The ties that bind

Alyssa Favreau looks at North Americans' definition of family, and its problems

Since 2003, Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell and his team have surveyed thousands of Americans, asking them what exactly counts as a family. The study, conducted three times between 2003 and 2010, shows that though all family types have been steadily gaining recognition, there remains a core group of Americans who will only label the traditional, nuclear model as a family at the expense of many others, including single parents, same-sex couples, couples without children, and common law or unmarried partners.

Powell and his team found that the percentage of Americans who considered same-sex couples, – with or without children – a family has risen to 33 per cent, compared to 25 per cent in 2003. Powell also found that the legality of the relationship served to legitimize it in terms of public opinion. “One thing we found was that if you told people that a gay couple is legally married, they were much more likely to say that they count as a family [compared to] a gay couple who lives together, even if they’ve been living together for ten years,” he said in an interview with The Daily. Since same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, Powell believes that Canadians are more likely to be inclusive in their definition of family.

The attention that same-sex relationships has attracted has also helped to validate them, added Powell. “One of the factors is simply that there’s been more of a discussion regarding same-sex issues publicly. When we did our surveys in 2003, one thing that was really noticeable was that a lot of people were really uncomfortable even saying the words gay or lesbian. They would lower their voices, like it was taboo… or something bad. Ironically, even those people who were really opposed to same-sex marriage, by talking about it out loud and publicly, became more comfortable with the terms and ideas,” he continued. He further noted that the increased number of people who realized that they had gay friends and relatives further contributed to the inclusion of same-sex couples a family.

However, regardless of sexual orientation, in both the United States and Canada, unmarried or common law couples, along with single parent families, are considered to be lacking in comparison with more traditional structures. Dave Quist, executive director of the conservative research group Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC), said that “children have the best outcomes when raised by their married, biological parents.” He believes that though many varying types of family are steadily gaining recognition in Canada, “we should be striving for the ideals, rather than watering down social policies that are actually harmful to the outcomes for children.” Quist believes that when couples merely cohabit together, the children present are “less likely to thrive behaviorally, emotionally, and educationally.”

And though John Sandberg, associate professor of Sociology at McGill, agrees, he believes “the aspects of the general environment that tend to be associated with family structure are much more important” than the structure itself. Factors such as conflict in the home, opportunities for age-appropriate stimulation and education, supervision, and developmental planning all play a part in the welfare of the child, said Sandberg. “It also often has to do with income differences after a divorce [or] lack of secondary source supervision.”

But Powell doesn’t believe that these concerns should affect what constitutes a family. “The reality is that children are growing up in many different types of households,” he said. “Think about the implications for the child who grows up being told by others that they’re not a family. Being told that their situation’s not real, that their living situation is not authentic.”

Even Quist admitted, that “unfortunately, the ideal doesn’t always exist. Divorce does happen. Cohabitation happens. Single parent families exist.” But despite the concerns some might have regarding the relative success rates of different types of family, as Sandberg says, “having more parents in a loving household without conflict is always a good thing.”

In Powell’s research, the presence of children had a legitimizing effect on how a couple was viewed. In the 2010 survey, 100 per cent of respondents considered a married heterosexual couple with children to be a family, while 83 per cent considered an unmarried heterosexual with kids to be a family, and 64 per cent considered a same-sex couple with kids to be a family. Remove the children, and the percentages dropped down to 92, 40 and 33 per cent respectively.

Laura Scott, head of the Childless by Choice Project advocacy group and author of Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice, said that these findings are representative of how couples living without children are often excluded from the general definition of family. “The perception is that they’re just a couple, not really a family,” she explained. “There’s an attitude that if you’re a [child-free] couple, it must be temporary; eventually you’ll have children.”

This perspective, Scott said, often leads to a social marginalization of couples who are childless either by circumstance or by choice. “As a childless person you become socially isolated,” she said. “Childlessness is approaching 20 per cent in women, and that’s huge. We can no longer assume parenthood for all…we need to assimilate those [child-free] couples into our society and recognize that it’s a viable life path.”

As for Canadian couples, “it’s very similar,” said Scott. “The only difference is that because there are better maternal leave policies in Canada, people wonder, ‘Well, why don’t you? You get the whole year off.’ … There’s a questioning that happens with Canadian couples, whereas most Americans understand that there is a financial burden [involved in] having a child.”

Powell is optimistic that the definition of family will continue broadening. “When we first did the surveys, it was really anybody under 30 that was open in their definitions. By 2010, it’s more like people under the age of 38. There’s simply going to be an increase of people coming of age who are going to be changing the overall tenor of the debate…so I think it’s going to keep on increasing.”

Scott agreed. “I think I do see a broadening of the definition of family, but it’s slow. It’s behind the curve based on our reality,” she says. “A married man and woman with a number of children, what we would term the traditional family, is actually a declining demographic, and trends of delaying marriage, of delaying child rearing, which is happening both in Canada and the U.S., are driving that. In our media and in our cultural portrayals of family, we can see a broad range of families, but our institutions, policies, and law haven’t caught up to that. But hopefully they will.”

But whether these changes in perception are positive is still up for debate. “Public perception and real measurable outcomes are two separate matters,” explained Quist. “I may like or prefer something, but that doesn’t mean that it is good for me or those around me. Public perception toward many things has changed over time, but that doesn’t mean that that acceptance is beneficial to all.” Sandberg, however, said its too early to tell what effects these changes will have. “There are more people choosing not to have children, more people having fewer children, more people having children in cohabiting relationships, more people having children without partners than in the past and the average age of childbearing is going up,” he noted. “Are these things better or worse? They’re just different. There are so many other variables that confound these changes that it’s hard to say.”

Families can be as varied as the individuals who make them up, and if common perceptions continue to broaden, it can only serve to legitimize the arrangements and potentially the lifestyles of those in positive family environments, regardless of their definition.