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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Psych 101

All in the (Nonexclusive, Surrogate) Family

April 12, 1998|LYNN SMITH

In the beginning, there were mothers and fathers.

Then came stepmothers and stepfathers, adoptive mothers and foster fathers . . . .

Now, according to the most recent attempt to list all the new family types, there are 25 types of mothers and nine types of fathers.

This will come as no surprise to people increasingly challenged by introductions such as, "These are my mother's husband's children." Or, "I'd like you to meet my son's father's ex-wife."

The confusion is the result of the explosion of divorce and remarriage, common-law marriages, same-sex parenting and new reproductive technologies, according to University of Toronto sociology professor Margrit Eichler, who identified the types in her book "Family Shifts: Families, Policies and Gender Equality" (Oxford University Press, 1997), reviewed in the current edition of Contemporary Sociology.

Consider the case of the "nonbiological, social, exclusive and full father" (Type 6: a man who adopted a child together with his wife, then got divorced) or the "post-mortem biological father" (Type 9: a man whose sperm is used to impregnate a woman after he is dead).

Mothers are even more complicated, partly because there are now two possible types of biological mothers: the one who gestates and gives birth and the one who donates the egg.

Categories of motherhood include the "nongenetic but gestational, nonsocial mother" (Type 12: surrogates for lesbian co-mothers) and "nongenetic but gestational, social, nonexclusive, partial" (Type 16: women who use a surrogate for their own egg, but share child rearing with another partial mother).

What's more, there are nine additional forms of "dead genetic mothers" (including pregnant women kept on life support so that the fetus will mature and be delivered by caesarean section).

Eichler says she developed the categories in an effort to refine social policies to reflect a realistic image of how families look today. Some of the more bizarre categories may only contain a few examples, she says. Still, taken together, the new types outnumber the traditional type of parents: a married, biological mom and dad who have never been divorced, nor seen the inside of a reproductive lab.

"It's a small minority," she says. "That's for sure."

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