Modern Families

Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship

240 pages

September, 2015

ISBN: 9781479842469



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Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, and The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco.

All books by Joshua Gamson

Melissa Harris-Perry is Presidential Chair and Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University and the host of MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry. She is the author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

All books by Melissa Harris-Perry

The kinds of families we see today are different than they were even a decade ago, some fantastically so, as paths to parenthood have been rejiggered by technology, activism, and law.  In Modern Families, Joshua Gamson brings us extraordinary family creation tales—his own included—that illuminate this changing world of contemporary kinship. We meet a child with two mothers, made with one mother’s egg and the sperm of a man none of them has ever met and carried by the other mother; another born to a man and a woman in Ethiopia, delivered by his natural grandmother to an orphanage after both his parents died in close succession, and then to the arms of his mother, who is raising him solo. We hear the story of a girl with two dads, conceived with one father's sperm and eggs donated by a friend and carried to term in the womb of another close friend who becomes their surrogate; and of two girls, one born in Nepal and the other in India, legally adopted by a woman who is co-parenting them with her girlfriend and a gay male couple. These are not your grandparents’ creation stories.
These tales are deeply personal but also unavoidably political. Combining personal memoir and ethnographic storytelling, Modern Families tells a variety of unconventional family-creation tales—adoption and assisted reproduction, gay and straight parents, coupled and single, and multi-parent families—set against the social, legal, and economic contexts in which they were made. In these stories, family creation was painstaking and sometimes difficult. Often, parts of biological reproduction took place in a different body than that of the parents raising the child; sometimes, the model of kinship was made up virtually from scratch, often in tension with legally and socially sanctioned versions of family.  Becoming parents involved jumping tremendous hurdles—social conventions, legal and medical institutions—with heightened intention and inventiveness, within and across multiple inequities and privileges.  It’s a bumpy and potholed landscape, as institutional change lags behind the creativity of everyday living, as breaches of family norms remain controversial, and as inequalities haunt the most intensely loving acts. Yet each of these families, however they came to be, shares the same universal joys that all families share.
Mapping the large, complex terrain of the modern kinship, Modern Families presents a personal, intimate account of social change from the inside out.


  • "[A] fascinating look at the remarkable range of experiences that is broadening the very idea of family."


  • "What is so deft about Modern Families is the ease with which Gamson weaves together individual stories about creating families with academic research about the process, from single parenthood to gay parenting to reproductive technologies…he describes the often heart-wrenching emotional and technological lengths they had to go to. There are moments in all these accounts that will bring you to tears."

    In These Times

  • "Rich in dramatic tensions, private passions and public and political moral complexities, these 'creation stories' of having children in unusual family contexts make the famous tale of descending from Lady Bracknell's handbag pale in comparison."

    Times Higher Education

  • "The various stories of family creation told in Modern Families--the struggles and the successes--are quite moving."

    Brain, Child Magazine

  • "[Gamson] shares their tales with an engaging, gently humorous, and at times poetic style.  At the same time, he also teases out the connections between individual family stories and the social systems in which they are immersed."

    Philadelphia Gay News

  • "In Modern Families, Gamson offers both the personal and the critical perspectives.  The stories of the journeys to kinship are beautifully rendered, novelistic page-turners.  They are told, though, in context of the overarching social forces and disparities."

  • “[T]hese tales are…a warmhearted and normalizing look at some rare kinds of families.”


  • "Gamson's description of the fierce love and determination that drove the creation of these families is candid and moving...[A] compelling book."

    Times Literary Supplement

  • “In this book, both carefully observed and deeply felt, Joshua Gamson gives voice to the changing nature of family in modern America. The new relationships he describes are complicated and sometimes difficult, but also suffused with love. This beautifully constructed and often hilarious manifesto rings with hope for a society in which everyone is free not only to marry but also to designate as family whomever he or she chooses.”

    —Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

  • "Both seriously passionate about his cause and irrepressibly funny, Gamson takes us into the new world of unconventional family making. Making his way past the wagging fingers, he takes important new questions to the public square. If two men want a baby, whose egg and womb will it be, and what will be their relationships to the two women involved? How do we buy genes or borrow wombs or adopt children without letting the market take over the story and meaning? Modern Families is a deeply compassionate voyage into uncharted territory.”

    —Arlie Hochschild, author of The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times

  • "These 'bedtime stories' should expand the hearts and minds of readers. Josh Gamson's exquisitely rendered tales of brave new family-making routes to contemporary parenthood and kinship aim to advance the dream of reproductive freedom."

    —Judith Stacey, author of Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China

  • Modern Families is about people who attempt to create an ordinary child through extraordinary means.Their journey starts—and their child’s Origin Story begins—by navigating the worlds of assisted reproduction, new forms of co-parenting and global adoption. In doing so, these families challenge boundaries of traditional kinship and intimacies. Featured tales of parenthood are told against a backdrop of rapidly changing advances in biomedicine, the expansion of the Internet and globalizing markets. Josh Gamson, a gifted writer, delivers a provocative and memorable book.”

    —Rosanna Hertz, author of Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice

  • “These family making journeys raise hard questions, but offer no formulaic answers. These are stories of choices made consciously and sometimes uncomfortably to create and combine lives amidst the messy human realities of desire, commerce, science, faith, community and family. This collection is not a roadmap; it is a companion for all those who choose to navigate the world of modern kinship.”

    —from the Foreword by Melissa Harris-Perry