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What does a typical family look like in the 21st century?

TAMI SUSSMAN sits down for a frank chat with MARINA KAMENEV about her new book on the changing nature of family and the choices now open to us.
Tami Sussman
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Marina Kamenev

Published: 21 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

TAMI SUSSMAN sits down for a frank chat with MARINA KAMENEV about her new book on the changing nature of family and the choices now open to us.

Marina Kamenev is a journalist and former deputy arts editor at The Moscow Times with an interest in family, ethics, and assisted reproduction. She was born in Belgorod, Russia and moved to Australia when she was six years old. Marina lives in Sydney with her husband and their two children.

Her upcoming book Kin “demonstrates how society’s understanding of family has changed through the generations and what it might mean now and is a forensically researched book that’s impossible to put down,” according to fellow author and journalist Isabelle Oderberg.

As someone who has put a great deal of deliberation into family planning (and with loved ones currently going through fertility treatment), I thought I knew all there was to know about the ethics of making a modern-day family - yet I was surprised to have had so many ‘Wow, I never considered that’ moments while reading Kin

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Marina to unpack the juiciest and “Jewiest” parts of the book.

The introduction of Kin invites readers to imagine themselves drawing a typical family. You write, "If I had to make a wager, I would bet that the typical family you have in mind, the one you’ve drawn, is a nuclear one: a heterosexual couple and their children.”

I knew that’s what most people would think of because that’s what we’ve been taught a family looks like. That configuration or paradigm of the “traditional family” is imprinted in our collective subconscious - or at least the western collective subconscious - and has remained that way for decades. Weirdly, if there’s one child, people often query why that child doesn’t have a sibling, and when there are more than three children that also raises eyebrows.

And of course, I mention this later in that chapter, that when we ask a long-term couple without kids (who are a family unit by sense of definition) when they “plan to start a family”, the message is that their relationship sits in another category. 

It was refreshing to read about childlessness-child-freedom (by choice and by circumstance) in a book about family. It’s such a taboo topic. What prompted you to go there? 

I found it really fascinating. No one has ever asked me why I've had kids or why I wanted kids. And women who don't want kids or can't have kids are asked all the time. I interviewed a woman for this book who was relieved when she started to look “postmenopausal” because people finally stopped asking if she's going to have kids. 

Is the taboo surrounding childlessness even more pronounced in the Jewish community? 

That’s definitely the case in Orthodox communities. Even in secular communities, especially after the second world war, the emphasis on Jewish continuity, “replenishment” and making up for the lives lost in the Holocaust became a priority. I interviewed a gay man, whose story I didn’t use but his mum’s side of the family died out during the Holocaust. His sister wasn’t having children and it was up to him to ensure that his mum’s line didn’t die out which is kind of a biblical pressure to reproduce – which maybe you don’t hear about as much from other religious communities.  

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As a fan of niche trivia, I appreciated your inclusion of ancient contraception practices. For example, “an Egyptian medical papyrus from 1800 BCE states that inserting caps made of elephant or crocodile dung, or a mixture of honey and sodium carbonate, prior to sex could prevent pregnancy.” 

I did have to go down a few rabbit holes while researching. There were different interpretations of that source - I’m not an expert in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, just to be clear.

That sounds painful.

I’ve come to learn that people put a lot of weird shit in and on their genitals, so I don't think we should judge or like, call out the ancient Egyptians specifically. In the future, we might find out something we do now is just insane and completely ineffective.

Your chapter on surrogacy and slavery was really enlightening. You mention The Book of Genesis and how Sarah “gave” her maidservant Hagar to her husband Abraham, and Hagar conceived. 

That’s the abridged version. After Sarah “gave” Hagar (the slave) to her 86-year-old husband Abraham and was impregnated by him, Sarah felt she was “despised in Hagar’s eyes”.

Then there was Rachel, who was infertile. She initiated a similar arrangement with her husband Jacob and her handmaiden Bilhah.

Your contemporary interviewees, couple named Rodney and Jeff, described how they were prepared for discrimination when they had a son via a surrogate but the worst they got was curiosity in the form of a frequently asked “seemingly innocent question” which they found offensive. And that question is: 

Who is the father? 

A lot of people don’t know why that question is offensive.

The question “who’s the father?” suggests that one father has a greater tie to the child than the other due to biology, which just wasn’t the case for Rodney and Jeff, and isn’t the case, I would hope, for parents in similar arrangements. In Rodney and Jeff’s case, they are both the fathers and that should be understood.

In your chapter on future generations, you quote the British biologist Julian Huxley who proposed in the 1960s that couples could “improve the intellect and character” of the next generation by conceiving a child with the sperm of an “admired donor” instead of an ordinary husband.

That’s right. It didn’t go down so well at the time. 

Who would be your pick as the 2024 Australian Jewish community’s most admired donor? 

You go first. I’m getting PTSD from my mid-20s when I was single and worried about dying alone.

My pick is Josh Burns MP. He’s smart, musical, he’s got big Judah Maccabee energy right now, fighting anti-Semitism … and he’s tall. Josh, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for objectifying you like that. Marina?

I’m going to go international and say Stephen Fry. He’s just so lovely, there needs to be more Stephen Frys. 

Finally, can you tell me about the Sexy Son study. It’s possibly the most Jewish thing I've ever heard. 

It’s a hypothesis, (not a study) that women mate with good-looking men because they want to have good-looking sons, who are more likely to reproduce because they are handsome. Because men are capable of having more kids than women, they are fertile for longer and in theory can impregnate multiple women in a day, they are a better investment than daughters (from an evolutionary maths perspective, my daughters are the best).

Will there be another book? 

I’ve only just pushed the book baby out and you’re asking me if I’m having another child. 

Oh no! I’m sorry. 

It’s not offensive, it’s just not solely my decision. It’s something that I would need to discuss and negotiate with my husband and kids, who aren’t really open to negotiations following the three-year process of researching and writing this book.  

Kin is published by New South Publishing and will be available in bookstores from March 1.

About the author

Tami Sussman

Tami Sussman is the author of 'So That Happened … But Maybe You Already Knew That' and 'Tiny Tradies'. She is a regular contributor of humorous opinion pieces for online and print magazines.

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