Skip to main content

What's the news in the fresh release of census data about families? According to the headlines, Canadian families have evolved into a riot of diversity, with a blended-family Brady Bunch on every block and a kid with two daddies in every playgroup. This is either good or bad, depending on which way you lean. If you lean toward the left, it's all worth celebrating. What an inclusive, tolerant, progressive society we are becoming! If you lean toward the right, you can smell the social rot. The family is crumbling, and the children won't be all right.

But the real news in the census is how traditional we still are. More than two-thirds of us (67 per cent) still live in married-couple families. We still believe in getting hitched – we just put it off till later. If that's not a vote of confidence for the most ancient and conservative of social institutions, I don't know what is. Even gay couples are rushing to the altar – men more than women, surprisingly. What's with that? Are gay women more cynical about marriage? Are gay men more bourgeois? Or do they just like to dress up? Sadly, Statistics Canada doesn't say.

In Toronto, the most diverse city in the country and with the most varied family arrangements, it's likely that the majority of your friends' kids live (yawn) with their original mom and dad. Fewer than one in five Canadian children (19.5 per cent) live in a household headed by a single parent, and the percentage of single-parent families (16.3 per cent) has barely budged in a decade. Only 12.6 per cent of families include a stepmother or stepfather, and only 5 per cent are blended, which means the kids are a mix of his, hers and/or theirs. As for children with two moms or dads, statistically they scarcely exist. Same-sex couples account for only 0.8 per cent of all couples in Canada, and only 9.4 per cent of those have kids at home. So the number of kids with same-sex parents amounts to a vanishingly small percentage of all the kids in Canada.

Despite our cherished liberal Canadian values, our behaviour in family matters is a good deal more conservative than that of Americans. Our marriage rates are higher and our divorce rates are lower. Twenty-seven per cent of American children live in single-parent families. And the number of children born to unmarried mothers – especially to women in their 20s – is soaring. In 2010, 40.8 per cent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried women. That rate is growing fastest among the white lower-middle class – the very people who tend to vote Republican and loudly thump the tub for traditional family values.

Children born to single mothers do worse by every measure, so that's the most important family number to keep your eye on. In Canada, the unmarried birth rate is holding steady at 27.2 per cent.

New Canadians – who are far more conservative than old Canadians – are reinforcing these old-fashioned family patterns. Their family ties tend to be extremely strong. Among the biggest immigrant groups – Chinese and South Asians – divorce rates are lower and unmarried motherhood is virtually unknown. In the U.S., by contrast, the biggest immigrant group is Hispanic, in which unmarried mothers are the norm.

Single motherhood aside, the family is more robust than at any time in history. It's certainly longer-lived. At the turn of the 20th century, there were fewer intact families than there are now. Marriages didn't last long because so many people died young. Children lost their mothers and fathers all the time. If their parent didn't remarry, they were often farmed out to relatives or neighbours. Children married by their early 20s and moved away.

Today, you will probably spend decades in your children's company. You'll be lucky if they leave home before middle age. As for your spouse, you're likely to be together for 40 or 50 or 60 years – especially now that men are living longer. Let's hope you like each other, because statistically, you're in it for the long haul.