Closeup/The Family

Marriage on the rocks

When the ties that bind, don't—what next?

Michael Posner May 16 1977
Closeup/The Family

Marriage on the rocks

When the ties that bind, don't—what next?

Michael Posner May 16 1977

Marriage on the rocks

Closeup/The Family

When the ties that bind, don't—what next?

Michael Posner

We’re a family, a family,

Each likes the other,

Sister, brother, father, mother And the dog came later on,

And so did the cat and the goldfish And the turtle and the frog...

We’re really a perfectly ordinary, Ordinarily perfect family. *

—Sesame Street song

For a growing number of North Americans, those lyrics must seem utterly absurd. They evoke an image of familial bliss and solidarity increasingly at odds with reality. Today, the perfectly ordinary family is not simply imperfect; it is traumatized—ravaged by divorce, separation and desertion. Surging levels of parental discord have exacted a wicked toll from the young: statistics for suicide, mental illness, delinquency, drug abuse and veneral disease are at all-time highs. The collective malaise of the modern family has become a subject of grave public concern and intense professional debate. At best, the social barometers seem to suggest that the family is an institution under siege. At worst, in the words of Cornell University sociologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, “there are mounting indications, that the family, as we know it, is falling apart.”

Bronfenbrenner’s viewpoint is perhaps extreme, the sort of neatly packaged hyperbole that goes down well at academic symposiums on The Family in Turmoil. Its general validity is another matter. Indeed, many social observers incline to optimism ; the family may be in a crisis, they argue, but it is not collapsing, merely changing its forms. Nor, they believe, will it ever disappear. “The nuclear family will be with us forever,” insists University of Alberta sociologist Lyle Larson. “Human society needs it. I know there’s a lot of hysteria around, but I see conflict as healthy. It keeps us on the cutting edge of existence. Without it, family life would be boring.”

Yet the statistical evidence of family decline is persuasive—a body of empirical data singularly distressing and cumulatively tragic. Considered in total, it constitutes a scathing indictment of Western cultural values. Some futurists read these indicators as harbingers of the West’s impending Armageddon.

In 1975, for example, more than one million American marriages ended in divorce—double the 1966 figure and almost three times the 1950 level. Almost four out of 10 U.S. marriages now lead to divorce—

often before the age of 30 and often among couples that pursue dual careers. Canada’s divorce graphs are no less alarming—up 388% in the decade 1965-75. And in Quebec—with only the nation’s third highest divorce rate up 252% in the past four years. The Split, whether by divorce, separation or desertion, has yielded a new social phenomenom and a new family form—the single parent. In Canada, the number of single parent families—conservatively estimated at 500,000—is growing at triple the rate for the dual parent unit. In Toronto’s central core, one of every two elementary school pupils now lives with only one parent. Part of this trend is explained by a sharp rise in illegitimacy. In Canada, the national illegitimacy rate is now 10% and climbing.

While families dissolve at a dizzying pace, new family formation seems almost inert. Canada’s birth rate is now 15.7 births per 1,000 population—almost half what it was a generation ago. The nuclear family is shrinking too: the typical Canadian family now constitutes 3.6 people—versus 4.6 per family 55 years ago. As the labor force swells with single and married women alike, fewer couples are marrying, more are deferring parenthood and an increasing number are eschewing child raising altogether.

Even those who choose to bear children frequently delegate the parental role. Grandparents increasingly are consigned to obsolescence in retirement villages. Fathers are so preoccupied in pursuit of material success that they spend—one study found—an average of only 20 minutes a day with their one-year-old infants. And mothers, in dramatic numbers, are going back to work. In the United States, nearly one mother in three is now working. Increasingly, then, children are being raised by those with no emotional stake in their proper development: daycare centres— which are increasing their numbers by 20% annually—schools, baby-sitters, peer

groups and, the bionic parent, television. Preschoolers, it is said, spend an astonishing 50 hours a week watching the screen.

Moreover, TV reinforces the child’s emerging perception of normality. And what he typically sees on the screen are families in chaos. At every economic level, (All In-The Family, Maude, The Jeffersons), family life is tense and acrimonious, surviving only through comedic release. Significantly, shows that depict more positive environments are invariably retrospective: Happy Days harks back to the

quiescent Fifties; and The Waltons depicts an extended Depression family, marshalling their resources to ward off the rigors of nature. Happy Days and The Waltons are two of television’s most popular shows, reflecting, perhaps, a national nostalgia for the easy certitudes of the past.

But by and large, marital discord is not only the way of the world—it’s more viewable besides. Rhoda and Joe can’t stay together; no elaborate rationale is required for their sudden separation. After all, as every viewer knows, it happens all the time. A new ethic is inscribed above the marital bed: “I’m okay and you’re okay and we’ll be loyal and loving as long as we feel like it.”

The effect of television on children is a topic of earnest speculation. But it is less the presence of TV than the continued absence of parental affection and authority that turns otherwise average teen-agers into casual vandals and drug users. Isolated in a moral vacuum, many children as a result never form any strong identification with their parents—and become, in the words of American historian Christopher Lasch, “ ‘other-directed’ adults, more concerned with their own pleasure than with leaving their mark on the world.”

Parental failure to provide a core of unwavering values produces children without cores. Says Lethbridge sociologist Menno Boldt: “They become chameleons; their radar is out, trying to detect how to behave in each social setting to win gratification. This is anomie—normlessness. They don’t know what the norms are and grow up confused.”

Confusion is the least of it. Increasingly, the absence of parentally imposed ethical standards yields far more disturbing consequences. Since 1960, Canada’s suicide rate in the 15 to 19-year-old category has almost quadrupled. “Those who experience family disruption,” says Menno Boldt, “are over-represented in the statistics.” In the United States, juvenile crime is up 245% in the last decade, an estimated 1.3 million American school children are confirmed alcoholics, and venereal disease among the young has reached epidemic proportions.

Can divorce and separation be blamed for all of this? Not entirely. “Accidents,” as Charles Dickens noted, “will occur in even the best regulated families”—to say nothing of those marriages, charged with perpetual friction that survive “because of the kids.” Has the working mother, liberated at last from diapers and detergents, created

*®Jonico Music Inc.Copyright 1972 (ASCAP)

more problems than she’s solved? Not uniformly; the best evidence suggests that children of women who work for the right reasons (economic pressures, career growth, self-identity) are better off—less dependent, more resilient. But where women work to escape the responsibilities of motherhood, children suffer. Still, a disproportionate number of delinquent acts are committed by children of broken homes. The same, most social scientists suspect, holds true for other aberrant behavior. Explains Toronto psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff: “People who are embedded in a family, embedded in a community, people who know who they are and where they’re going don’t kill themselves.”

I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.

It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain,

I am a rock,

I am an island.

Anda rock feels no pain;

And an island never cries.

®1965 Paul Simon. Used by permission.

According to an old homily, the family that plays together, stays together. But the modern family seldom plays together. Its

nucleus has been atomized. Father has booked his daily squash game. Mother is off doing Yoga or ceramics. The children are . . . around, describing figure eights with their skateboards in the double driveway. Loyalty to self supersedes all other oaths, and narcissism is the catchword of the decade. Retreating from the revolutionary rhetoric of the Sixties, the current generation of marrieds and singles alike have become passionate sybarites, seeking nothing more from life than psychic health

The solution, for some, is no kids

Their numbers are uncertain and their motives vary widely, but more and more young couples from Kitimat to Corner Brook are renouncing children. Through vasectomy and tubal ligation they have made childbearing an impossible option. The past president of the National Organization for Non-parents (NON) in Canada is Lauri Robertson, 25, an American who moved to Toronto in 1974 with her husband, Avrom.

‘‘I don’t know how many of us there are across the country,” says Robertson. “Hundreds, I suspect. Vancouver and British Columbia have their own chapters. There are 54 names on our Toronto mailing list. About 8% of the national membership are couples with children, but no one in our chapter has kids. About half have had operations to prevent childbearing.

‘11 had my ligation three years ago; I was 22 and had already been married for three years. Many people say: ‘How could you make such a major decision at such a young age?’ But many more people have babies at an even earlier age. And you can’t have an ex-baby. My decision is not nearly as irrevocable as the decision to have a child. The decision for sterility is far less serious. I can always adopt; there’s plenty of children around to love.

“Why did I do it? Because I don’t want children. I don’t want that option in my life. My husband and I have, in our families, long histories of illness: heart disease, asthma. The odds on producing a child with health problems therefore were good.

“I worked as a child care worker for 18 months. It confirmed my opinion that I would not make a good parent. I don’t have patience with children. I don’t like

being involved in playtime. It’s just not where my world is at.

“Our organization does not discourage parenthood. On the contrary, we set very high standards for it. If you’re afraid of heights, you don’t become a sky diver. I would not want to be a mediocre parent. But our membership does change, so I suppose there are some who have changes of heart and bear children.

“I think I decided when I was still a teenager that I wouldn’t have children. I did a lot of baby-sitting. I don’t think you should ever have a kid until you’ve taken care of other people’s kids.

“Right now, I’m giving sterility counseling. Avrom is in moving sales. But I’ve worked as a prison guard and at a home for emotionally disturbed children. My jobs are things I’m strongly committed to. I would not give up something I enjoy for something I would not enjoy. A family is two people, though a lot of people can’t accept that.”

and a tan. “A growing despair of changing society,” observes Christopher Lasch, “even of understanding it,” has generated on the one hand a revival of old-time religion and on the other a cult of expanded consciousness, health and personal growth. People have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health foods, studying ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning to relate. To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not your predecessors or posterity.

But hedonism does not come easily. One has to work at it, and there are obstacles: crime in the streets, inflation, unsightly facial hair. City magazines publish “survival guides,” as though the future of the species depending on picking one’s way prudently across urban battle zones, avoiding disease-bearing spores of dead and dying brethren.. The trick is to limit the territory of risk; the only real safety lies in solipsism. The fittest survive by severing all ties. Parents, friends, wives, lovers, children hover at fixed removes, like satellites in orbit. Says historian Lasch: “A society which fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation. Whereas parents formerly sought to live vicariously through their offspring, now they tend to resent them as intrusions and to envy their youth. Formerly, the young sought to escape the smothering embrace of the older generation, but (now) are more likely to complain of emotional neglect.”

Deviations from the truths of the blood beget neurotic restlessness, and we have had enough of that these days.

—Carl Jung

Still, if the modern family were a stock market, Wall Street analysts might say it had bottomed out. Increasingly, those who follow the family’s fortunes are bullish. They do not deny negative indicators; they simply insist that other influences must be considered. When all the data is read, they say, the family is still a good investment. And beyond hard data, there is hunch: “I hear a certain rustle in the wind,” says Toronto’s Vivan Rakoff. “All around, the Zeitgeist is changing, as if people were saying: ‘I’m tired of searching for myself. Let us rest with some certainties for a while.’ ”

Whatever the statistical trends, it is certain that—as the Chinese philosopher Mencius said a few thousand years ago— the family is the root of the state. It is certain that five million Canadian families, and perhaps 50 million in the United States, are alive, well and living in relative equilibrium. A majority of families still comprise two parents and at least one child who belong to functioning kinship networks. As York University’s Theodore Olson puts it: “Whatever else it may be, the

family is still the last bastion in a world gone otherwise mad.”

Statistically, too, the proportion of people’s lives outside a family situation is shorter than ever. In Canada at least, the divorce rate appears to have peaked. With increasing frequency, divorcees are remarrying. In any event, the divorce rate—a ratio of the number of divorces to the number of new marriages—has never provided a totally accurate picture. “What we really need to know,” says University of Toronto sociologist Norman Bell “is how many divorces there are for every 1,000 years of marriage. Measured that way, this vaunted increase in the divorce rate is

much less than it seems.”

Moreover, with more freedom to choose whom one will marry, or whether to marry at all, those who do mate can make a more sensible choice and the likelihood of stability will increase. And, studies show that the future expectations of young people revolve, in one form or another, around traditional family life. A survey of Canadian college students shows that a majority still want children and many desire three or more. Although couples are having fewer children, the number of childless couples is nevertheless lower than it was at the turn of the century—before the Pill. Another study reports that visiting among kin out-

ranks visiting among friends, co-workers and neighbors. Of 108 married children surveyed, 75% visited parents living in the same metropolitan area at least once a week. Phone and letter contact for out-oftown parents is equally frequent. Concludes a four-year University of Southern California research team: “The hand wringing over the decline of the family is absolute baloney.”

More subtle signs confirm this analysis. The phenomenal success of the TV series Roots (and Alex Haley’s literary opus of the same name) has spurred a new American industry: genealogy. Sales of books on how to find your pedigree are booming. A

New Jersey surgeon has just published a 716-page volume that traces his origins back to 16th century Padua. Suddenly, discovering the family tree is a new weekend sport. In the end, one’s identity may have more to do after all with who your ancestors were than with transcendental meditation, 10-mile runs or whole wheat bread. Part of this resurgence is undoubtedly faddish: the media has a knack for exploiting social drift. In March, NBC announced plans for a special 90-minute resurrection of Father Knows Best, perhaps the classic problem/resolution family drama. The original cast will appear.

But there are other indicators. Adopted children are searching for their true parents. Retired executives are volunteering advice to young businessmen. Young people are “adopting” grandparents. New schools are being built near old people’s homes. “Clearly,” says Norman Bell, there is a deep longing to place onself in a family lineage, a family context.”

Among young marrieds, that longing is manifested in the unprecedented growth of fundamentalist religions: Protestant Pentecostalism, Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Baptist and Anglican prayer groups, Flasidism among Jews. All offer and insist upon strict codes of ethical be-

havior, the very standards many of today’s youngsters grew up without. Says Rakoff: “Any religion will do, but the newer the better. Because then you can pretend you discovered it yourself and that it’s uncontaminated by the past. The important thing is that the format is rigid ... and that’s what they always wanted.” Whatever the motive says Alphonse Selinger, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, “These renewal efforts have people reacting to each other in ways I haven’t seen since I was a kid back in Saskatchewan.”

The whirlwind of divorce has left few religious groups undamaged, but some—notably Mormons and Jews—have survived

better than others. “According to Mormon theology,” says Alberta sociologist George Jarvis, a Mormon father of five, “the family lives on after death. You can only reach the highest level of exaltation as a family unit.” Jews, it is sometimes claimed, are “programmed” for family life. “It sounds almost pejorative,” laughs Jerome Diamond, executive director of Toronto’s Jewish family agency. “But if that’s the case, in whose interests is it to de-program them?”

At the same time, there is an emerging sense that the cult of rampant individualism is running to ground. Narcissism is turning sour; the Me Decade—as pop prophet Tom Wolfe calls it—may be burning out, its smorgasbord of psychic therapies (EST, gestalt, bioenergetics) having yielded, with few exceptions, an awareness only of one’s awful loneliness. “Striking out on your own is a wonderful vision,” says Vivian Rakoff. “But only rare individuals have the capacity. Most people don’t go out and find their identity, like a jewel under a stone, somewhere between Paris and Florence. Nietzsche is right; God may be dead, but hammering your way to the top of the mountain is only for supermen, and we don’t have many of those around. Family life may not be comfortable, but it’s inescapable. It’s built into our bones.”

Nevertheless, some of the recent changes in the family structure are likely to prove durable. The millions of women who have joined the work force are not about to renounce their careers for “a shine so tough you can track dirt on it.” Barring an unemployment crisis so severe that labor unions insist on only one job per household, the working mother is here to stay. And as long as marriage continues to offer wide exit ramps—easy divorce—the single parent phenomenom will also remain. It seems probable that as social life in the cities becomes increasingly constrained, more couples will choose not to have children. Even though communes, co-ops and similar alternatives to the nuclear family have had notoriously dismal success rates, these options will continue to attract their share of adherents.

All of this is not so much evidence of familial decay as it is of the family’s ability to adapt to social change. In this century, it has already endured the loss of the family farm, migration to the cities, the impact of television. It has survived plague, famine and two world wars. Its forms have changed, some of the names have even changed, but the family still provides succor from the common understanding that modern life is difficult at best. Twenty years ago, American anthropologist Ralph Linton wrote: “The ancient trinity of father, mother and child has survived more vicissitudes than any other human relationship. In the Gotterdamerung, which over-wise science and over-foolish statesmen are preparing for us, the last man will spend his last hours searching for his wife and child.”

Going it alone: the single parent starts a new life

There are an estimated half million single parent families in Canada. For most, separation and divorce have brought mixed blessings. With independence has come loneliness. With freedom has come the economic struggle to enjoy it. Three single parents talked to Maclean’s about their lives:

• Margaret Delgatty, 33, separated in 1976 after 11 years and three days of marriage. She works for the Winnipeg YWCA’S single parent accommodation project, interviewing single parents about their needs. She has two children—Scott, five, and Fleather, eight.

“The day begins at 6:30 a.m. when the radio alarm goes off. I shower and dress, dress and feed Scott. By eight, Heather is at the neighbor’s where she spends the hour before school and Scott and I are on a bus for downtown; I drop him at the university daycare nursery. Life is hectic, especially in the morning.

“Economically, I have few worries. I still get support money from my husband and we’re now working out a separation agreement creatively, so we can get all the tax cuts. I’ll get handsome monthly payments in lieu of a property settlement.

“The thing about splitting up is that it can be very lonely. I had little support from friends or family. My family are strict fundamentalists. They didn’t approve when I married, and they certainly didn’t approve when I quit. Anyway, I haven’t lost much sleep over any family concerns.

“I have more friends now, but socializing is still difficult. A lot of women are still hung up on the idea that the man has to make the first move in initiating any friendship. I spend a lot of time reading. Sometimes I work all day, come home tired out and just have to lie down for an hour and

shut my bedroom door. Being responsible 24 hours a day does get to you.

“After the separation, my husband saw a lot of the children. But as it gradually became clear I had no intention of returning, his interest diminished. It’s sad, but many men associate their children with their spouse and can’t seem to see them without being reminded of that fact. The children miss their father less and less.

“I have no regrets. I know more people than before. I feel more comfortable.

I have a much better idea of who I am.”

• Terri Roy is a 34-year-old CBC Winnipeg program assistant. Separated for five years and now divorced, she has custody of her daughter Colleen, eight.

“Asingle parent,” she says, “has really got to juggle the budget. It helps to know a friendly credit union—and a local grocer, so you can charge things until payday. But I’m not griping. If I think about it seriously, in some ways I’m better off now. Since we split up I’ve bought a house and we have two horses that we ride in the country.

“During school holidays, I rely on relatives to help with baby-sitting. But there seem to be so many days when the school is closed. I pay a friend $20 a month to look after Colleen after school. I pay all my bills, but never have much money jangling in my pocket. It’s very challenging and, in some ways, fun.

“I’m very close to Colleen. I don’t think she’s really suffered at all from the separation. She’s very responsible—helps make the beds and feed the pets.

“Right now, I’m not looking for marriage, though friends often suggest I find a man. I’ve learned to cope very well, though I still feel like a spare wheel at parties. The problem with single parents is that they don’t fit in with either the married couples or the singles. But since splitting up I’ve developed a deep sense of selfsatisfaction. I’ve come to realize how much I really can do alone.

• Will Richardson, 30, is a junior college teacher in Montreal. He lives with his children Harriet, eight, and Toby, seven, in one half of an Outremont duplex that he owns.

“The hardest thing was finding myself alone with the children when my wife left, even though I was de facto looking after them even before she actually moved out. In this respect the kids were both a help and an obstacle. Looking after them had some kind of therapeutic value, and kept my mind away from feeling that I was in an empty space. But they also kept me at home.

“I am probably a bit unusual. I’ve always enjoyed and done a lot of cooking, planning of meals, shopping.

“After she moved out, my wife used to baby-sit in the evenings and clean on Saturdays. But the situation was frustrating, because she still half treated this place as home. She’d moved into a room which really wasn’t set up for having the children visit her. She was very generous. She forced herself to live in poverty to pay the children’s nursery fees.

"The children didn’t bat an eyelid when she left, but they felt the tension leading up to it. It’s not so unusual to be a single parent. There’s a fairly large minority of couples these days who don’t have classical views on marriage. My kids seem to meet a lot of single parent children at school. Perhaps they’re a little more grown-up. They have to learn to do things for themselves faster and they see their parents interacting in a wider social situation than just mom and dad.

“My wife is still very much around. As time progressed she straightened out her life, earned more money and got an apartment nearby. The kids often go there. But I think it’s important for them to have a fixed place they call home.

“As far as relationships with other women are concerned, none I’ve had to date has been threatening to the kids. But they project a lot. They’ll say ‘Daddy’s in love, Daddy has a new girl friend.’ They let their imaginations run away with them.”