Before they married nine years ago, Paul and Nancy Sexton of Chilliwack, B.C., agreed on a master plan. "We talked about the future and decided that we would take five years to get to know each other before we started a family,” said Paul Sexton, 32, who teaches English at Agassiz Elementary-Secondary School. “Then we planned to have two children—three years apart.” The Sextons stuck to their plan. Now, Nancy Sexton, 31, teaches English as a second language four nights a week to make time during the day for Erin, 4, and Jeffrey, 2. And like the overwhelming majority of respondents in the third annual Maclean’s/Decima Poll, they
say that their family is becoming increasingly important to them. “I feel that we are living in a culture that has lost a sense of neighborhood,” said Paul, who coaches a basketball team at his school while striving to get home as early as possible every day to spend time with his children. “Family life makes up for a lot that we have lost.”
The traditional nuclear family—a breadwinning father, a homemaking mother and one or more children—is on the decline in Canada, as it is in most Western societies. Plummeting birth rates and high divorce rates during the past two decades shattered the family stereotypes that prevailed before the 1960s. According to one estimate, only seven per cent of the North American population now lives in the once-classic nuclear family unit. Still, 46 per cent of the Canadians polled for Maclean’s said that family is becoming “a more important” part of their life, while 35 per cent said that family is becoming “much more” important— for a total of 81 per cent. And in answer to another question, 77 per cent said that family is more important to them than career (17 per cent) or religion (five per cent).
Those responses reinforce findings in the first Maclean’s/Decima Poll in 1984. Questions at that time examined trends toward delayed marriage and child-rearing among the baby-boom generation born after the Second World War. In that 1984 poll, 61 per cent of all respondents rejected the suggestion that marriage would soon be a thing of the past—at a time when polls indicated that more than four times as many Canadians were choosing to live together, unmarried, than in 1971. And 65 per cent of the respondents in 1984 agreed with a separate statement that “in the years ahead, the family will become more important than ever”—at a time when more than one in every three Canadian marriages was ending in divorce. At the same time, more than 60 per cent of urban, affluent and better-educated Canadians surveyed said that they were skeptical about the traditional family’s chances of survival. As well, 49 per cent of those polled in 1984 whose household income exceeded $40,000 a year said that children were not necessary for a happy and rewarding life.
The latest Maclean ’s/Decima Poll indicates that younger Canadians have been postponing, rather than abandoning, their commitment to family. Only seven per cent of the latest poll’s respondents between ages 25 and 29, and six per cent of those between ages 30 and 34, said that family is becoming less important to them. Said Decima vice-president for public affairs research Bruce Anderson: “It is precisely the once-hesitant baby boomers who are leading the trend toward family commitment.”
That renewed allegiance to family ties is reflected in Canada’s birthrate. Although the fertility rate—the number of children, on average, that a woman will bear in her lifetime—continues to decline, Canada is in the midst of a baby boomlet. As Canada’s population has grown, the birthrate, measured in terms of births for every 1,000 Canadians, has declined to just 14.9 in 1985 from a postwar high of 26.8 in 1960—at the height of the baby boom. But the actual number of babies born in Canada rose to 379,140 in 1985 from only 359,323 in 1975. One reason for the mini-boom is that many women who postponed having children in their 20s are now choosing to have them in their 30s.
University of Toronto family historian Edward Shorter says that the importance accorded to the family may reflect Canadians’ concern over a troubled institution. Shorter told Maclean's: “Study after study has shown that North Americans have a growing sense of desperation about the decline of the family. Parents worry that they are losing control of their adolescent children or that they may lose their families through divorce. Single women worry that they will never have the opportunity to get into a family at all.”
In the face of those concerns, the poll’s overwhelming finding that family life is becoming more important was shared by all age groups across the country. A total of 92 per cent of respondents with children at home said that family is becoming more important to them, a view also expressed by 73 per cent of those whose children have moved away and by the same proportion of respondents over age 65. By contrast, fewer than eight per cent of all those polled said that family was becoming less important to them. Similarly, the 77 per cent of poll respondents who ranked family ahead of either career or religion in their lives included large majorities in every region and in every age, social and economic grouping.
At the same time, statistics from a variety of sources reinforce the fact that for many Canadians family life has undergone a profound change in the past two decades. As more women entered the workforce and divorce rates rose—forcing more single parents to raise their children alone—the pre-1960s family model became an increasingly elusive ideal. Now, 54 per cent of all Canadian women over the age of 15 are in the workforce, and more than 10 per cent of all families are headed by a single parent. Said Robert Glossop, research co-ordinator with Ottawa’s Vanier Institute of the Family: “The idea of family has always been important to Canadians, and it still is. But anyone who romanticizes the family—who associates it with a particular model—is badly out of touch with reality and with the many different ways that people are trying to establish close, supportive and committed relationships.”
How respondents feel about the changing importance of work or careers in their lives:
How respondents rated the relative personal importance of family, career and religion:
How respondents feel personally about the changing importance of the family in their lives:
Other research has shown that although for many people the family can be a sanctuary from stress, for others it can be a potent source of anxiety, anger and depression. Historian Shorter notes that changes in family life have been especially stressful for women, who often suffer financial hardship when marriages collapse and great strain when family and work obligations conflict. Said Shorter: “The question of family versus career has proved to be a very difficult one for many women. There is a definite trend, among women who can afford it, to back away from fast-lane careers and return to the nest to put the family in order again.”
But for many women, that option no longer exists. For poll respondent Suzanne Claveau, who counsels mentally handicapped people in Calgary, and her son, Christian, 9, the reality of family life has changed dramatically in the past three years. Until 1983 Claveau lived with her husband and son on Vancouver Island, where she worked with street children, many of them victims of family abuse and neglect. Said Claveau: “I knew better than most that just as the family can be the most amazing source of strength and self-esteem, it can also be incredibly destructive.”
Claveau moved from Cumberland, B.C., to Calgary in 1985 to be near her parents after her own marriage of 14 years broke up. Within a year, her mother and father had died. Despite that string of family misfortunes, Claveau says, “I still cling to the notion that family is the most important thing in life. It took me a long time to look at Christian and me and say, yes, we are a family. And it still hurts when other people don’t see it that way.”
The Maclean's/Decima Poll indicates that family, however it is defined, will be a central determinant of values and lifestyles for many Canadians. Decima’s Anderson says, “If anything, the babyboom generation is pursuing its family ties with the same stubborn persistence that characterized its approach to social issues in the 1960s and 1970s and its race later for economic success.” Added Anderson: “Reports of the death of the family have apparently been greatly exaggerated.”
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