Understanding what ‘family’ means – and how best to support families – depends on challenging politicised assumptions that frame ‘ordinary’ families in comparison to an imagined problematic ‘other’.
Learning from the perspectives of people who were in care in childhood, this innovative book helps redefine the concept of family. Linking two longitudinal studies involving young adults in England, it reveals important new insights into the diverse and dynamic complexity of family lives, identities and practices in time – through childhood and beyond.
Paving the way for future policy and practice, this book makes an important contribution to the theorisation of family in the 21st century.
The title of Chapter 5 is taken from a song chosen by someone who took part in Against All Odds?, discussing his relationship with his siblings. The chapter builds on the material discussed previously to consider care and connectedness, and the challenges, responsibilities and resources that are part of those linked lives. In line with previous research concerned with young adults who had been in care, participants in both studies had contact with their birth families and gave accounts of practices of care within and across generations. This chapter draws on these accounts to think about the sharpened significance of family connections for care-experienced young adults living in a historical moment of heightened precarity and political austerity.
Chapter 6 turns to understandings and experiences of parenthood. It begins by focusing on the experiences of participants who are parents (all but one of whom were mothers), including the implications of child removal for understandings of parenthood and family. The chapter considers how participants practise family at-a-distance and how they manage and maintain identities as parents separated from their children, taking account of different permanence, placement and contact arrangements. Finally, this chapter engages with participants’ narratives of future imagined families and the ways in which those are positioned in relation to their past and present experiences, including relationships with partners and children not-yet-born, as well as the potential return of children who are currently in placement.
Drawing on Morgan’s (2011) conceptualization of family as entailing a sense of the active, and seeking to highlight the (continuing) significance of birth families in care-experienced lives, Chapter 3 addresses the significance of the ‘ordinary’. Undeniably, care-experienced people have often faced significant challenges within their family lives. But focusing only on documenting those adversities runs the risk of engaging in a dividing practice (see Foucault, 1983), whereby care-experienced people – and care-experienced families – are reduced to the problems they have faced. Accordingly, this chapter draws attention to ‘ordinary’ memories within extraordinary childhoods, encompassing narratives of regular, ritual and habitual family practices and the importance of these within participants’ accounts.
Chapter 2 begins with an overview of key policy and legislative contexts for young people in and after care, reflecting on how key family-related features of children’s lives and care experiences (including the presence of siblings, recurrent removal of children into care from the same parent/s and so on) are recognized within policy and published data. The chapter then goes on to discuss ethical and methodological debates in researching vulnerability. It sets out the argument for taking a narrative approach to thinking through family in care-experienced lives, challenging the tendency for categorizations of ‘vulnerability’ to disempower, silencing narratives of resistance and obscuring complexity. This discussion links to a detailed overview of the two studies, addressing methods, study contexts and sample recruitment and characteristics, and documenting the analytic approach to linking the two datasets.
Chapter 1 sets out the theoretical framework for the book as a whole, introducing the two studies and establishing the critical arguments for thinking beyond a ‘single story’ of the conventional or the ‘troubled’ family. The chapter addresses the underpinning conceptualization of ‘family’, including attention to a family practices conceptual framework, and discusses the importance of thinking beyond childhood in relation to family and interdependence in early adulthoods. The chapter also introduces the wider context for the research in relation to the sociopolitical context of austerity policies in England during the period of the research, considering the implications for family lives, early adulthoods, and for public and political conceptualizations of family and family responsibility.
Chapter 4 considers how family practices shape family boundaries, considering who ‘counts’ as family and examining family connections over time and through experiences of placement in childhood. Participants in the two studies had very varied experiences of placement – ranging from a single foster or kinship placement from early childhood to adulthood, to experiences of 20 or more placements, and of residential care and mother and baby placements (especially in the Pause sample). This chapter addresses participants’ narratives of the practices that enable a placement to feel ‘like family’ – or not – and explore the different possibilities for doing ‘family’ that participants highlight in their narratives of placement.
Chapter 7 concludes the book by drawing together learning from the preceding chapters to consider the value of a sociological lens, and of attention to family practices, for thinking through the conceptualization of family for people who have been in care. The chapter argues that learning about ‘unconventional’ family lives from the perspective of people who are care experienced enriches the theorization of ‘family’ more generally – in terms of understanding family practices, fluidity and continuities, for example. This in turn helps with identifying the implications for the politics, policy and practice of child and family welfare. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the importance of thinking through ‘family’ when working with children in care and with families who encounter public care systems, through childhood and beyond.