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The Observant Immigrant

The Changing Face of Family

By Candice Louisa Daquin



A Maori family in European dress (nineteenth century). Courtesy: Creative Commons

The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, like many other first nation people including the Aboriginal tribes of Australia and Native Americans of North America, have a differing view of family to dominant mainstream Western culture. Maori culture prizes the family over the individual, a person gains the most respect through their commitment to their community, not through their individual accomplishments.

The Maori word: “Kaumatuatanga,” is concerned with keeping families and the Maori community together, and “Whakawhanaungatanga” relates to the Maori belief that family bonds should always precede other matters in life, and benefit the whole, again rather than the individual. A good friend, adopted by Anglo-New Zealanders but biologically Maori, and taught in the Maori ways, explained that; “Maori’s respect the White man’s ways, but have their own, especially where family is concerned. To Maori, family is history and future, the individual must work to strengthen their future collectively and respect their history, or their individuality has no value. In other words, family guides the individual and each individual Maori is made aware, irrespective of adoption or other circumstance of his/her history.”

My Maori friend, Esther explained that while she was adopted, given up by her birth mother who at sixteen did not feel she could care for her child, she was embraced by the Maori when she sought them out years later, and was taught of her ancestors, whose record of arriving in New Zealand, in minute detail, was recorded in the Maori tradition and passed on from generation to generation. Esther was able to find out the name of her specific tribe, the head of that tribe and the name of the boat her tribe took when they embarked for New Zealand from Polynesia, years prior to any Anglo settlers. Esther explained that; “Having such a rich history, knowing not only where I came from as an individual but as a people, gives me more security than any Anglo child I know, irrespective of my adoption. Even if my birth mother had not embraced me, my people, my extended family, did, and I have always felt accepted and welcomed by my culture. This leaves me feeling less dislocated and unaware of my history than most people and I find it impossible to be insecure with such a rich extended family.”

Contrast this with the story of Susanna from Toronto, a Canadian 33-year-old single-mother. Susanna’s family is of English/French descent. Her mother lives in Vancouver, she has never met her father who left her mother soon after Susanna was born. At 25, Susanna, in a relatively stable relationship at the time, became pregnant and had Emily. Soon after Emily was born, Susanna’s partner got a job offer in the US and chose to leave with another woman whom he had been seeing. Devastated by the loss of her partner both financially and emotionally, Susanna was unable to support herself and sank into depression. She continued to struggle financially and received little assistance from her mother who has remarried and her half-sister from that marriage.

“At times, it feels as if I have no family,” Susanna says, smiling at her daughter who she reports, has lots of friends at school and is doing well. “I fear for Emily’s future because she has no support network, she doesn’t see any of her grandparents, she has no brothers and sisters and if something were to happen to me, I really don’t know who would take care of Emily. I didn’t think in 2007 anyone would be as isolated as I feel, but then I talk to other single moms, and they tell me they’re struggling too. Sometimes I don’t think anyone really considers us, or the impact of our isolation and what effect that has on our kids. I know Emily is getting old enough to notice when I get depressed and be adversely affected by the state our finances. I want to give her so much more, but I never feel I have anyone to turn to for help. My social life died as soon as I had Emily because I couldn’t afford a babysitter. I’m only 33 but I don’t remember the last time I had a night out, sometimes my frustration gets really bad, and I lose my patience with Emily. It’s not her fault but it’s not mine either, I didn’t know I was going to be dumped, I didn’t think my lack of own family would impact me as negatively as it has, I used to have a lot of friends and now I only know other single parents who like me, struggle to make ends meet, we’re a lonely bunch.”

Susanna is only one of the roughly 1 million (Statistics Canada, 2001) single-mothers in Canada today, juggling a full-time job and full-time childcare with radically different support networks. No longer able to rely upon an extended family for baby-sitting; Susanna has had to adapt to the changing face of Canada’s traditional ‘family’.

It may be ironic that developed countries have significantly higher rates of single-parent family households, with the US leading the way at 34%[1] and Canada close behind at 22%. Historical reasons for single-parent families have been replaced with modern-world explanations linked to the evolving social and cultural demographic changes especially in the last 30 years. Despite cultural shifts, many negative connotations remain associated with single-parent families, and “non-traditional” families, despite this “non-traditional” model eclipsing the old normative two-parent, two-gender nuclear family. Today it seems, anyone can be a family, and the word “family” is associated more with an experience of (family) than a tightly fitting model. The question then becomes multifaceted; Have we identified what needs these new family structures have? Are those needs of the individual being met by the new family dynamic? And are the needs of these differing faces of family being met by social institutions?

Single Mothers by Choice (SMC) founded in the US is the largest advocate and networker for single mothers in North America. Statistics compiled by SMC show that many single-mothers are electively having babies by themselves, for a variety of reasons including a wish to have children outside of a marriage, by oneself, or in a same-sex coupling. Motherhood is, likewise, no longer restricted to marriage, nor do women have to abide to the old-fashioned concept of having their children in their twenties ‘just to be safe’. Career women in particular, are finding, motherhood later in life, fulfills their maternal instinct and equips them with greater financial resources to meet the needs of single motherhood. Many women are eclipsing their male partner’s earnings and as such, some men are opting to share if not take over the rearing of children, whilst other women find job-sharing roles with their counterparts a more practical way of meeting motherhood responsibilities while remaining in the work force. The 1980 comedy film, Nine-To-Five, exemplified the struggle that began in the 80’s with women entering the work place in increasing numbers due to emancipation, a wish for a career and financial necessity often the result of divorce. In the film, a character is fired because she misses work due to her child’s illness. Later on, she is reinstated by a female boss, and permitted to job-share so that she might work and have time for her children. This trend extended to childcare facilities being available onsite and special incentives for mothers.

Despite progress, women continue to earn less than men, typically being responsible for the children and often receiving little or sporadic financial support. While the French Government, concerned with falling birth rates, recently instituted a programme to incentivise women to have more children, paying them more per child and “rewarding” them for having children, as well as making it easier for them to work, this program and others like it do not cover the issue of a spartan or non-existent family network. Can we really hope to replace the extended family with social institutions?

Out-dated theories of the ‘ideal family’ continue to be quashed by the ever-evolving modern reality of today’s family structures. Kids born in the 1960’s and 70’s may have directly experienced divorce and thus, have different perspectives of what a family structure entails, and how best to form it. Laws in Canada allow same-sex couples to adopt, and prior to that, same-sex couples who had children from previous unions, did so anyway. The law cannot dictate a family, it can only work to support those families that emerge from its society and hope to be effective in meeting those changing needs. Stacy, growing up in the 70’s was reared by her father, at the time a very unusual move. Her mother, a die-hard careerist, had little interest in children and left Stacy in the care of her father. At the age of six, Stacy was questioned by school social workers who were concerned that Stacy might become the victim of sexual abuse, simply on the basis of her living with her father.

Stacy’s father never abused Stacy and she grew up to campaign for the rights of single fathers, who Stacy says, often receive unequal treatment at the hands of biased social institutions who favor a mother’s rights over her children. Adults like Stacy are the parents of 2007, bringing with them a different perspective of what is permissible and acceptable child-rearing. “I never felt like a boy just because I didn’t’ grow up with my mother. My father can still sew better than I can, and he wanted to parent me, my mother wasn’t interested. To me, an interested parent is far more valuable than a disinterested one, irrespective of gender,” says Stacy, now actively involved in the Canadian Equal Parenting Group, with her own family, Stacy decided not to marry because she prefers the; “Goldie and Kurt” model.

When Susanna found herself abandoned by her partner, pregnant and unable to hold down a well-paying job, she turned to online message boards and found that she was not alone. “I felt like such a failure but began to see that we condemn ourselves the worst and if we can believe we’re capable of doing a good job, maybe society will catch up and not condemn us. I wasn’t a 16-year-old ‘welfare mom’ as many young moms are called, but even if I had been, I’d like to think I’d have been given a chance, people are quick to judge but who is judging the fathers who leave? Or the social institutions that fail to provide?” In online communities, Susanna found groups of single mothers who networked to provide childcare and support, as well as a healthy dose of information about how to get through the sometimes-confusing system of healthcare and welfare available for single parents.

Recently Susanna has connected with single-parent camp organisers for Emily. Although most are private and can be expensive, there are reductions based on income and plenty of notice available for planning and saving. Likewise, the organisation Canadian Parents Without Partners (CPWP)[2] offers friendship and support for those parents like Susanna and also those parents who actively chose to become single parents. This said, in an article entitled: Navigating Family Transitions: Evidence from the General Social Survey (Beaupré, Pascale, Cloutier, Elisabeth)[3] points at both positive and negative consequences for changing families in Canada, including resources available to young families with less familial support than ever before and the economic consequences of divorce. In The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America (1985) by Lenore J. Weitzman[4], studies confirmed societies worst fears, despite the liberising effect of divorce, women were suffering, with 14% of female divorcees seeking Welfare during the first year of divorce and divorced men seeing a 42% increase in their standard of living versus a 73% drop in living standards for the average divorced woman. Over ten years later, the same author wrote in the American Sociological Review an article named ‘The Economic Consequences of Divorce Are Still Unequal’ (1996)[5] and today they remain gender biased. What can Canada’s services do to support those families still falling through the cracks?

In the article, ‘Social Support and Education Groups for Single Mothers’[6], authors Lipman and Boyle report that one in eight Canadian children live in a family headed by a single mother, “vastly overrepresented by families living below the poverty line.” The studies exiting research showed an increased need for societal support and social assistance to improve the educational and mental-health outcomes of single-parent households. Further, it pointed to the vast improvement in status for those individuals who did receive adequate social support and education. This link between education, social support and family success for those headed by single women, only reiterates a pressing need for more resources and greater attention given to the needs of these family units. Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC) claims responsibility for Canadian citizens from the cradle to the grave and aims to improve the quality of life and skill set of every Canadian. This aim must continue to adapt with the changing face of family today, to ensure no Canadian is left behind, neglected by the slow turning wheels of a bureaucracy.

Few Canadian women today will believe their future will be that of housewife, not in the work force, unskilled for that work force, with children, while her husband supports them through a job. Many families today require a dual income, women want to work, husband’s might not, husband’s may not exist, couples may not marry, marriage does not guarantee safety! These and other considerations have factored into the evolution of the face of Canadian families today, we may have temporarily lost ourselves in this metamorphosis, as often happens when change is not matched with response to change, but as with any evolution, we will recreate the face of family in Canada and find new and continually evolving ways to meet the needs those new families present through programmes like JumpStart, a Canadian community-based charitable programme that helps kids in financial need participate in organized sport and recreation. The Government and its social bodies must be swift to anticipate the trends and directions Canadian families take, and in lea of such agency support, women make their own connections, online, in groups and through networks of like-minded women, doing what they do best, surviving and building.

Look around you. Women are doing it for themselves. Fathers are rearing children and joining together to have an informed parental voice, same-sex and transgender couples flourish as the rainbow families of diversity, mixed-race families continue to educate their children about discrimination and the pride of being multicultural. Studies indicate no harm to children brought up with the absence of one gender, or in mixed-race households. Much of what has historically held us back and limited acceptance is our own unwillingness to embrace change or try to understand it. Scores of children have lost parents for a variety of reasons, and will continue to, with the ravages of war, divorce, abandonment. Change is ever-increasing. We can never impede change. It is part of our biological destiny.

Children will continue to bear witness to ever-new forming families, with step-siblings, step-parents, different cultures, traditions and genders, complex extended families that cannot be measured in neat categories but are perhaps the building blocks of any social structure, the purpose being, for people to come together and support one another. The key is to find extension if not in our immediate family but those we make, and to avoid isolation, the real cause of depression and loss. Children can grow as long as they are loved and cared for. If we find ourselves lost it is our role to build a ship and invite others aboard. As Esther, my Maori friend, said: “My family is all around me, and my adopted family remains in my heart also. I can share my family with everyone because they share my pride in my heritage and where I came from. Everyone should have some pride about where they came from so that they may dream and have somewhere to place that dream so that it continues safe.”


[1] Reported in 1998, source: http://family.jrank.org/pages/1574/Single-Parent-Families-Demographic-Trends.html

[2] Parents Without Partners www.pwpcanada.com

[3]Evidence from the General Social Survey, Beaupré, Pascale, Cloutier, Elisabeth, http://cansim2.statcan.ca/cgi-win/cnsmcgi.pgm?Lang=E&SP_Action=Result&SP_ID=40004&SP_TYP=62&SP_Sort=-0

[4] Free Press (1985) New York.

[5] The Economic Consequences of Divorce Are Still Unequal, Lenore J. Weitzman, American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jun., 1996), pp. 537-538

[6] A Randomized and Controlled Trial of a Community-Based Program, Ellen L. Lipman, Michael H. Boyle, published at www.cmaj.ca November 17, 2005

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

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