Globe and Mail

Family Matters

The Canadian family is in the throes of profound change. From one end of the country to the other, anxious parents are worried they may be failing their children.

Saturday, September 11, 1999
The Globe and Mail

Eileen Docekal talks to Brendan, 5, while Dylan, 7, swings in their backyard.

Chrysten Perry, in her law office, worries about the education system. She and her husband have put their three children in a charter school.

Eileen Docekal encourages her two sons Brendan, 5, left and Sylan, 7, to be creative.

In the rush before school, Barb Horner tends to Michael's injured finger while Jeff has breakfast.

Mrs. Homer gives Amy's hair a quick dry.

Eileen Docekal is a bystander while her husband, William (Jamie) Jamison , gets the welcome-home treatment from their sons, Brendan and Dylan.

Calgary -- This is a children's place.

Chalk drawings leap off the driveway, the colours partly washed away in a warm summer rain. The park across the street is a brilliant green, its swings swaying gently in the morning breeze. The elementary school is close enough so that a little pupil could hop there first on one leg and then the other without getting too tired.

Go inside the house and each room is painted a different, vibrant colour; the living room is turquoise and the hallway is butterscotch. The kitchen is stacked with playthings and reams of drawing materials, all neatly placed within reach of a small child.

This is a home where organic foods are on offer as much as possible and free-range eggs are a staple.

There is no television because the people who live here, Eileen Docekal, 47, a marine ecologist turned photographer and writer who has penned two acclaimed science books for children, and her husband, William (Jamie) Jamison, 50, a PhD in geology and former academic who runs his own business, are against it.

They believe that it is too violent for their sons and that it stifles creativity. Instead, Dylan, 7 and Brendan, 5, pore over books and make up games themselves.

On this day, for instance, the boys are bird spotting with binoculars through the wide living-room window and matching their finds against the family's well-thumbed bird book. Brendan keeps bounding back and forth to his mother, quivering with excitement, to report what he has seen.

In almost every conceivable way, this is as good as it gets: ebullient, creative children living with thoughtful, dedicated parents; a highly educated family, prosperous enough so that both parents don't have to work if they don't want to; a neighbourhood so close-knit that people can stroll through the streets in the evening and drop in unannounced on a friend for coffee.

Over all, Ms. Docekal has faith that she is a good parent. Yet she, and many other parents in this vibrant community are in the grip of a troubling modern Canadian phenomenon: Despite the energy and brains and love they pour into the task, they are anxious about whether their parenting is good enough.

"There are days when I say: 'I'm a terrible mother. I'm just not fit for this,' " says Ms. Docekal, quietly sitting at a polished table in a dining room hung like a gallery with her haunting infrared photographs.

"I worry, 'Did I do the right thing? Am I being the right kind of mother for them?' " she says.

To take the pulse of today's parents is to meet with a widespread and nameless fear for their children. It is almost a taboo topic -- all the more so because nothing these days, not even sex, is more the subject of moral judgment than how a person parents.

Here in the handful of blocks surrounding Chinook Park Elementary School, about a dozen couples spent scores of hours over the past few months digging through their innermost feelings, trying to describe what it's like being a parent.

They came smack up against guilt and angst.

And that's despite the fact that many families here suffer from neither of the twin scourges that Judith Maxwell, president of Canadian Policy Research Networks, believes are responsible for much modern anxiety: lack of time or lack of money.

Here, on these streets, many couples have been able to choose family models that leave them with both time and money. Many feel blessed about that. Still, there's all the guilt.

They have helped to identify this phenomenon because they know that the federal government is preparing to bring forth a new set of policies for children -- the so-called children's agenda -- and that some of the provinces are too. The debate is already under way over whether the money should be funnelled into tax cuts rather than children's programs.

To understand the significance of all this, one has to understand how closely the views of these Chinook Park parents match those of a majority of Canadians. A nationally representative poll conducted over the past several weeks by Angus Reid Group for The Globe and Mail -- one of the biggest ever to plumb the depths of the psyche of parents -- found a generation engaged in a silent crisis of confidence in the ability of parents to cope.

Fully 62 per cent of parents with children living at home say one of the biggest worries in their lives is whether they are raising their children properly. Of the key child-bearing group aged 18 to 34, the figure is 70 per cent.

Money is not driving this anxiety: 80 per cent of the parents say they can afford a good lifestyle for their children. In fact, the angst is present no matter what the family's income level is, no matter how old their children are, whether both parents work.

The sticking point is Canadians' inability to reconcile what they think is best for women in society with what they think is best for children. Bombarded with new information about the importance of proper neural development in the first few years of a child's life, yet committed to the ideal of economic independence for women, Canadians are floundering.

It's compounded by the fact that there is no common belief system about the right way to raise children. There's no single set of rules to be measured against.

But what really leads to the night sweats is the fact that emerging research is concluding that parenting style, more so than education or income, is the key to a child's success.

This is not about making sure you don't have openly toxic parenting practices, such as abusing children. It's about those 20 minutes you didn't spend reading to your child last night that might have made all the difference. The message parents get: It's incredibly easy to mess this up.

Natalie Lacey, the Angus Reid vice-president who has spent weeks interpreting the poll, says it shows that about 80 per cent of Canadians are utterly torn over what they believe is best for women and families. Just 20 per cent are at peace over these issues.

That's all the more telling, she says, because this is the topic most dear to their hearts. They live it minute by minute. Yet they still can not come to terms with their confusion.

The poll shows that stress among parents is widespread, although it appears to be less among families in Quebec.

Over all, it is much more pronounced among those with children at home than others in society. Two-thirds admit to irritability in the past six months. Half suffer from sleep disturbances. Nearly a third report depression. Five per cent have thought of committing suicide. One in 10 admit to taking medication to control depression over the past two years.

On almost every indicator, women are more stressed than men.

To outside observers, the breadth of this conflict is a signal that Canadian society is in the throes of profound change. Families have resolutely abandoned the 1950s prescription that women have to stay home and look after their children. But many have also begun to question the orthodoxy of the 1970s, 1980s and much of the 1990s, when parents were expected to weave together seamlessly their home and work lives.

Instead, from one end of the country to the other, they've begun to cobble together brave new ways of structuring their lives, often kicking up against workplace structures and government policies that are hellishly slow to change and that fail to respect the range of choices Canadians now see as their right.

Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, an international consulting service for families and one of Canada's leading experts on family issues, says Canadians are at the breaking point.

"It's costing us in health, economic potential, even family structure, at a time when we need families to be stronger than before," she says.

Walk next door from Ms. Docekal's house and come to where Don Homer, 37, and his wife Barb, 38, live with their three children. It's late at night after a frantic day and he is supposed to go back to work at his law practice before he can get to bed.

One by one, Jeff, 9, Amy, 7, and Michael, 4, wander downstairs from their bedrooms to see what's going on. They're fresh from their baths, their noses are shiny, their dark hair tousled. Their parents gently take each in turn back up to bed.

Like many other mothers here in Chinook Park, Mrs. Homer, a teacher, does not have to work for money if she doesn't want to. She's chosen to work, though. And she's crafted a thoroughly modern solution.

By day, she cares for her own three children, as well as spending huge amounts of time as a volunteer in their school. By night, she works as a private tutor. As well, she does the bookkeeping for her husband's firm, often into the wee hours.

There are weeks she simply doesn't sleep much.

Apart from that, there's not much she would change about her life right now. Sometimes, even now, she marvels at how big a role luck has played in the way she has been able to carve out this life for her family.

The perfect job came along just when she was ready for it. The perfect nanny stayed with the family for eight years until she finally left this summer. Both sets of the children's grandparents live within 10 blocks of the Homers' house, and they often pop over to babysit, laden with home-baked cookies or muffins.

If one small piece had not fit into place -- say, the nanny hadn't worked out -- the whole arrangement might have tumbled down.

"Who knows what our -- my -- life would have been like?" she says.

Having the best of both worlds -- work and family -- at the end of the 1990s is just not a given.

And still, there's the worry. Ask her if she feels confident that she's a good parent, and she shakes her head. "I think I'm an okay parent," she says. "Do I think I could be leaps and bounds better? Yes."

Mr. Homer is more comfortable about his role. He's so committed to spending time with his kids that he often leaves for work as early as 5:30 a.m. -- and even showers there -- so he can be home for dinner and bedtime.

Ask him whether he feels guilty about his parenting skills and he asks you to explain what you mean.

What if he does something wrong?

"I get over it. I get up in the morning and the slate is clean."

It's different for Mrs. Homer. She says that she is coming back in her next life as a father. Sometimes, she has what she calls a great parenting day, and then she will have one bad episode with one child and that will cancel out -- even overtake -- the good of the day and her confidence that she is a good parent.

Mrs. Homer is smart and analytical. She knows there's something troubling here, and that she's not the only one who feels this way.

A good friend of hers called up a while ago. When Mrs. Homer picked up the phone, the desperate voice on the other end didn't even say hello. There was just this whisper: Had she ever done such and such a terrible thing to her children? the voice demanded. When Mrs. Homer said she had, her friend let out a whoosh of relief.

Mrs. Homer often thinks that today's parents were the luckiest generation of children. They grew up with no wars, no economic depression, little divorce, less crime.

"Has that translated into the easiest generation of adulthood? No," she says.

The truth is that the baby boomers and the children born in the decade after them had far more political clout in their cribs than they do now driving their children to soccer in their minivans. In the buoyant years after the Second World War, the child was king.

Birth rates soared to new highs, so the government leapt on board and ponied up with tangible acknowledgment within the tax structure that children were vital to society and that they cost money to raise.

From the first Canadian Income Tax Act, parents were allowed a tax exemption for dependent children, just as single-earners are still allowed an exemption for dependent spouses today. It grew substantially until 1972.

As well, in 1945, the federal government introduced the Family Allowance for every young child. Provincial governments poured money into building schools and then universities. It was a powerful symbol that child-rearing was serious business.

Now that those children have grown to be parents, however, raising kids feels distinctly countercultural. The tax system has stripped out much of the acknowledgment that parents have less ability to pay income taxes than people who aren't parents. In fact, as policy analyst Kenneth Boessenkool points out in his article Putting Tax Policy in its Place, not a single element in Canada's tax treatment of the family from the 1950s survives.

But it's not that those elements have been replaced with measures that work better for all types of families now that a substantial majority of women -- even those with children under three -- are in the labour force.

In fact, now that the baby boomers are parents themselves and family needs have shifted even more dramatically than in the postwar years, the federal government has ceased being as nimble in family matters as it was when they were babies. It even seems now to punish families as a whole by failing to recognize them in the tax system.

Today, it is possible to be a parent and be treated by the tax system exactly the same as a couple who opted not to have children. The tax exemption and Family Allowance have been banished in the name of targeting any government money to lower-income families. That effectively shifted tax relief that once went to all families in recognition of the costs of raising children to just some of them.

That's despite the fact that global measures in the tax system -- which apply regardless of income -- still exist for all sorts of other items today. These include not only the spousal credit, which remains one of the big-ticket items on the balance sheet, but also the personal credit, the age credit, the RRSP contribution deduction and even the exemption of business-paid health and dental benefits.

Worse still, from the point of view of many parents, is the fact that families are taxed at different rates depending on how they have chosen to raise their children.

Two-earner families have much higher levels of tax-free income than single-earner families. For one thing, two-earner families can claim the child-care expense deduction. The cost to the government of that program is expected to nearly double between 1994 and 2001, according to Finance Department documents. Single-earner families don't get that.

It adds up to a government subsidy for parents who pay others to care for their children.

Families today do not want handouts. The Angus Reid poll showed that only about a third -- 35 per cent -- who have children at home want the government to return to a system of giving money to every family with children, although there is more support for that in Quebec and the Maritimes.

But the poll showed that a majority -- about two-thirds -- believe that the state of the family is a national crisis and that the government needs to take steps to make things better.

And as for education, those same baby boomers who enjoyed a thriving school system when they were children now find themselves struggling with frightening cuts to education funding. In fact, the poll found that 82 per cent of families with children living at home are worried about the quality of education their children are getting.

Mrs. Homer, for one, used to think of all the parent volunteers as the fingers in the dike of the school system. Now, she fears that they are the dike itself. She worries tremendously about the children whose parents don't have the time to spend at school. What, in heaven's name, will happen to them?

Sitting in her downtown law office overlooking the city, Chrysten Perry worries about the school system too. She has taken all three of her children out of Chinook Park Elementary, which is just a few blocks from home. Now, Brendan, 8, and the six-year-old twins Matthew and Tara go to a publicly funded charter school for the gifted in a different part of Calgary.

An oil-and-gas specialist who is a partner at the prestigious Calgary law firm Macleod Dixon, Ms. Perry thought hard and long about whether to send her children out of the neighbourhood. It was even tougher because Ms. Perry, 38, and her husband Chris, 38, also a lawyer, moved into Chinook Park especially because he had grown up there and they were impressed by the excellence of the school.

They had dreams about their children running home for hot lunches, about meandering down the street to school meetings in the evening, about building up the fabric of the neighbourhood.

"We were trying to recreate in our lives our own childhoods," she says, sipping coffee in an upholstered chair in her office. "It's a myth that's long gone and we refused to accept it."

It all came crashing down. It turns out that Brendan is gifted. He would come home from school most days and say it had been awful. He just wasn't happy. His parents were left with the feeling that they were failing him.

Now, Ms. Perry gets up every morning and drives her three children across town to the alternative school where no class has more than 20 pupils. It means she can't get to morning meetings until the ungodly -- for a lawyer -- hour of 9 or 9:30 a.m. (She works extra in the evenings and weekends.)

Even though the school has been a godsend for Brendan, Ms. Perry still lies awake at night worrying whether she's done the right thing. Out of guilt, she will ask Brendan whether he's really better off at the charter school.

"But, knowing that it's out there, we won't be satisfied with less," she says.

It's just one of the areas of guilt. Ask her if she's confident she's a good mother and she puts down her cup and saucer. She grimaces. She says the very word "confidence" throws her for a loop. She worries about whether she could do more for her kids, especially since she plays a non-traditional role in society.

"You wonder if what you're doing is detrimental to their development," she says.

She thinks about the way she was raised. Her mother was there "110 per cent" of the time.

"My guilt is, I look at that model in terms of the development of children and I think: 'I can never attain that.' "

On the other hand, she can see that her children are happy and loving and have good values. She knows she must be doing lots right.

"I couldn't say everyone would look at me and say I'm a good parent," she says finally. "I certainly have weaknesses."

Back in Chinook Park, just down the road from the school that is the nexus of this community, Joyce Nisker, 41, is sitting at the broad table in her kitchen filled with light. She has spent weeks mulling over what this phenomenon of angst means.

And today, she's been talking about it for hours and hours as her son, Brandon, 6, races up and down the stairs to the basement. Eyes twinkling, thatch of blond hair swinging as he runs, he has been snitching pieces of cake in between watching the video movie George of the Jungle.

Ms. Nisker's daughter, Jenna, 10, is at sailing camp today on the nearby Glenmore Reservoir and her husband, Dale, 42, is at the House of Tools, where he is manager of the industrial section.

In a way, she says, it's no wonder parents today are so racked with self-doubt. There's no template now. There are a dozen theories about what best to do and scores of choices, any one of which might be terribly wrong.

And you can't look back in time. Even if you believe your mother or aunt was a good mother, you dare not adopt their advice holus-bolus because that was a different era.

"You have mentors, but, because of the changes, would you do the things they did?" she asks, adding: "Anyone can be a parent, but what does it take to be a good parent? I haven't got a clue."

Who does she look to? She reads books. She looks within herself. But she doesn't know for sure. She just knows that the stakes seem very, very high. That trying to piece together answers to all of this is a daunting task. And that she could puzzle it over for hours more.

In fact, it's hard to stop talking about it, even after all these hours of discussion. She says goodbye and starts to make lunch for her son. But she can't stop thinking about this unfathomable riddle.

About 20 minutes after she finishes her interview, she calls back to leave a voice message. Her voice is firm and clear.

"I have a thought for you. What if it's not we as parents who are inadequate? Maybe it's society that's inadequate for parents."
NEXT: Stay-at-home moms


The symptoms
Percentage who reported these symptoms in the last six months:

Irritability              60%

Sleep disturbances        49%

Trouble concentrating     43%

Depression                29%

Panic attacks             14%

Thoughts of suicide        6%

Globe and Mail/Angus Reid


Most affected are women and people earning less
Over the past two years, have you taken medication to control depression?

Over all                 10%

By gender   

Men                       7

Women                    13

By income   

Less than $30,000        17

$30,000-$59,000           8

$60,000 or more           7

The Globe and Mail/Angus Reid


Percentage who agreed with the statement: "One of the biggest worries in my life is whether I'm raising my children properly."

Over all                 62%

By gender   

Men                      59

Women                    64

By age   

18-34                    70

35-55                    59

55 or older              60

By income   

Less than $30,000        68

$30,000-$59,000          62

$60,000 or more          61

Percentage who agreed with the statement: "I worry about whether parents today really know what they are doing when it comes to raising children."

Over all                 63%

By gender   

Men                      66

Women                    61

By age   

18-34                    64

35-55                    63

55 or older              64

By income   

Less than $30,000        65

$30,000-$59,000          67

$60,000 or more          60

Globe and Mail/Angus Reid

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services