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New family structures elbowing their way into collective portrait

What does the typical Canadian family look like? For now, it's still a unit headed by a husband and wife. But so many others are elbowing their way into the collective family portrait, we now need a wide-angle lens.

As the new census data shows, between 2006 and 2011, the number of common law couples rose at four times the pace of marrieds. Same-sex marriages tripled. Step-families were counted for the first time, at 12.6 per cent of all families with kids. Single-dad households grew faster than single-mom homes for the first time. And more children are living with at least one grandparent in a multi-generational home.

But while the cast of characters may appear to be in flux, the idea of family isn't necessarily in splinters.

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"Family now is what it always was: ever-changing," says sociologist Mary Ann Murphy. "We have certainly added some new, acceptable options for Canadians to choose from – and at younger ages there's a higher degree of acceptability around choosing anything you want."

At the root of our notions around family are age-old basics: A desire to connect and stay connected.

Although they may be living with their parents longer – or choosing to live solo, as the data suggests – Dr. Murphy says research has shown that "young Canadians in particular still believe in love, still hope for solid, stable relationships – even marriages – and children." This is true even if they are the children of divorce.

"Our hopes have not changed much, but perhaps our lives have," says Dr. Murphy, an associate professor in the department of sociology and school of social work at the University of British Columbia.

Sociologist Gillian Ranson's recent research has focused on the ways in which couples divide up family responsibilities in new ways, including women as primary breadwinners and men as caregivers to children. To her, the census confirms that families are continuing to shift "away from traditional notions of family of the homemaker mother and breadwinner father," says Dr, Ranson, an associate professor at the University of Calgary.

The 1950s nuclear family is a gold standard against which many of us still compare ourselves – and many a Mommy War is fought – but experts point out that it is not an arrangement that reigned for long. More of a blip, says Dr. Ranson, during a post-World War Two era when some middle class families could exist on one income.

"For a brief moment there were some families who fitted that image not too badly. But then very shortly after that, there were all sorts of major social changes that ended for many families the possibility of adhering to that image."

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Those changes including the women's movement, women going into the labour force and the rising need for two incomes in a family. Add to that the gay rights movement, liberal divorce laws and a cultural shift away from marriage, and Canadians start to pick and choose what works for them..

"This moving towards greater diversity perhaps suggests that families are flexible and resilient and can manage and organize themselves in all sorts of ways," says Dr. Ranson. "Often they go against that traditional image, but that doesn't mean they can't be effective and be sources of nurture and care."

In so doing, we've also expanded our notion of whom we consider kin, according to demographer Kevin McQuillan of the University of Calgary.

"This is especially true with the inclusion of same-sex couples but also true with the notion of blended families," he says in an e-mail interview. " I think children, in particular, can come now to think of themselves as belonging to more than one family unit."

In cases of joint custody or kids who visit the other parent on weekends, kids build more relationships, he says. "They come to think of, for example, the child of dad's new partner, to whom he or she is not biologically related, as a family member."

The downside, certainly, can be the complications that can come with complex arrangements, especially in the case of common-law families, step-families and multi-generational families.

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"Who pays the cost of university, who bears the tax costs, what happens if there's a family breakdown? Will the children of these complex common-law unions be treated the same as married unions?" says Dr. Murphy, adding that she brings in family lawyers to discuss the legal implications of common-law relationships when they end in some of her classes.

Still, she says that the data suggests a system that is, one the whole, better for children growing up in modern families.

"They're going to be better off because some of the policy and family law reforms are moving to treat children of any of these unions in a similar fashion, so that's good for the well being of kids. If your family divorced or there's a common law break-up, the courts will be looking to do the best job they can to make sure those children are taken care of."

Counting Canada's almost-30,000 foster children is also a step in the right direction. "It was a great move because those kids easily could be called the most vulnerable children in Canada."

Some observers caution Canadians to also remember what the census doesn't count: family members and loved ones outside the home. Many people living solo, for instance, have so-called "fictive families" of non-relatives they consider close enough to be family.

"I think people's ideas of family have always included people they don't live with. Even after we marry, we still think of our parents as part of our family. So we only get a slice of family life with the census approach," says Dr. McQuillan.

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