Globe and Mail

Lego families: Parents build new way of life

Poll finds a stressed-out generation seeking choices, pieces to the puzzle of how to combine home and work

ALANNA MITCHELL
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, September 15, 1999


Calgary -- Family Matters will run through to Saturday. It will be followed each Friday with a full page tracking the lives of Canadian families in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, as well as examining other family issues.

David Aucoin and Anne Bennett joke about the fact that their dining-room suite is not exactly like everyone else's.

For one thing, it is a bright-orange, plastic picnic table with a purple base, made for children. Just at the moment, it's stacked with hundreds of pieces of Lego.

Janet, 4, and Peter, 22 months, are busily snapping the bricks into place. Every few minutes, they run over to their parents, who are sitting comfortably on the living-room floor, eager to show off their creations.

Most evenings at the Aucoin/Bennett home in the southwest Calgary neighbourhood of Chinook Park are like this: Parents on the floor, immersed in their kids often until Peter Mansbridge announces the CBC news at 10 o'clock.

"We don't spend time trying to escape the kids," says Mr. Aucoin, back leaning against the couch, legs stretched under the coffee table.

In fact, since their two children were born, both Ms. Bennett, 43, and Mr. Aucoin, 45, have exchanged their full-time jobs in the business world for part-time ones. The children are in daycare 3½ days a week.

The couple have consciously built their lives around their children, taking bits of the old and bits of the new and snapping a creative new structure into place the way their kids make Lego cars. They know that, as their children age, they will take this one apart and build others to suit them.

This desire to fashion their own personal structures for work and family -- to be a Lego generation of parents -- is one of the powerful messages to emerge from a nationally representative poll of Canadians conducted for The Globe and Mail by Angus Reid Group.

Equally strong -- except in Quebec -- is the anxiety they feel as they fumble to invent fresh ways of doing this, painfully aware that some of the pieces are missing.

The survey is one of the largest private Canadian polls ever to probe the mind of the modern parent. It captured the views of 2,499 adult Canadians, including 1,991 parents, over the past several weeks, and found a generation searching both for answers and for absolution.

Across the land, across income levels, irrespective of voting patterns, Canadian parents are adrift. Mired in a confusing patchwork of family policies that thrust in different directions, fighting tooth and nail to keep up standards in their children's schooling, they are looking for something that works. What they are finding is a federal government badly out of step with the momentum toward innovation.

That is happening even as politicians in Ottawa and some of the provinces debate the merits of crafting a children's budget for the year 2000. For the first time since mothers began to flood into the work force in the 1970s, the government appears to be on the brink of drafting a cohesive family agenda.

And while some families are looking within themselves for answers, lots are turning to the government for ideas.

The poll found that a majority of parents with children at home -- 64 per cent -- believe that the state of the family today is a national crisis and that the government must take steps to alleviate it. That's despite the profound ideological chasms that separate Canadians on family issues.

The anxiety over the state of the family runs so deep that Canadians have begun questioning whether parents are fit for the job. Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) worry about whether parents today really know what they are doing when it comes to raising kids. And 78 per cent feel that parents are not strict enough with their children.

It's not just other people's children Canadians are worried about. It's their own. Sixty-two per cent of parents who still have kids at home say one of the biggest worries in their lives is whether they are raising their children properly. The same percentage believe that people should get training before they become parents.

(The poll is accurate to within 1.9 percentage points 19 times out of 20.)

Compared with Canadians who don't have children at home, today's parents are hugely stressed out. They are more apt to be depressed, to be subject to panic attacks and to lie awake at night worrying.

Fifteen per cent of respondents with children at home admitted to a pollster that their marriages would have ended already had they not had children. The percentage was even higher for poor families. One in five families with incomes of less than $30,000 said children were keeping their marriages together.

"There have been big shifts in the world of work, in the structure of families, in expectations and in supports from government," said Judith Maxwell, president of Canadian Policy Research Networks.

Not only that, but over the past several years, different governments have made deep cuts to the country's core institutions, affecting the level of care at hospitals and the quality of education, as they did away with deficits and paid down debt.

"The anchors people used to really rely on to maintain a stable, middle-class life have been yanked. And it's destabilizing," Ms. Maxwell said. "It takes a while for people to figure out what to do about that."

She said the level of anxiety is too high to ignore. "We need to have a public discussion about what is the right combination of symbolic and practical messages that children are valued."

Those kinds of messages are easier to find in Quebec, which has the most sophisticated level of family-policy debate in Canada and the most robust children's programs. It also has lower levels of anxiety.

Maryann Bird, interim executive director of the Child Care Advocacy Association, said stress levels in Quebec may be lower because parents have supports that simply do not exist elsewhere in the country, notably $5-a-day daycare.

"Quebec culture values families and that is reflected in government policy," she said. "Families, in turn, feel a lot less alone."

For instance, it is mandatory for school boards to offer before-school, after-school and lunch-time care to children of working parents, at minimal cost.

It's a program Janet Wyman and her partner, Jean Grimard, who live in Montreal's Plateau district, make use of. Their son, Jean-Luc, 6, is a regular in the after-school program.

In policy terms, it's like having a whole other box of Lego pieces to play with.

Ms. Wyman and Mr. Grimard also get support from each other, in ways previous generations would have found rare. Ms. Wyman, who has a PhD in botany, is doing further research at the University of Montreal in a postdoctorate program. Mr. Grimard is co-ordinator of the renowned Suzuki program at the McGill Conservatory. Their second child is due this month.

"Balancing work and parenting is tough, and that was especially true when I was doing my doctorate," Ms. Wyman says. "There were times when I felt like a bad student, a bad researcher and a bad mother. But my partner, Jean, has made it possible to do it all. That's what I think parenting is today: Teamwork."

But she believes that government programs also keep their parenting team running smoothly. They don't mind paying their taxes so everyone can benefit.

"Cheap childcare, a good public education system and free health care for all families means a lot more to me than lower taxes," she says.

To Ms. Bennett in Calgary, the level of support for children feels quite different. She would never want to be rewarded for having children. And she certainly wouldn't want a parenting model imposed on her.

But she would like policies to support children. Now, when she looks at the big picture, she is frankly appalled at parts of it.

She is reminded of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's famous aphorism in 1967 that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Then, as justice minister, he was talking about ending discrimination against people who had non-traditional sexual practices.

But to Ms. Bennett, it feels as if the state is back in the nation's bedrooms, discriminating now on that most traditional of enterprises: having children and choosing how to raise them. That shows itself not only in the lack of support for families, but in the fact that it taxes different family structures at different rates.

She is part of a growing number of Canadian parents who want their voices heard on these issues. They have started asking questions. They want responses.

This is an unsettling time in Canada. Probably a watershed time. And it's not just the tax question. Canadians want to catch up with the punishing rate of change this generation has experienced in the roles of women in society. They fear losing the important gains women have made toward social equality. But they want to assess the fallout.

Robert Glossop, a sociologist with the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, said this generation of parents has become achingly aware that the march toward workplace equality for women has had a cost that is only now being fully understood.

Despite the help that men are providing, women today still have the same sense of responsibility for their families that their mothers and grandmothers did. But they are just rarely able to fulfill those responsibilities the way their mothers and grandmothers did, Dr. Glossop said.

Natalie Lacey, a vice-president of Angus Reid, said it is as if women's attention has shifted. Through the 1970s and 1980s, they were focused on wondering whether they were being accepted in the work force. Now, both women and men are haunted by a different refrain: "Am I doing all I can for my children?"

In part, this trend is fuelled by a tendency for Canadians to question the hunger for making money, University of Alberta sociologist Susan McDaniel said.

It's not that Canadians want to turn back the hands of time as they sort through all this. Quite the opposite. This is a most modern enterprise: the quest for inventive choice, spurred by fear.

But when you dig beneath all the worry, you find a generation of parents frankly in love with their children. They have longed for them and planned for them like no other generation has been able to. They are consumed with the need to do right by them.

Ninety-three per cent of parents who still have children at home said that, knowing what they know now, they still would opt to have children. That was uniform across regions, ages, genders and voting patterns.

When asked what was the first thing they would do if they did not have children, fully 10 per cent of this group said they would have children, either by giving birth to them or adopting them.

What's equally clear, though, is the information vacuum in which modern parents are working, except in Quebec, where innovative family policy is already a fact of life.

They seem to long for a rich, vibrant national debate that would broaden the band of discussion on family policies. News flash to politicians: Restricting it to daycare just won't cut it on the innovation scale.

One of the signs of that is that in interviews, parents come up with a diverse range of items on their wish list for fresh family policy. They include tax reforms, more money for early-childhood-development programs and the elimination of the growing disparity in educational levels between rich and poor.

But the list also includes pleas to keep the environment healthy for the coming generations, to put pesticide labelling on the food they are giving their kids and to keep up funds for the CBC so their children will not be deprived of Canadian culture.

Even in the context of the poll, Canadians signalled that they are open to new policy ideas.

Yes, they overwhelmingly support setting up an inexpensive daycare system open to all families who want it (78 per cent), but they also overwhelmingly support a system of allowing unpaid leaves of absence for workers who need to care for older children or other family members (80 per cent), even though this has not yet been widely discussed in the public domain.

They are warm to the idea of extending paid parental leave for new parents to a full year (74 per cent) and equally divided over extending it to two years.

In terms of broad policy directions, 60 per cent of Canadians said the government should do everything possible to encourage one parent to stay home, which is the opposite of a major plank of federal policy.

Just 40 per cent said government policies should aim to do everything possible to encourage both parents to work for pay.

Nobody is quite clear where this grand national policy debate ought to end up, or whether it will come down to intensely private solutions or bold public ones. It's still too new.

But it is clear that this Lego generation of parents wants more pieces to play with.

Until then, they are performing heroics.

Consider the lives of Marc Rumball, 36, and Karen Geraci, 34, who live in the Danforth area of Toronto. They have custom-designed their lives for maximum flexibility. She works full-time in adult education, but can do her job evenings and weekends. He has given up on a career to stay home with their two children, Sophia, 4, and Elena, 1. He also works 15 to 18 hours a week in a box office.

At one time, they had Sophia in daycare. But they decided to rearrange the pieces of their family life so that a parent could be at home to care for her.

"She was perfectly happy in daycare, but we were starting to see some behaviours that we weren't comfortable with and we were saying, 'Where did she get this, where did she get that.' Part of it could have been the stage that she was at -- but you don't know," Ms. Geraci says.

The result: The four of them don't spend a lot of time together.

"The idea is never to see each other," Ms. Geraci says with heavy irony. "That way, one of us can be making money and one of us can be taking care of the kids."
NEXT: Small-town quality

NATIONAL CRISIS

Percentage who agreed with the statements: "The state of the family today is a national crisis and the government must take steps to alleviate that crisis."
Over all - 56%
By gender...
Men - 53
Women - 59
By education...
Less than high school - 71
High school - 62
Postsecondary - 56
University - 44

A DIVIDED NATION, WHERE DO YOU FIT IN?

ANXIOUS TRADITIONALISTS - 13%

- By and large the baby boomers, mostly between 35 and 54
- Key belief is that a preschool child is likely to suffer if both parents are employed
- By far the most likely to say families would be in better shape if mothers would stay home, and that parents are not strict enough
- Most likely to be potential Reform voters (16 per cent), but still more Progressive Conservatives (18 per cent) and Liberals (41 per cent)

CHILDLESS OPTIMISTS - 20%

- The strongest supporters of a woman's right and duty to work
- Characterized by rejection of the idea that families would be in better shape if women stayed home
- Unlikely to believe the family is in crisis
- Almost half are potential Liberal voters (47 per cent)

STRESSED PARENTS - 15%

- Many are under 35 and are likely to have young children
- The most stressed of all and the most likely to have taken antidepressants in the past two years
- Characterized by strong support of women's right and duty to work
- Highest proportion both of potential New Democratic and Bloc Quebecois voters (14 per cent each), but dominated by Liberals (34 per cent)

COMFORTABLE OPTIMISTS - 20%

- Tend to be well-off, highly educated, married and have children over 16
- Only a third believe that the family is in crisis and that the government should help, the lowest of any group
- Strongly supportive of women's place in the work force
- Highest proportion of potential Progressive Conservative voters (21 per cent), but dominated by Liberals (44 per cent)

SENIOR CYNICS - 15%

- Tend to be 55 or older and female
- Most likely to believe it's a bad time to bring children into the world
- Characterized by the view that parents today have a tougher time of it than they used to and that the government should financially support only low-income families
- Tend to be potential Liberal voters (37 per cent), but also some Progressive Conservatives (20 per cents)

CHILDLESS WORRIERS - 17%

- Tend to be young and characterized by the belief that parents are not strict enough
- The most worried of all about whether parents know how to raise children
- Strongly believe the family is in crisis and the government must help
- Dominated by potential Liberal voters (38 per cent), but some also favour Progressive Conservative (16 per cent) and Reform (14 per cent)
*****
*****
The percentage of each group in agreement with the following statements:
1. An employed mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work for pay
Stressed parents - 80%
Comfortable optimists - 88%
Anxious traditionalists - 38%
Senior cynics - 54%
Childless optimists - 88%
Childless worriers - 52%
*****
2. Having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person
Stressed parents - 66%
Comfortable optimists - 55%
Anxious traditionalists - 37%
Senior cynics - 60%
Childless optimists - 62%
Childless worriers - 55%
*****
3. A preschool child is likely to suffer if both parents are employed
Stressed parents - 43%
Comfortable optimists - 0%
Anxious traditionalists - 95%
Senior cynics - 74%
Childless optimists - 23%
Childless worriers - 87%
*****
4. A job is all right, but what most women really want is a home and children
Stressed parents - 38%
Comfortable optimists - 22%
Anxious traditionalists - 62%
Senior cynics - 69%
Childless optimists - 10%
Childless worriers - 47%
*****
5. Both the man and the woman should contribute to the household income
Stressed parents - 84%
Comfortable optimists - 4%
Anxious traditionalists - 43%
Senior cynics - 74%
Childless optimists - 82%
Childless worriers - 72%
*****
6. Parents today have a tougher time raising children than they did 30 years ago
Stressed parents - 76%
Comfortable optimists - 64%
Anxious traditionalists - 79%
Senior cynics - 82%
Childless optimists - 63%
Childless worriers - 84%
*****
7. It is not a good time to bring children into this world
Stressed parents - 22%
Comfortable optimists - 7%
Anxious traditionalists - 24%
Senior cynics - 39%
Childless optimists - 13%
Childless worriers - 33%
*****
8. I worry about whether parents today really know what they are doing when it comes to raising children
Stressed parents - 61%
Comfortable optimists - 48%
Anxious traditionalists - 78%
Senior cynics - 70%
Childless optimists - 51%
Childless worriers - 79%
*****
9. Families would be in much better shape these days if mothers would only stay home with their children
Stressed parents - 27%
Comfortable optimists - 15%
Anxious traditionalists - 86%
Senior cynics - 70%
Childless optimists - 8%
Childless worriers - 65%
*****
10. Day care is good for children
Stressed parents - 83%
Comfortable optimists - 78%
Anxious traditionalists - 34%
Senior cynics - 64%
Childless optimists - 83%
Childless worriers - 59%
*****
11. Parents today are not strict enough with their children
Stressed parents - 76%
Comfortable optimists - 32%
Anxious traditionalists - 77%
Senior cynics - 63%
Childless optimists - 34%
Childless worriers - 70%
*****
12. The state of the family today is a national crisis and the government must take steps to alleviate that crisis
Stressed parents - 58%
Comfortable optimists - 46%
Anxious traditionalists - 56%
Senior cynics - 78%
Childless optimists - 56%
Childless worriers - 62%
*****
13. I think that governments should financially support only families with low incomes
Stressed parents - 77%
Comfortable optimists - 72%
Anxious traditionalists - 90%
Senior cynics - 83%
Childless optimists - 68%
Childless worriers - 85%

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services