Re-examining the nuclear family

By Joelle Robichaud

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are doing it. Over a million Canadian couples are doing it. But socio-conservative critics have said this type of “behaviour” is unacceptable. That is, getting pregnant without wedding bells and a big ceremony.

Common law couples have always made up a minority of families in Canada, but according to a 2006 Statistics Canada report, the numbers have increased by 18.9 per cent since 2001 and now make up 1.4 million families in Canada, or 15.5 per cent of the 8.9 million families in Canada. Single-parent families are also on the rise and now comprise nearly one fifth of all families, reaching almost 1.5 million. Married adults, which have always made up the majority of the population, now make up slightly less than 50 per cent of Canadians for the first time since the first national census in 1871–a statistic gaining increasing media buzz.

The Calgary Sun published a story last week after Statistics Canada released the information. According to “Traditional family reigns here,” [Bill Kaufmann, Sep. 13, 2007] we are living in “a country where the notion of the tradtional family is increasingly under siege.” This message is melo-dramatic and unrealistic as it does not take into account common law families with children may have the same structure as married, or traditional, families. Another important thing to note is Stats Canada’s definition of “family,” which is “composed of a married couple or a common law couple, with or without children, or of a lone parent living with at least one child in the same dwelling. A couple can be of the opposite sex or the same sex.”

With such a broad definition for family, it is difficult to say that the nuclear family is under attack. It is, however, easier to say traditionalism is being questioned. Perhaps people are more secular-minded than before, or they are now aware that divorce costs more and more. In order to avoid these road bumps, perhaps people are deciding more and more against marriage.

And why is that such a bad thing? A family can still function with unmarried parents and common law is still a better situation than single parenthood. This is not to say that being a single parent is “bad,” but rather that it is more difficult due to living costs and median parent income–$30,000 for single parents instead of $67,000 for couples.

Another thing to note is the age which Statistics Canada determines as the earliest for marriage, which is 15 years old. Although it may be legal for someone to enter into the union of marriage at this time, it should also be noted the number of cases of marriage at this age is declining and that marriage is now being chosen as an avenue later in life for most adults. It was more common for younger Canadians to be married back in 1871 than in 2006, 135 years later.

Common law unions may also be popular before people get married, as couples move in together and live with each other months, possibly years, before their marriage occurs. This, once again, is a phenomenon of the times, as it is more and more acceptable for couples to live together at earlier stages of their relationships. This may also relatively skew the number of common law unions reported in the census, as these couples may not necessarily have children–Statistics Canada also mentioned that 42.7 per cent of couples under the age of 25 had no children in comparison to the 41.4 per cent who did.

All in all, the criticism of such trends is unrealistic, poorly researched and relies solely on the census. The census does try to describe such trends in detail, but it can only incorporate so much–to conduct the census so that a full understanding is achieved would simply make for too many things to enumerate. Perhaps those who believe in the nuclear family should review other socio-economic factors influencing the trends we are seeing and they would then see this trend is not really altogether that bad.