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Press release: The Cambridge Festival explores what ‘family’ means in the 21st Century

For many, the idea of ‘family’ is immensely powerful, particularly in an age when family lives have been under constant scrutiny from all sides as people and governments deal with the complexities and uncertainties of changing and diverse communities.

This is one of the many questions asked during a series of free online events that reveal the political and social realities of modern families during the Cambridge Festival, which launches on 26th March and runs until 4th April. Discussions include the happiness and emotional stability of children from LGBTQ+ families, how equality works in the home, how parents and even grandparents affect the development of babies in the womb, and the experience of dads in a world where roles are changing.

The Festival hosts an extensive programme of over 350 free, online events that tackle many of the critical global challenges affecting us all. Coordinated by the University of Cambridge, it features hundreds of prominent figures and experts in the world of science, current affairs and the arts, and focusses on four key themes: health, society, environment, and explore.

Our understanding of what makes a family has undergone a revolution in the last few decades, from same-sex parenthood to surrogacy, donor conception, and IVF. But what has the impact been on children? In We Are Family (3 April, 6-7pm), Professor Susan Golombok discusses her recent book We Are Family (published July 2020). She visits lesbian mothers, gay fathers, single parents, donor conception parents, co-parents, trans parents, surrogates, and donors, and, more importantly, their children, to find out if they are as well-adjusted, happy, and emotionally stable as children from traditional nuclear families. And she discovers that the answer is yes — and sometimes even more so.

In Creating Equality at Home (2 April, 6-7pm), Francine Deutsch also discusses her recent book, Creating Equality at Home (published June 2020), co-authored with Ruth A. Gaunt. She tells the fascinating stories of 25 couples around the world whose everyday decisions about sharing the housework and childcare – from who cooks the food, washes the dishes, and helps with homework, to who cuts back on paid work – all add up to a gender revolution. From North and South America to Europe, Asia, and Australia, these couples tell a story of similarity despite vast cultural differences. By rejecting the prescription that men's identities are determined by paid work and women's by motherhood, the couples show that men can put family first and are as capable of nurturing as women, and that women can pursue careers as seriously as their husbands do – bringing profound rewards for men, women, marriage, and children.

Our understanding of what family means in the 21st century is more diverse and inclusive than ever. From trans pregnancy to same-sex adoption, parenthood has become accessible – in certain parts of the world – to members of LGBTQI+ communities. Queer Conceptions: Families in the 21st Century (30 March, 7.30-9pm), brings together a panel of specialists in gay surrogacy, trans parenting, reproductive biology and documentary cinema to discuss the political and social realities of queer parenthoods. The discussion offers an insight into the research on queer reproduction and parenting currently being carried out across the University of Cambridge. Through a focus on the notion of queer conception, the panel draws scientific and cultural approaches to reproduction into dialogue with the diverse range of legal and societal challenges facing queer families. Speakers include Freddy McConnell, freelance journalist and protagonist of Seahorse (see following event); Susie Bower-Brown, Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge; Dr Marcin Smietana, Reproductive Sociology Research Group, University of Cambridge; and Dr Zoe Stewart, University of Leicester. Chair: Dr Katie Dow, anthropologist at University of Cambridge.

In a related event, Queer Conceptions: Seahorse screening (26 March, 7.30-9pm) – Seahorse (2019) charts one trans man’s pioneering quest to fulfil an age-old desire: to start his own family. It is an intimate, audacious and lyrical story for the cinema about conception, pregnancy, birth and what makes us who we are.

It might come as a surprise to learn that the environment of our earliest months in the womb can affect our long-term health, and even the health of our grandchildren. Four experts unpick how the experiences of our parents and grandparents affect us before we are born, and how we might counteract adverse outcomes in Set up for life (29 March, 6.30-7.45pm). Professor Dino Giussani (Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience) talks about his work on how the environment in the womb programmes our cardiovascular health in later life; Professor Sue Ozanne (Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science) discusses how growth and nutrition in the womb influences our risk of type 2 diabetes; and Professor Claire Hughes (Centre for Family Research) describes how, surprisingly, both parent’s emotional states can play a role in outcomes for the baby.

In Conversation with Dads (27 March, 3-4pm) a panel of experts discuss fathering in different family contexts, focusing on primary caregiver fathers and their experiences of parenting, wellbeing and support. Speakers include Ian Blackwell from Plymouth Marjon University, whose research explores fathers and children in 'dads only' groups in the UK and how these might impact dads and male carers; and Dr Anja McConnachie from the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, who has conducted research on adoptive gay father families and is interested in child adjustment and family relationships. Several local fathers are also going to share their experiences of first-time fatherhood and experiences of being a primary caregiver father. Dr Kitty Jones from the Centre for Family Research hosts this panel discussion, which covers experiences of parenting, support for fathers, wellbeing, and the effects of social media and the media. Audience members are encouraged to take part in the discussion and there is an opportunity to ask questions.  

In a multicultural and ever-changing world, how do you know where you come from and does it matter? Are we our own culture? In Ask the Experts: Home and Identity (28 March, 2pm), Annie Zaidi, a Mumbai-based writer, talks about the ideas of home, belonging, and dislocation. Who belongs to whom, and what do we really mean by 'home'? Annie Zaidi tackles everything you ever wanted to know about families, heritage, and identity in the modern world.

To view the full programme please visit: Many events require pre-booking, please check the events listings on the Festival website. 

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media:

Instagram @Camunifestivals | Facebook: @CambridgeFestival | Twitter: @Cambridge_Fest

The Festival sponsors and partners are AstraZeneca and RAND Europe. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.