Celebrating diversity: Nuclear families? Not us!

Mum, Dad and 2.4 children? Our domestic affairs are far more varied than ever before, with only 36 per cent of us living in traditional units, compared with 52 per cent in 1971. Love, though, is the common bond
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The Independent Online

The single father

Quincy, 38, became a single father at the age of 25 after the mother of his two sons died suddenly. He lives in East Ham in east London with Kieran, 16, and Kadeem, 14. He also has a daughter, Diaz, eight, who lives with her mother.

When Judith died in 1996, I suddenly found myself living alone with two young boys, and I had to learn how to be a mum as well as a dad. She was only 23 and it made me think that I never wanted to grow old wondering, "What if?" For the first few years I was doing regular nine-to-five jobs, sorting out the kids when I got home, spending time with my parents and Judith's parents. But I was so bored that I did a comedy course and started doing some gigs. My parents are old-fashioned West Indian folk so giving up a regular job to be a comedian caused some tension, but it made me realise that I had to be a success because I had a family to look after. When their mum passed away I'd vowed that I would be the only role model that they would need: I wanted to show them that they can break away from stereotypes and achieve anything with the right support. I did my show Quincy Single Mum at Edinburgh because I wanted to show people that there are decent black guys out there, doing right by their families.

One son, two mothers

Zoe Ward, 31, and her partner Nick, 39, from Farnham, Surrey, have a three-year-old boy called Will.

We wanted him to be part of both of us, so we took my egg, fertilised it with a sperm donor, and my partner carried him. It cost £10,000, which we had to borrow. We'd been together for three years, and like in any relationship, we'd fallen in love and the next step was to have children.

Will understands that he's got two mums. He calls me Mum and Nick Mummy. So if I'm with him and someone asks if his mummy is there, he'll say no. We have two gay male friends who act as his father, and he knows them as Daddy. We think it's important for him to have a male influence and we don't want him to be bullied at school.

We're very worried about that. Kids get bullied over anything. It's going to be hard so it's important he has dads as well. All parents are worried that their kids will resent them, so we are worried that when he gets older he may blame us. We didn't go to antenatal classes because at the first one everyone in the room was staring at us. We don't want Will to feel an outcast, so it stops us doing many things. But we're exactly the same as everyone else.

The family with disabled children

Jacqui, 49, and Paul Murray, 52, have been married for 22 years and live in Walsall, West Midlands. Paul has a learning disability, as do two of their three children. Both parents are full-time carers.

I met Paul at a Pontins holiday camp in 1983, where I was working in the café. Paul used to work as a fork-lift driver but he stopped a few years after our son Robert [now 20] was born. Robert has arthritis, cerebral palsy and severe learning difficulties and I still need to help him to get dressed. He'll never be able to work so of course I worry about him, but he's done so well at college. Ryan, 13, doesn't have any learning problems. I try not to ask him for too much help because it's important he has his own life. He wants to work with children with special needs. Sophie, five, has recently started at a special school. Her speech is affected; she wears a nappy and is like a two-year-old. Her behaviour can be difficult but we just get on with it. I've never considered putting them in care, or even respite care, because they're my children. Don't get me wrong: it's hard work. But we get time to relax at the weekend. Sky is our one treat so we can all watch the football together.

The grandparents

Sue Stewart, 53, and her husband Ian, 52, from Doncaster in Yorkshire, have looked after their grandchildren Jamie, 13, and Jade, 11, for the past 10 years.

They are my daughter's children. We had another grandchild who died at 14 months. The death certificate said cot death and obviously that was devastating for all of us. She was my daughter's eldest child. After that my daughter found it very difficult to cope. She was a single parent and started to become depressed and I began looking after the children so she could go to work and get a social life.

She wasn't working, however, and didn't tell anyone. Her rent and council tax weren't paid so she was evicted, and they all came to live with me full time. One day my daughter went out and didn't come home again. Eventually I ended up with custody of the children. My daughter returned after a year, with another child, who now lives with her.

I naturally didn't think about it at the time. It was very traumatic to lose one grandchild, and I was determined not to lose another one, whether it was to care or social services.

The children are very well adjusted and happy that they live with us. I look at them as my children, rather than grandchildren. That does take away the grandmother/grandchild relationship and sometimes I do feel that we're now in our 50s and should be enjoying life instead of raising another family. And I'm dreading the teenage years. But we have a very special relationship.

The adopted child with two fathers

Randall Cole, 39, from Haringey, north London, works for Barnardo's and has been with his partner Stuart, 37, for 10 years. They adopted Benjamin two and a half years ago when he was less than 24 hours old.

We met in San Francisco and married in 2001. I have never doubted that I wanted children. In America the adoption system is much more open that it is here. Benjamin's mother was a homeless drug addict and she chose us as parents. We adopted him shortly after he was born, and tell him that his mother made a choice to do the best thing for him. We are still in touch with his birth parents.

We moved to the UK in November to be nearer Stuart's parents, who live in Upminster, Essex. People are often surprised that we adopted a child at birth. Ben knows no different than he has a daddy and a papa. He hears other kids in the playground talk about their mummies, and once said "I want my mummy", but he was just parroting.

Kids can be cruel sometimes and pick up on differences. Our role as parents is to make sure he knows that he is loved and is as good as any other kid, and to know that his family is cool.

Two half-brothers, one household

Sam Barnett, 34, from Brighton has two children by different mothers – Ruben, nine, and Oscar, three – whom he looks after three days a week.

I have them both at the same time, so that they get to spend time with each other as well as me. Ruben's mother and I had been going out since university. Ruben was a happy accident and we decided to make a go of it, but six months after he was born we decided we'd both be happier with somebody else. I was 24 and spent the next four years living in a house with friends, and Ruben would stay with me for half the week, because I didn't want to be a weekend dad.

Then I met Oscar's mother and we moved in together. When she became pregnant we bought a flat where I live now. When we split up I kept the flat and made the same agreement I have with Ruben's mother.

It's difficult with two ex-partners to arrange things, but they have been understanding and we put the kids first. Ruben was the youngest for a while but now he enjoys being a big brother. They love each other and have a lot of time together. Ruben has lived with Oscar for a while so they've grown up together. Ideally I'd love to be in a traditional family and there's a bit of guilt that my sons don't have that, but the next best thing is for them to spend time together.

The single mother

Ionie Willis, 54, from Leytonstone in east London, is the single parent of four adult children, who all have different fathers. She is a qualified counsellor and mediator.

I've never been married and, while all the kids have had contact with their dads, it's always been just me and them in the house. But I come from Jamaica and we believe it takes a village to raise a child, not just a parent, and it's the role of grandparents to pass on their wisdom. I was very young when my eldest, Amanda, 34, was born and if it hadn't been for my mum and strong family, social services would have taken her away. It's only me and my youngest, Harriet, who is 18, at home now, but I've got seven grandchildren, who are here all the time and it's my role to be the elder. You'll often find us all sitting down to a home-cooked meal on Sundays. All the kids help with each other; it just comes automatically because that's the way we've all been brought up. There is no book on how to be a perfect parent and my children are learning by trial and error like I did.

The foster parent

Jane Slater, 61, from Kirkcudbright, Dumfries & Galloway, has fostered 43 babies and young children over the past 11 years. She has four birth children and nine grandchildren.

After my husband died in 1997, my seven-year-old grandson and I were left living in a big empty house, so I got into emergency foster caring as I thought it would be good to have other little bodies to keep him company. Since then there have been 43, staying anything between one night and two and half years. There was one magical weekend when I had five. At the moment I've a one-year-old baby boy, who has been with me since he was a day old. The more you have, the easier it is because they play together and I just have to feed them and stop the fights. My grandchildren are here all the time as well and they love having the children to play with. Lots of [the foster children] still come back and visit. It's a wonderful feeling because many come from horrendous experiences and I get a chance to settle them and build up their confidence.