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2 February 2022

Susan Golombok Q&A: “People often say the family is doomed. I disagree”

The Glaswegian academic on Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain, her estranged grandfather, and new kinds of family.

By New Statesman

Susan Golombok was born in Glasgow in 1954. A researcher of non-traditional families, such as those with same-sex parents, she is the director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being pushed up a slope in my pram by my father, and him catching me as I rolled back down. Years later I realised that the memory is actually of a home movie.

Who are your heroes?

When I was a child I discovered that I had a grandfather who was estranged from my family. It was a taboo subject, so I built up a romantic picture of him in my mind. I even set up a mini detective agency in a shed at the bottom of my garden to try to track him down. We eventually met just weeks before he died. Today there is less stigma around separation and divorce, which is a good thing for children and grandchildren. My adult hero is Helen Brook, who founded the Brook Advisory Centres in 1964 and believed passionately that women should be in control of their own fertility, that contraception should be available to young, unmarried women, and that all children should be wanted children.

What book last changed your thinking?

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart gave me a new perspective on Glasgow, where I grew up. Set in one of the city’s harshest areas, it is an almost unbearable account of the cruelties suffered by a boy who is different from his peers, and of how his deep love for his mother survives against the odds.

Which political figure do you look up to?

The Australian MP Tim Wilson. It was moving when he proposed to his now husband in parliament during the final stages of the debate on same-sex marriage.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Nothing – other than my own field of family research. I have a dreadful memory.

What TV show could you not live without?

I like Who Do You Think You Are? for the way it has illuminated the role of family history in our thoughts and feelings about identity and belonging.

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Who would paint your portrait?

Chantal Joffe. Her self-portraits with her mother and children at different stages of their lives are so insightful about the nature of family relationships and how these change over time.

What’s your theme tune?

“We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. It’s the title of my most recent book.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

As a child, I was never allowed to say “I couldn’t care less”, as my parents believed that nothing was beyond caring about. I can’t say I have always followed it, or even believe it’s true, but it always makes me think twice.

What’s currently bugging you?

The possibility that the US Supreme Court might restrict access to legal abortions.

What single thing would make your life better?

Sunshine.

When were you happiest?

I’m always happy when I come home.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I would have loved to be an architect, but I can’t draw. My god-daughter, Maya, has become one, so I enjoy the subject vicariously through her.

Are we all doomed?

People often say that the family is doomed, but I disagree. Just because people become parents in new ways does not make them less capable or mean they love their children any less.

“We Are Family” by Susan Golombok is published by Scribe

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This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under