Matrifocality or matricentric is the family structure which is centered around the mother and her children, in such a family the father has a minimal and insignificant role to play in the household and almost no participation in bringing up the children. What is important to note here is that the central focus here is not that of the ‘woman’ but the role of the woman as a mother. She becomes the primary source of all the decisions, especially economic ones, which are to be made about the household in the absence of a father.
This term was given by Raymond Smith in his study of the Caribbean societies in 1956, he coined the term based on how the family structure emerged where the mother was the leader and father was equivalent to absent. Matrifocal families should not be confused with the matrilocal family where the residence is assumed in the wife’s house or natalocal families where the mother’s brother takes up the responsibility of the males.
Such families can also be distinguished from the matriarchal families, where the woman is the head of the family in the presence of her husband. In such a family, descent is traced back to the mother’s line. Matrifocal families are also distinguished from the matrilineal families, where the lineage is traced from the mothers and not the father’s side, in this the property is transferred from the mother’s brother to her children. The point of difference from both matrilineal and matriarchal family is the fact that in such families the husband is more or less present at all times, whereas in matrifocal families he is not.
In matrifocal families, the structure that exists is due to the fact that the women heading the households are often independent economically and thus are able to provide for their children and also take decisions for the household.
Such families are typically characteristic of the Afro-Caribbean groups according to Maurice Godelier, he believed that there was an increase in the matrifocal families, they were increasing in number, especially in the Western cultures, according to him this was to a large extent due to the fact that woman was now allowed into the workforce and thus were able to become economically independent. Another reason according to him is due to the increase in the acceptance of homosexuality and allowing its practices in various regions, in lesbian marriages the children adopted, are part of households that are run by the women (mother).
Thus while matrifocal households have been traditionally called single-parent households, we see that there are households which are present where both the parents may be women.
Godelier also saw that in some cultures the family would come into existence through the practice of slavery, where the women who were slaves were not allowed to marry the father of their child, who was often the white. Here all the responsibility of the child and women herself would be on the women thus giving rise to a matrifocal household
Apart from the Caribbean societies, according to Herlihy, such matrifocal families were also found among the groups in North Africa and also in the 1990s among the Miskito people in Kuri, a village in the Caribbean coast of Honduras.
Thus we can see that matrifocality is slowly become widespread either in the form of single-parent households or those of homosexuals.