater expectations on partners to provide all the things once collectively provided by the family or society but also are more readily willing to end a relationship if these desires are not satisfied. Pool 2011, 140-141). This is evident through the prevalent yet short lived cohabiting relationships in Australia, with almost half of the population under forty expected to cohabit at some point in their lives, a quarter of which will end their relationship in the first year, and half within the second year of being together and with only six percent of the population cohabitating at any one time (Briggs 1994, 4). Parental divorce and separations currently affects approximately twenty percent of Australian children.
Almost one third of these children will lose contact with one biological parent (usually the father) during separation, increasing to approximately one half of children once a divorce is achieved (Briggs 1194, 9). Divorce and separation will also see that children experience interference to their family relationships through the ceasing of ties with a set of grandparents, other extended family members and close friends (Poole 2011,137).
Additionally, although joint guardians are legally responsible for the decision making of the upbringing and caretaking of children, schools and community groups often unintentionally limit communication to the parent who enrols the child or brings the child to and from home further isolating the parent with limited custody from gaining a deeper introspect into the child’s life ultimately further diminishing the relationship they have with their child (Briggs 1194, 9).
Divorce and separation can also be damaging on parent-child relationships when a grief stricken child blames the parent they are left living with (typically the mother) for the severance of their other parent-child relationship. Emotionally damaged parents sometimes also strain their own relationship with their children when they turn to their under matured and unqualified children to not only emotionally support them but to act as tools to seek out information or to attain particular needs and wants from their former partners (Briggs 1994, 11-12).
Remarriage or re-partnerships creates further relationship strains and opportunities for a family. Children have to adapt to sharing their home and parent’s love and attention not only with the parent’s new adult partner but also in many cases with the half or step siblings the new partnership fuses. This not only creates the opportunity for conflict between child and parent, non-genetic child and parent, and non biological siblings but also between the couple itself who struggle to negotiate between satisfying their own children, their partners children and each other. Briggs 1994, 2011). On the other hand, the failing and reforming of relationships creates the opportunity for a broadened kinship group for individuals to include as part of what they consider to be their family. Additionally, the depth and significance of pre-existing family relationships can also be confirmed and demonstrated in these situations when interaction with each other is an active choice that requires the desire and efforts of both parties to stay in tact (Poole 2011, 137).
Conclusion Evidently, the demographic and social changes experienced throughout modern history in Australia have resulted in the popularity and acceptance of a wide range of diverse family structures and compositions. An aging population, lower fertility rates and a more open minded and liberated society have stemmed the gradual swing from the once normative nuclear family.
Women’s entry into the workforce, rising divorce rates and an increased standard and cost of living have further occasioned changes to the functioning of the modern Australian family. The need for intimate and close relationships is as significant as ever, however partnerships are often shorter in length and family relationships are burdened with additional obstacles to deal with.