21 December 2020

What are the different types of families?

different types of families
Medical Director
Cesar Diaz-Garcia
MD PhD Assoc Prof
IVI London


Families have been the primary social unit throughout human history, and they come in many forms.

Social anthropology identifies many family types over time. These range from patriarchal to matriarchal, monogamous to polygamous, established to nomadic – to mention just a few. The reality is that there is not one type of family: there are many. However, narrower contemporary definitions can cause us to easily jump to the oversimplified picture of a nuclear family consisting of a mother, a father and a couple of kids. But to see the more complex reality, you only need to look outside your own front door, or inside it for that matter.

In the UK alone, family types range from the traditional nuclear family to single-parent families, same-sex families, step families, extended families, multi-generational and adoptive and foster families. Not all of these family types include children but many do, or would like to.


What types of family are there in the UK?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) defines a family as a couple who are married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting, either with or without children, or a single parent with at least one child, living at the same address. Within these categories, adoptive, foster, extended and step families are all included.

The ONS reports that in 2018, married and civil partner couple families represented the largest proportion at 67% of all families. Cohabiting couples were the next largest family type at 18%. These categories all include same-sex married, civil partnership and cohabiting couples. The next largest group was single parent families at 15%.

In recent years, the ONS also notes that there has been a substantial increase in the representation of same-sex couples. This number has jumped from 152,000 in 2015 to 232,000 in 2018 – an increase of 53%. Within these numbers, the proportion of married same-sex couples has increased from 9% of the total in 2015 to 29% in 2018. The options available for same-sex parenthood have also diversified, too.


Starting a family

For many heterosexual couples, having children is an integral part of being a family. Some are fortunate to be able to choose whether, and when, they have a baby without much delay.

For those who want to start a family but have trouble conceiving naturally, planning for the future is sometimes more difficult. However, fertility problems are far from uncommon and there is a well-established network of help, support and resources available. This ranges from an initial visit to a GP and a possible referral to an NHS clinic, or a consultation at a private fertility clinic for a fertility check-up or treatment.


Single parent families

Single parent families are often a consequence of many social factors including divorce, separation, and bereavement. However, there’s a growing proportion of families headed by a single parent whose status is a matter of choice and with it, empowerment.

Single women who have decided to become parents alone can get the help they need from a fertility clinic for artificial insemination (also known as intrauterine insemination or IUI). This process involves using sperm from either a known donor or an anonymous donor through a sperm bank. In the laboratory, the sperm is examined. Clinicians carefully optimise the sample so it’s as safe and healthy as possible. This allows for the best chance of conception. You can learn more about what’s involved in this treatment on the IVI website, or take a look at the video about the artificial insemination process on our YouTube channel.

Single people, both men and women, have the option to adopt a child and are also eligible to become foster parents. Both of these options also apply to heterosexual and same-sex couples.


Same-sex couples

In the past, the most obvious route to start a family for lesbian couples has been to have an IUI treatment at a fertility clinic using either a known or anonymous sperm donor.  Now, lesbian couples have another choice which is increasing in popularity, known as the ROPA method or ‘shared motherhood’.

Reception of Oocytes from the Partner (ROPA)

The ROPA technique allows two women to ‘share’ motherhood. One partner is the genetic mother of the child while the other is their birth mother. It is available to women either through elective choice, or for medical reasons such as one partner having an absence of oocytes, severe ovarian dysfunction or the risk of passing on an inheritable disease.

In the ROPA method, one partner contributes her oocytes. She will be the genetic mother. The oocytes are stimulated and retrieved in the same way as in the standard IVF process. They are fertilised in the laboratory with the use of donor sperm. When the embryos are ready for transfer, an embryo is transferred to the womb of the other partner. She then becomes the birth mother.

Underlying this possibility for shared motherhood is the well-established IVF technique. You can find a detailed explanation of how this works in our video about in vitro fertilisation.


Want to find out more?

In the UK of the 21st century, most of us are fortunate enough to have the freedom to choose how we want to live, including the type of family we want to be part of. For many of us, this includes the desire for parenthood, no matter the family makeup.

We’re proud to support each and every one of our patients when they decide to build a family. If you would like to know more, we’d love to hear from you. We can also help you with any specific concerns relating to fertility, or how fertility treatment may be right for you in your individual situation.

You can also find out about us for yourself by attending our free Online Open Evening where you’ll have the opportunity ask questions about the treatments we offer. Alternatively, you could go ahead and make an appointment; just get in touch using our online contact form and we’ll call you back.

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