Taking stock of the family

Ross Laver January 7 1985

Taking stock of the family

Ross Laver January 7 1985

Taking stock of the family


‘In the years ahead, the family will become more important than ever. ’

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Ross Laver

On the surface, the evidence of family breakdown appears incontrovertible: one in every three Canadian marriages ends in divorce, fertility rates are falling, and alarmingly high numbers of children are being raised by one parent only. Still, in the face of those gloomy statistics most Canadians remain remarkably optimistic about the future of marriage and the family, according to the results of The Maclean W Decima Poll. Almost two-thirds of those interviewed predicted that in the years ahead the family will become even more important to Canadians than it is now. And six out of 10 rejected a suggestion that the current high divorce rate portends an end within 10 or 15 years to the institution of marriage as it is now known.

At the same time, the survey’s findings confirmed that the family may be undergoing a profound evolution. The stereotypical image of a nuclear family—a working husband, his stay-athome wife and one or more dependent children—reflects in reality a statistical minority whose ranks have been diminished by the steady march of married women into the labor force. Indeed, one effect of the burgeoning number of dualincome families has been a shift in the traditional relationship between marriage and childbearing. In the past, couples who got married tended to have

children as a matter of course; those who failed to do so were often either pitied or viewed as eccentrics. By contrast, a sizable minority—40 per cent of those interviewed in The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll—agreed with the statement that “these days, you can have a happy and rewarding life without children,” while 57 per cent disagreed. And among working women the sample was evenly split on the question.

Variations: In many respects, Canadians’ attitudes toward family life are shaped by where they live and how they earn a living. In general, the higher up the socioeconomic ladder they happen to be, the more likely they are to hold socalled “nontraditional” views about the family; the same is also true for those in urban rather than rural areas. Fully 47 per cent of British Columbians and 49 per cent of Metro Toronto residents surveyed said that children were unnecessary for a happy, rewarding life, compared to only 36 per cent of Quebecers and 30 per cent of those from the Atlantic provinces. And while 65 per cent of those polled agreed with the statement “In the years ahead, the family will become more important than ever,” there were significant variations among demographic groups.

Among those who tended to be more optimistic about the future of the family were homemakers (77 per cent), those with public or elementary school educations (69 per cent) and rural residents (69 per cent). At the other end of the

scale were those who were somewhat less hopeful about the survival of the traditional family: urban respondents (63 per cent), people earning more than $40,000 a year (62 per cent) and those with university educations (60 per cent).

As well, Quebec residents were more pessimistic than other Canadians about the future of family life. Almost half of them predicted that the current concept of marriage will disappear within 10 or 15 years, compared to only about a third of those from Ontario and the Prairies and slightly more than a quarter of British Columbians. One explanation for the difference, sociologists say, is that the fundamental changes that swept Quebec society during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s have left Quebecers more uncertain about the future than their English-Canadian compatriots. “A generation ago the family and the church were the central elements in Quebec society,” said Robert Glossop, program co-ordinator for the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa. “But as Quebec has become a more secular and urban society, we have seen a severe swing of the pendulum toward higher rates of divorce and a low birthrate.” But overall, optimism about the family is surprisingly widespread. Said Benjamin Schlesinger, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto: “The majority of married people today are survivors. Their relationships have endured despite all the pressures.” Other experts argue that in response to the revolution in values caused by the maturing of the so-called baby boomers, the definition of family has broadened to encompass a variety of alternate lifestyles. Said Frank Feather, a Torontobased consultant on future trends: “The despair and gloom about families is mainly among philosophers and theologians who simply do not understand how society is changing. People have more open attitudes, yes, but men and women still need each other.”

Aware: One major change, Feather said, has occurred in the expectations which people bring to marriage. “The old idea of the family was essentially a business arrangement,” he said. “The husband earned money and provided for the woman, and in return she agreed to do the housework and bear children. Now there is an awareness that to be fulfilling for both partners, a marriage must have other dimensions as well.” Similarly, family experts say that it is

wrong to interpret the high rate of marriage disintegration as necessarily a bad thing. Rather, the prevalence of divorce may simply be a sign that Canadians are taking marriage more seriously than in the past—and that rather than enduring an unhappy union they are more likely to end it and perhaps try again. Said Dr. Karl Tomm, director of the family therapy program at the University of Calgary: “People are becoming more open and honest about family problems, and that is a very healthy development.”

Certainly, it seems clear that for a growing number of Canadians divorce

has lost its stigma. Said poll respondent Alice Spence, 37, of The Pas, Man., a nurse who has raised three children during 17 years of marriage: “Divorce is unfortunate when there are children involved, but I really do not think that it is such a terrible thing when two people honestly decide that they can no longer live together. Anyway, a lot of people who do get divorced end up remarrying.” In fact, more than three-quarters of Canadians who divorce subsequently remarry. Even many older Canadians no longer see marriage as requiring a lifelong commitment. Said respondent Allan Smith, 61, of Toronto, who has

been married 35 years: “In the not-toodistant past there were many lost friendships because of divorce, but that has disappeared.”

Reluctant: Nor does there appear to be significant regret about declining birthrates. Said Spence: “In the old days a lot of couples were pressured into having kids whether they wanted them or not, and the children suffered as a result.” Today, many couples choose to limit the number of their children for financial reasons or because they are reluctant to assume the burden of raising a large family. Said Pierre Perri, 26, of Montreal, who is currently studying

‘These days you can have a happy and rewarding life without children

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criminology at the University of Toronto: “I definitely want to have kids some day, but no more than two That way I will not have to spend the r est of my life looking after them.”

At the same time, reductions in household size raise many questions about the quality of family life. Some sociologists say that low fertility rates may be a symptom of selfishness among affluent couples who delay or forgo the experience of having children in order not to cramp their personal lifestyles. Indeed, a full 49 per cent of those interviewed in The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll whose household income exceeded $40,000 a year said that children were unnecessary for a happy and rewarding life, compared to only 35.2 per cent of those earning between $10,000 and $20,000. Experts also say that the trend toward smaller families may exacerbate the problem of loneliness in modern society. But others insist that families

4There are so many divorces today, in 10 or 15 years the whole idea of marriage as we know it may be forgotten

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that have only one or two children often enjoy a U cher home life because the parents csn afford to devote more time and energy to each child.

Setting aside questions of demographic trends, most experts contend that the family will survive as an important source of stability during a period of unprecedented social and economic upheaval. Said poll respondent Caroline Lengyel, 33, a Winnipeg mother of two whose husband was laid off from his job at a local shingle factory: “Life today is scary. And the harder times are the more you value your family and friends.” Spence is convinced that the increasing complexity of modern life will cause Canadian families to pull closer together in the years ahead.

Violence: Generations throughout history have mourned the passing of the so-called “traditional” family, each one sharing a romanticized belief in some earlier period in which family life was

supposedly more placid and harmonious than it later became. In reality, historians of the family argue, such sentimental notions of a bygone age of domestic bliss are not well founded. Although in the past fewer couples may have divorced, many more were forced to live out their lives in restrictive, unhappy marriages frequently scarred by adultery and family violence.

In some respects, the family of the 1980s may actually be more “traditional” than its forerunner a generation or two ago. For one thing, the 1950s and 1960s were marked by higher marriage and birthrates than the period either immediately before or after. And according to University of Toronto historian Edward Shorter, the concept of the mother as full-time housewife is a relatively recent invention, a byproduct of increasing agricultural and industrial productivity. Said Shorter: “The socalled nuclear family in which the man has a job and the woman stays at home is a century and a half old.”

Rush: Shorter is not convinced that the two-career family is a step forward for women. In the headlong rush into the labor force, he said, many women have not stopped to consider the consequences to their personal lives of working full time and then returning home to an equally taxing schedule of domestic duties. One result: statistics show that women in general are ill more often than men. Many observers see tangible benefits for the Canadian family from the entry of a married woman into the labor force. The fact that many women earn incomes has altered the traditional power balance in marriages by encouraging both partners to co-operate equally in household decision-making, experts say. A working woman may also be less prone to feeling trapped in the home, a factor that reduces the possibility that she will opt to leave the marriage in search of liberation and personal fulfillment. And finally, to the extent that she raises her family’s standard of living and provides a form of insurance against high unemployment, a working wife may increase her family’s emotional and financial stability.

The revolution in family life over the past two decades has claimed many casualties: the large number of children who suffer through their parents’ divorce, the loss of a sense of permanence in marriage, the painful re-evaluation of men’s and women’s roles. But it seems unrealistic to presume that Canadians can somehow turn back the clock to a simpler, less pluralistic age. And judging by their own attitudes toward family life now and in the future, it appears that given the chance few of them would want to do;ÿ