Parents without partners

Jane O’Hara October 15 1984

Parents without partners

Jane O’Hara October 15 1984

Parents without partners


Jane O’Hara

Janet Barkhouse grew up in Montreal and Halifax in the 1950s with an older brother, a mother who stayed at home and a father who worked in a bank. It was a conventional arrangement at a time when such television series as Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet idealized the virtues of traditional family life. Barkhouse accepted the message implicit in the weekly adventures of the Anderson and Nelson families on the TV screen: marriage was both the dream and the norm. In 1968 she married a journalist and settled down to a life divided between becoming an actress and raising two children. But when her marriage ended seven years ago, so did her dream. Now Barkhouse, 39, lives with her daughters, Kathleen, 15, and Alexandra, 13, near Mahone Bay, N.S., supporting herself by working part-time in a library. She still remembers the pain of her breakup. “I felt I had betrayed the American dream of the nuclear family,” she said. “I felt I had betrayed my kids.”

Variations on Barkhouse’s experience are evident all across the country and in ever-increasing numbers. When 40-

year-old Vancouver psychotherapist Marcia Jacobs and her husband separated in 1977, she had an overwhelming feeling of guilt and sorrow. “I felt like a quitter and a failure,” she said, adding that at the time she believed that a traditional marriage was the best way to raise her daughter, who was then 5. Now, both the reality and the TV reflection of family life have changed. Series including the recent One Day at a Time have recorded those changes and acknowledge that separation, divorce and single parenthood are commonplace.

The people caught up in those experiences and in juggling work and family life as they try to raise children on their own range from thousands of ordinary Canadians to the most famous single parent in the country:

Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Statistics show that traditional family patterns have altered radically in the past 15 years, in part because of such

changes as the 1969 liberalization of Canada’s divorce laws and the huge influx of women into the labor market. Canada's Lone-Parent Families, a recently released study by Statistics Canada, showed that 11.3 per cent of Canada’s 6.3 million families are now headed by single parents, and the government agency predicts that the figure will rise to almost 15 per cent by 1986. Behind the statistics are men and women who are divorced or separated or whose spouses have died.

As well, they include single women who consciously choose to bear and raise children without having married (page 66). During the past 10 years, in fact, single-parent families increased by half, and there are now 714,000 parents without partners in Canada. Eight out of 10 of them are women, and many families without fathers

live in poverty. Those families in particular have had to undergo a major reorganization

with sweeping financial, legal, social and psychological effects.

But the Statistics Canada figures do not adequately describe the societal metamorphosis that has occurred. According to U.S. census statistics, only 35 per cent of families meet the standard definition of a nuclear unit: a mother and father raising at least one child. Declared David Freeman, an associate professor of social work at the University of British Columbia: “Sixty-five per cent of all families now take some nonnuclear form. Society has changed.” Among the changes: co-operative households and day care centres with parents on rotating duty and, in some cases, extended families with grandparents, parents, even aunts and uncles, and children living under one roof.

For her part, Colleen Kawalilak, a 32year-old vocational schoolteacher in Calgary and a single mother, maintains that single parents still encounter prejudice. Kawalilak, who has a 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, teaches a night-school course on single parenting and she finds that some schoolteachers still automatically blame a single-parent home environment for a child’s misbehavior in class. Said Kawalilak: “Some people think that we have come so far, but sometimes it seems that we have not come far at all.” And social worker Barbara Tredger, who runs weekly discus-

sion groups for elementary school-age children from single-parent homes in Vancouver, confirmed that view. “Teachers tend to see these kids as behavior problems,” she said.

For most single parents, particularly women, running a household and feeding and clothing children on only one income is a daunting problem. Renée Davis, a 42-year-old Halifax elementary schoolteacher, found it difficult to support her two-year-old daughter, Heather, with just part-time work after she separated from her husband eight years ago. Said Davis: “We lived in the country, and I was luckily able to arrange most of my babysitting through friends.”

According to a 1983 survey by a U.S. women’s magazine, a divorced mother’s first year on her own is marked by a 73per-cent decline in her standard of living if she assumes responsibility for her children. By contrast, a newly divorced father, even if he has to pay child-support, enjoys an average rise of 42 per cent in gross income. The reason: most single mothers work at low-paying jobs and are dependent on child and spouse support from ex-husbands or mother’s allowance. That assistance varies from province to province, rising with the number of dependent children. In British Columbia a single mother with two young children could receive

as much as $805 a month.

Many women, including 33-year-old Christiane Larocque of Montreal, who has two daughters, aged 7 and 5, do not have jobs at all. After the birth of her first child in April, 1977, Larocque, who has never married, decided to spend time with her rather than returning to the shoe factory where she had worked for 10 years and never earned more than $230 a week. She now lives on $630 a month, on welfare. Said Larocque: “I am fortunate to have so many friends and family. Sometimes, they are too much so. I cannot return their favors.”

Many women face a daily struggle with poverty simply because their former mates will not support their own children. In Ontario alone, the provinÍ cial government estimates that more I than $42 million in unpaid child and spouse support is owed to 40,000 single parents, most of them women. To reduce that huge backlog of debt, the ministry of the attorney general set up a computer system in Toronto in January, 1983, to help bring to court divorced Ontario residents who owe money to their spouses. The computer system sends out a letter to a defaulter, ordering payment within 10 days. If the debtor does not pay, a programmer instructs the comj puter to issue a notice of default and summon the spouse in arrears to a court hearing.

Still, former justice minister Mark MacGuigan, for one, estimates that almost 75 per cent of all court-ordered support payments are either in arrears or are flatly ignored, particularly by delinquent spouses who move to other provinces. Indeed, MacGuigan, speaking at a conference in Ottawa last April, described delinquency on support payments as “one of the most troubling social problems in Canada.” His recommendation: a Canada-wide central registry with the power to track down defaulters anywhere in the country by using confidential government records, including income tax returns. MacGuigan also favors giving the courts authority to divert government cheques—income tax rebates, pension benefits or unemployment insurance—to wives of delinquent spouses. So far, the newly elected Conservative government has not indicated how quickly it will take action.

Most employed single parents with children under the age of 6 have another challenge to surmount: a severe shortage of day care spaces. Almost one million Canadian children, many from single-parent families, are too young to attend kindergarten, but with only 139,000 licensed day care spaces across the country there is fierce competition and long waiting lists for places. As a result, many single parents make infor-

mal arrangements with babysitters or place their children in private homes whose owners or residents charge as much as $25 a day to look after each child.

Beyond financial hardship, there are often severe emotional costs in raising children alone, and experts say that many people in that position suffer from the physical and emotional stress of trying to juggle fullor part-time careers with their family duties. In Fredericton, elementary schoolteacher Carol Anne Daigle recalls that returning to the University of New Brunswick in 1979 to begin a bachelor of education program was particularly difficult because she could only study after her two young sons had gone to bed at 7:30 p.m. Said Daigle: “It took me twice as long to do everything, but I managed.” And

when Janet Barkhouse was feeling the strains of her separation from her husband seven years ago, her daughter Kathleen, then only 9, helped by looking after her younger sister. Said Kathleen: “I knew my mother was in the process of re-organizing her own life so I helped raise Alex. I would also come home and cook dinner and bake a dessert. When I think of it, it was pretty weird.”

For his part, Walter Podilchak, a 31year-old sociology student at the University of Calgary who won custody of his three-year-old daughter, Meagan, last March, admitted that he is suffering from the same stress. Said Podilchak: “I’m always tired. It’s just more work.” Each weekday morning Podilchak takes Meagan to the day care centre at the university and picks her up at 4 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays (his

former wife meets her during the rest of the week). In Podilchak’s two-bedroom apartment on campus, he prepares dinner for Meagan and himself and later plays with her for two hours before putting her to bed at 8 p.m.

Podilchak is one of a growing number of men who have won custody of their children. David Baxter, an associate professor in the school of social work at the University of Calgary, noted that women won 88.1 per cent of contested custody cases between 1971 and 1981. Said Baxter: “Here is where society makes some assumptions about the roles of men and women.” Baxter himself is divorced and the father of a nineyear-old boy who is living with his former wife. He also belongs to FATHERS (Alberta), a 60-member group dedicated in part to gaining better access to their

children for separated and divorced men. He and other members of fathers—and four similar groups across Canada—are hoping that the new Conservative government will revive Bill C-10, which the former Liberal administration introduced last spring but never passed. Among its provisions: making both divorce and joint custody easier.

Clearly, as the proliferation of groups such as FATHERS shows, many men are aware of their parental responsibilities, want greater involvement with their children and welcome the opportunity to compare their lot with men —and women—living under similar circumstances. A recent four-page questionnaire in the U.S. magazine The Single Parent (circulation 210,000) drew responses from 1,136 single fathers in the United States and Canada. The sur-

vey showed that men, like women, found that adjusting work schedules and parental responsibilities in their single state was the most difficult adjustment they faced. And, like many single mothers, most men who filled in a questionnaire admitted that they did not feel that society accepted them. One man wrote: “How many other freaks are there out there like me?”

Many men reported that they were lonely but said they believed they would find another partner. Baxter, while noting that 75 per cent of divorced men and women do remarry, said that many did so because it was difficult to raise children on inadequate government support. Clearly, social relationships for single parents are complicated. When Podilchak, for one, dates women, he emphasizes that he is part of a package deal that includes his daughter. Said Podilchak: “I am always evaluating how my child and my female companion are getting along.” And in Halifax, elementary schoolteacher Davis has not plunged into romantic liaisons since her marriage broke up. Said Davis: “I have only had one serious relationship since my husband. He and my daughter got along fine, but it was hard for her when we broke up. It made me very cautious about bringing someone too deeply into my life until I was really sure about him.”

£ Most single parents - did not deliberately seek Ï out their current status. complicated But once the initial shock of separation or divorce

is over, the age-old reason for living in family units—ensuring the survival of the next generation—asserts itself. Ten years ago, Colleen Kawalilak from Calgary recalled, she never once imagined herself as a single parent. She admits that she sometimes misses having a partner to share special family moments, but says she finds compensation when she manages to solve family problems without falling back on tradition. “Every day I feel that I am plowing new ground and putting things together in a way I hope will work,” Kawalilak said, “but there is nobody in my past to show me how they did it. Single parents are pioneers.”

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