Generation and Caregiving in “Late-Forming Families”
External conditions and deep-seated ideas about the place of family formation in the life course have combined to delay family formation in southwestern Europe, particularly in Spain. This delay has produced a new group of families that we call “late-forming families,” defined as people who become parents for the first time at an age higher than the age that is scientifically recommended and conventionally established in Spain, that is, people over the age of 35 or 40, depending on the criterion used.
This group includes a variety of family configurations: couples, heterosexual or homosexual, and mothers and fathers who are single, often by choice. Some produce their children through sexual intercourse; others, having delayed family formation to ages beyond women’s highest fertility or wishing to avoid involving a sexual partner, use assisted reproduction or adoption. In contrast to most ethnographic work along these lines, we do not differentiate among the paths of access to paternity/maternity, considering rather the characteristics that these “late-forming families” share. Our research indicates two principal shared characteristics: these families challenge the western principle of generation as a structuring element of kinship and they alter the patterns of caregiving relationships among family members and friends.
The data and early analysis presented stem from our on-going research in Madrid, Spain, carried out by a group of researchers (Sandra Fernández García, Alfredo Francesch Díaz, Elena Hernández Corrochano, Nancy Konvalinka and Raúl Sánchez Molino) at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) in Spain, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Spanish Ministry I+D+I program, and the UNED.
Our research is based on kinship studies in western society carried out from a gender and human rights perspective (Article 16, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). We use qualitative methods, based on participant observation, life histories and open interviews with biparental and monoparental (considering family configuration) and homosexual and heterosexual (considering the configuration of the couple) families. We are presently focusing on two issues. The first is the social perception of these families in the Spanish context, expressed in the importance of the concept of generation. The second is how families in this situation of “late” parenthood establish caregiving networks and what these networks look like.
Concept of Generation
Let us look at some expert and legal restrictions on family formation in Spain. On one hand, the Spanish medical community maintains a tacit consensus to refuse to inseminate women over the age of 50. On the other hand, according to Spain’s Civil Code, a person must be over the age of 25 in order to adopt (in the case of a couples, one must be over 25), but the maximum difference between people who adopt and the children adopted must not be over 40 years (for couples, the ages are averaged) (Article 175, Spanish Civil Code).
So age seems to be a fundamental factor regarding the “correct” way of accessing maternity/paternity, although Spanish society has always been more tolerant of “late” fathers than of “aged” mothers (madres “añosas”), defined as women who have become mothers over the age of 35 (San Pedro, Gómez and Montero, 2002). Nevertheless, considering that the average age at first birth was 30 in 2011 in Spain (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Indicadores demográficos básicos), the profile of these mothers is changing and tendency to use the term “aged” only for first-time mothers over the age of 40 is increasing. Sociological studies tell us that society perceives these women as “irresponsible” subjects who not only contribute to reduce fertility rates but endanger generational replacement (idem, 2002:2).
We are analyzing the importance of the concept of generation in the acceptance or rejection of “late-forming families.” From antiquity, the concept of generation has been based on the cliché, still strong today, that there is “an average distance of thirty to forty years […] between each generation” (Martínez de Codes, 2005:53). This concept is fundamental to understanding our informants’ discourse.
Our early data indicate that the medical assertions carry a strong ethical component regarding the wellbeing of the future mothers and children of these families, while everyday discourse expresses the idea that parents’ decisions to delay parenthood fail to consider the needs of their future offspring. Both testimonies coincide in evaluating the age difference between parents and children as a component of risk that will leave a considerable number of young Spanish people orphans before they reach an appropriate age.
Caregiving in “Late-Forming Families”
Many authors have underlined the importance of family solidarity in southwestern Europe and the Mediterranean area in general (Laslett 1988, Reher 1998, Naldini 2003, Kohli et al 2010, Heady 2012, among others). According to popular discourse, the family’s capacity to assist members unable to support themselves independently makes it possible for people to survive economic crises such as the present one, in the absence of a strong welfare state. So caregiving is an important aspect of family relations in Spain.
Two kinds of caregiving, caring for elderly family members and caring for children, concern us particularly. When people form families at earlier ages, grandparents often help with childcare, allowing the parents to continue working. Later, when their children are grown, these people often care for their elderly parents. Forming families at later ages alters this pattern. Grandparents are older when grandchildren are born; data from the Mothers Alone by Choice project (Madres solas por elección, directed by MI Jociles, Universidad Complutense de Madrid) as well as our own data show that while “late-forming families” do sometimes rely on grandparents for childcare, this may become impossible due to the grandparents’ age and ill-health. They must resort to other family members or childcare services obtained on the market.
This is not the only caregiving dilemma these “late-forming families” face. Their elderly parents may also need care while their children are still small. These people can be caught in a caregiving bind, caring simultaneously for small children and elderly parents, producing a new kind of “sandwich generation” that will require a response from the welfare state.
We propose to provide an accurate, detailed analysis of caregiving in these families: the actions they take, the help they obtain from their families of orientation and from broader family networks, the incorporation of close friends into caregiving, and reciprocity with other parents in similar situations.
Linked Concepts of Generation and Caregiving
Following Heady’s use of the concept “intergenerational contracts” (2012), we postulate that caregiving is a fundamental characteristic of intergenerational relations. Changes in life courses such as those that occur in late forming families alter widely-accepted patterns of caregiving and the possibility of fulfilling socially-determined intergenerational caregiving duties. The new needs and claims arising from this situation, directed from these families toward other family members, relatives, and friends as well as toward the welfare state, may be one of the reasons for western society’s discomfort with these “late-forming” families. However, it may not be the “late-forming family” itself that should be problematized, but rather the blind invocation of the authority of the concept of generation, a socially-produced element of scientific discourse, for determining the “right” and “wrong” times for family formation.
Nancy Anne Konvalinka is a professor and researcher in the Social and Cultural Anthropology Department at the UNED in Spain. Her work focuses on kinship, family formation and caregiving and gender dynamics. Originally from Chicago, she has lived, worked and carried out research in Spain for over twenty years.
Elena Hernández Corrochano is a professor and researcher in the Social and Cultural Anthropology Department at the UNED in Spain. She has done extensive work on gender relations, residential and household organization in northern Morocco, and human trafficking in contemporary Spain, as well as the concepts of generation and motherhood.