Todd Sacerty and Manda Chelmak watch their four-month-old daughter

Todd Sacerty and Manda Chelmak watch their four-month-old daughter

The changing Canadian family

Family units of common-law, blended and single-parent families more common in Nanaimo

Manda Chelmak doesn’t have a document declaring her legally wed to her partner of seven years.

But she doesn’t feel that her family of three is lacking in any way without this.

“We’re just happy the way we are and we find it doesn’t really mean anything,” said Chelmak. “It’s just a piece of paper.”

The new mother admits both sides of the family have asked if Chelmak and her common-law partner, musician Todd Sacerty, plan to get married, but the pressure has not been excessive and she just shrugs it off.

“It’s just not necessary,” she said. “I’d rather save the $20,000. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody.”

Chelmak describes her family as about as non-traditional as they come.

As artistic director of Headliners School of Performing Arts, Chelmak works Monday to Friday running her business, during which time her partner takes care of their four-month-old baby girl. Then on weekends and when Sacerty goes on tour, she stays home.

“My mother comes out and is jealous because Todd does dishes and laundry,” she said. “I’m sad sometimes because I want to be here. But I’m very passionate about my job and if I didn’t have that outlet, I’d be sad.”

Chelmak and Sacerty are part of a growing number of Canadian couples choosing non-traditional family arrangements.

The 2011 Census of Population data shows Canadian families and living arrangements continue to change and diversify.

While married couples still formed the predominant family structure in Canada, the proportion of common-law couples and lone-parent families both increased: married couples accounted for 67 per cent of all census families (down from 70.5 per cent in 2001), common law accounted for 16.7 per cent (up from 13.8) and lone-parent families are 16.3 per cent of the total (up from 15.7).

The number of same-sex married couples almost tripled between 2006 and 2011, reflecting the first full five-year period when same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada.

Stepfamilies, counted for the first time in 2011, represent 12.6 per cent of the nearly 3.7 million couple families with children and the share of children living with common-law parents, lone parents and grandparents – as opposed to married parents – is increasing.

About four in 10 young adults still live in their parents’ home, more than a quarter of all private households are one-person households and more households were comprised of couples without children than couples with children.

Joey Moore, a Vancouver Island University sociology professor, said the broadening definition of what a family is can only be a good thing, as it shows that people are making family situations work, even when marriages don’t, and stigma against non-traditional family structures is hopefully lessening.

“Marriages don’t always work and it’s a good thing that many marriages don’t continue,” he said. “We’re hopefully getting a handle on how to keep families together even when marriages aren’t. We’ve seen again and again, families are adaptable.”

What is often underplayed is how much the family structure has to do with its economic situation, said Moore.

For example, the adult children living at home could be due to high living and/or tuition costs and economic hardship can put pressure on families that leads to dissolution of a marriage.

“The economics of the family matters a lot more than we think,” he said. “Increased housing costs shape people’s decisions about where to live and who to live with.”

The two-parent, heterosexual family only became both the cultural ideal and demographic reality in the mid-20th century in North America – before that families were more flexible and now there is a return to that flexibility, said Moore.

John Horn, City of Nanaimo social planner, said the new data speaks to changing customs and conventions.

“Maybe we’re becoming more open to different kinds of families,” he said.

Horn said the upward trend in common-law relationships could be a reflection on a long-term decline in participation in religious life.

As for stepfamilies, Nanaimo agencies dealing with families have seen an increase in these numbers over the past decade or so, he said.

He said work with families has gotten tougher because of this, as blended families sometimes have more complex issues, including step-siblings not getting along or different parenting methods uniting under one roof.

For those who fall into the married couple category, the house sometimes comes before the ring, said Tara Keeping, owner of Tiger Lily Events.

She plans a lot of second weddings for people and has noticed people are waiting longer to get married for the first time, and living together first before exchanging vows.

“They have a mortgage together before they get married,” said Keeping. “I’m just finding people are setting themselves up before getting married.”