Prof Susan Golombok – Psychologist

Susan Golombok’s career was shaped when she picked up a copy of Spare Rib – that iconic 70s feminist magazine – and read an article about lesbian mothers.

It was the beginning of a 40-year career studying new forms of families. She has now written her first book for a general readership: a fascinating exploration of human hopes and relationships, and how technology and the law can shape new families.

The article that changed her career explored how women who realised later in life that they were lesbians, invariably lost custody of their children in the courts. At a time when it was assumed that mothers would be the carers after divorce, women who had become involved in a relationship with another woman saw their children taken away. In one particularly shocking US case, a father who was a convicted murderer was awarded custody in preference to a lesbian mother.

The prevailing belief was that growing up in a gay household would cause children to develop emotional and behavioural problems. It was thought that boys would be overly feminine and girls overly masculine, leading them to become gay themselves: an outcome seen at the time as a reason to deny custody to lesbian mothers.

An organisation called Action for Lesbian Parents was calling for a volunteer to research whether this was true. Susan, then a young woman about to begin a Master’s in child development, and a keen supporter of the women’s movement, stepped forward.

She worked with families across the UK, carrying out rounded and detailed psychological assessments of children living with lesbian mothers. Her research, and that of two concurrent studies in the US, showed that these children were no different from other children.

‘There was a lot of hostility when we published the results’, she recalls. In court, she was fiercely cross-examined by fathers’ barristers. Nonetheless, their research would gradually influence the outcome of child custody disputes: today, hardly any such cases go to court, and when they do, the focus is no longer on the woman’s sexuality.

New forms of family

In 1978, the first IVF baby was born, and once again, the newspapers were filled with speculation. There was widespread concern that the child would be born with disabilities, or that the parents and child couldn’t form a loving relationship. Susan began to see parallels with her first study.

Some ten years later, there were enough IVF families for her to be able to propose a research study. Once again, she set out to investigate the facts. And again, there was no evidence that the children were psychologically damaged. Indeed, the families generally showed particularly strong relationships.

‘The overriding issue is that there have been so many prejudices and assumptions. Everyone thinks they understand families because they come from them. Objective empirical data is so important in all this’, Susan explains.

Over the years, Susan and colleagues, particularly at the Centre for Family Research, have looked at the wellbeing of families formed through sperm or egg donation, surrogacy and single mothers by choice. More recently, they have been at the forefront of research into families with transgender parents, single fathers by choice and platonic co-parents.
If she were to sum up the findings of 40 years of research, she thinks that the title of the Hollywood film, ‘The Kids Are All Right’, just about says it all.

Again and again, her findings have shown that the formation and structure of families doesn’t matter to children’s wellbeing as much as people assume. What matters is the strength of relationships between family members, the external pressures or stigmatisation they may face and parents’ willingness to be open with children.

A force for social change

Research by Susan and her colleagues at the Centre for Family Research has contributed directly to changing legal decisions and government policy.

For Susan, ‘That is the most rewarding part of the whole – when our research contributes to positive change. That’s what’s really driven me over the years. As new family forms emerge, I think it’s important to find out the consequences for the children.’

Most recently, she has been part of the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing. Scientists now have the potential to edit the genome of human embryos, an issue that raises not only scientific and medical considerations, but also a host of ethical, moral and societal issues. The Commission, tasked with addressing the scientific issues, should society ever decide that it is ethical to proceed, has now concluded that ‘Human embryos whose genomes have been edited should not be used to create a pregnancy until it is established that precise genomic changes can be made reliably and without introducing undesired changes – criteria that have not yet been met.’

That said, ‘the Commission saw potential in heritable gene editing for certain serious inherited diseases’, Susan explains. These are diseases caused by single genes that cause severe symptoms or premature death.

Whatever the possible changes in the future, Susan, and other researchers like her, will be there, to offer well-researched data, and to argue for the importance of evidence over prejudice and assumption.

Her final conclusion? ‘What matters most for children is not the make-up of their family, but their parents’ love.’

We Are Family: What Really Matters for Parents and Children by Susan Golombok is published by Scribe.