Canadians see tradition in crisis even as a new poll uncovers enduring strength
Anne of Green Gables was an orphan raised by a brother and sister—“a nontraditional family representing all the best family values.” So said Ontario Attorney General Marion Boyd recently, drawing that icon of Canadian literature into a raucous legislative debate over nontraditional families of another stripe. Had it passed in its original form, the NDP’s Bill 167 would have made Ontario the first Canadian province to grant lesbian and gay couples the same rights as heterosexuals, including the right to such spousal benefits as pensions and the right to adopt children. Debate over the bill—erupting, as it happens, in the middle of the United Nations-sponsored International Year of the Family— called into question the very definition of an institution long viewed as the basic building block of society. And even Boyd’s last-minute promise to delete the bill’s most controversial elements was not enough to win its passage (page 32).
“Most Ontarians feel that this bill would jeopardize the traditional family as we know it,” said George Mammoliti, one of 12 NDP members who joined with the opposition to defeat the bill late last week. “We’ve got our share of social problems. But overall, it’s the traditional family that shapes society and helps shape children to grow healthy and in the right direction.”
The traditional family, of course, is defined by far more than just heterosexuality. It conjures up postwar images of serenity and stability, of white picket fences and cheerful children greeting daddy at the door, of mothers spending long, unhurried days coaxing and teaching tender young souls. Never mind that the images may be a bit overblown: tales of repressed housewives, stressed-out men and abused children have called into question just how uniformly happy those Happy Days really were. Yet the gauzy ideal lives on, hauntingly elusive. Nowadays, it seems, the only young families who can afford the white picket fence are too hurried to enjoy leisurely hours within its perimeter. And it could just as well be a father, or a single mother, running to the door of someone else’s house to pick the kids up from day care.
The 1950s-style family, though not quite extinct, is on the endangered list. And that, combined with concerns about family finances and violence in society—and the samesex debate—has people worried: 63 per cent of Canadians believe that the family is in crisis, according to an Angus Reid poll, the first comprehensive survey of Canadians’ attitudes about the family. But the poll of 2,051 adults—conducted for the Canada Committee for the International Year of the Family and sponsored in part by Maclean’s—also found that the majority of people, traditional or not, actually say that their own family life is very happy.
In part, the paradox lies in politically charged semantics. As the battle over Ontario’s Bill 167 showed, social conservatives who hold a traditional definition of family see it threatened by shifting mores; many liberals see the threat in society’s failing to accept a broader definition of family. On several key family issues, traditionalists are in the majority: two-thirds of all respondents to the Angus Reid poll think same-sex couples raising kids is negative for families and society. Three-quarters feel the same way about the growing numbers of children raised by single u parents. And 68 per cent agree the
1 “best type of family in which to 8 raise children” has two heterosexu| al parents, with one at work and
0 one at home. From that perspecti five, there is ample reason to wor-
2 ry: in fact, the poll found in only 13
1 per cent of all families does one x parent stay home full time with children while another goes to work.
On the other hand, those who measure the health of the family only by the satisfaction of its members should be content. Overwhelmingly, the poll found, Canadians turn to their families for joy, support and security. Based on responses to a series of questions, Angus Reid statisticians identified 61 per cent of respondents as all-around happy with their family lives. Three-quarters of all respondents said that their families are full of love; 61 per cent said they had had happy childhoods; 83 per cent of parents said that having children has made them happier still. Says pollster Angus Reid: “It calls into question the whole myth of the Canadian family in crisis.”
In fact, even by traditional family standards, Canadians are probably better off than they think. True, divorce rates have soared. In 1951, according to the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, 24 couples married for every one couple that divorced. By 1987, there were only two marriages for each divorce. But marriage has made a steady, if unspectacular, comeback since then, inching up to 2.4 marriages for every divorce in 1990. And the poll found that one-third of all divorced people have given marriage another try. Other people have retained the traditional family structure but forsaken the ceremony: common-law couples with children make up four per cent of Canadian families. What is more, young Canadians are optimistic. A separate Angus Reid youth survey found that 70 per cent of 12to 17-yearolds believe it is unlikely they will get divorced.
That rosy picture is lost on some people. Angus Reid statisticians identified seven per cent of respondents as seriously unhappy, reporting much childhood conflict and loneliness in their adult lives and, in some cases, verbal and physical abuse in their families. Divorced and never-married respondents were most likely to be unhappy. Another 32 per cent were classified as discontented, reporting lower levels of satisfaction and love than the happy majority. And there is, in fact, evidence that at least some of the social changes in families have
been accompanied by negative realities: poverty among single-parent families, evidence that divorce has long-term effects on some children (page 38). And recent studies emphasizing the importance of early-childhood nurturing have piled guilt on top of stress for working parents of young children (page 36).
Marital status of Canadians, based on the Angus Reid survey and reflective of the general population:
Single with kids
Widowed with kids ■■■4%
Divorced/separated no kids
Divorced/separated with kids
Common-law no kids ■■■4%
Common-law with kids
Married no kids
Married with kids
Even healthy, happy families now face economic and time pressures that, if not addressed, could lead to trouble. Most of the changes that families have undergone—divorce, single parenthood, women in the workforce—have essentially emptied homes during the day. “But have you ever tried to get your telephone installed after 5 p.m.?” asks Alan Mirabelli, director of administration and communications at the Vanier Institute. “How many family physicians have extended hours?” That means that parents must skip work—increasing pressure in already hectic jobs—to attend to what should be simple tasks. Says Mirabelli: ‘We’re still working in rearview mirror mode.”
Operating in that mode puts particular ☺pressure on families caring for children or elders. “We hear men in their 50s saying, T raised my family without any help,’ ” says Mirabelli. ‘Well, you did it in affluent times, when there was a family wage and therefore you could boldly say, ‘No wife of mine will ever have to work.’ ” That 1950s concept of the family wage—that one man’s salary would support a wife and children—has gone the way of tail fins and 3-D movies. Two or more family members must now combine to work 65 to 80 hours a week in order to maintain the same standard of living that a single 40 to 45 hour workweek ensured in the 1950s, says Mirabelli.
Those parents who can and do stay home with their children complain that—even though most Canadians call their situation ideal—there is little support for programs that would make their lot easier. “Parenting is viewed as if it’s a hobby,” maintains Cathy Perri, who is at home in Leduc, Alta., with her five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, while her husband, Michael, works as an engineer. Perri, 30, is western vice-president of the 5,000-member Kids First group, which lobbies for changes to a tax system that, opponents say, discriminates against parents who stay home to raise their children. Kids First also advocates longer maternity and paternity leaves and flexible hours to allow working parents to spend more time with their kids. “We believe in choice,” says Perri. ‘We would just like to see more support for parenting.”
Guaranteed parental leaves, flexible hours and a national child care strategy are long overdue, according to Rosemarie Popham, director of social action for the Family Service Association of Metropolitan Toronto. “In some ways,” she says, “we’re still living with a hazy, unrealistic and old-fashioned image of the family.” But Popham says economic realities have also battered families. A recent Toronto study found that young families have been losing ground relative to their elders since the 1960s and are facing ever higher unemployment, lower salaries and fewer benefits.
In the end, economic security may be one of the keys to relieving stress on Canadian families. The Angus Reid poll found that the people happiest with their family lives had higher household incomes than those in the discontented or unhappy categories. But the family—whatever its shape or size, whatever its economic status—is also a refuge, a bulwark against the vagaries of an often turbulent world. In that respect, modern families seem as traditional as ever.
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