Families Count 2024: new resource on family structure now available

Families Count 2024 is now available

In Brief: COVID-19 IMPACTS on Families Living with Disabilities

Vanier Institute’s In Brief Series: Mobilizing Research on Families in Canada

Diana Gerasimov

March 9, 2021


Yang, F., K. Dorrance and N. Aitken. “The Changes in Health and Well-being of Canadians with Long-term Conditions or Disabilities Since the Start of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 45-28-0001 (October 7, 2020). Link: .

Arim, R., L. Findlay and D. Kohen. “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Canadian Families of Children with Disabilities,” StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 45-28-0001 (August 27, 2020). Link: .

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected many Canadians’ physical and mental health,1 including limiting their access to services they may have otherwise reached out to for support. This can have a significant impact on those living with disabilities or long-term conditions, who are more likely to use health services on a regular basis and whose situation may be compounded by isolation and distance from familiar, informal social support.

In a recently published data from Statistics Canada, Canadians living with disabilities or long-term conditions who participated in a crowdsourced survey, from June to July 2020, reported declining health and mental health, as well as disruptions to health services. Variations in the general health of participants depend on the type of disability or long-term condition that individuals experience.

  • 48% of participants living with disabilities or chronic conditions reported that their health was “somewhat worse” or “much worse” since before the pandemic.
  • 64% of participants with cognitive conditions reported that their health had gotten “much” or “somewhat” worse compared with before the pandemic.
  • 60% of individuals with mental health conditions reported that their overall health had gotten “much” or “somewhat” worse compared with before the pandemic.
  • 48% of participants with hearing conditions reported their health to have stayed about the same.
  • 73% of participants with mental-health related conditions reported “much worse” or “somewhat worse” mental health.
  • 57% of participants with disabilities or chronic conditions self-rated their overall mental health as having declined since the beginning of the pandemic, while 36% reported that their mental health had not changed and 7% reported an improvement in their mental health (“somewhat better” or “much better”).
  • 44% participants with hearing conditions reported consistent mental health since before the pandemic.

Families of children with disabilities

Another crowdsourced survey, which explored the experiences of parents of children living with disabilities, found that they were more likely to express concern for their children regarding their child’s mental health, anxiety and emotions, academic success and the impact of social isolation.

  • 60% of parents of children with disabilities were concerned for their child’s mental health compared with 43% of parents with children without disabilities.
  • 76% of parents of children with disabilities were very concerned about regulating their child’s anxiety and emotions, compared with 57% of parents of children without disabilities.
  • 58% of parents of children with disabilities or long-term conditions were very concerned for their child’s academic success compared with 36% of parents of children without disabilities.
  • 6 in 10 parents of children with disabilities were very concerned about social isolation compared with 5 in 10 parents of children without disabilities.

Diana Gerasimov holds a bachelor’s degree from Concordia University in Communication and Cultural Studies.


  1. Learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health in Family Finances and Mental Health During the COVID‑19 Pandemic and Do Adults in Couples Have Better Mental Health During the COVID‑19 Pandemic?


Celebrating Chosen Family Within the LGBTQ+ Community

Gaby Novoa

February 18, 2021

This February 22, 2021 is Chosen Family Day, a national observance of the significant relationships among those in the LGBTQ+ community.1, 2 Families formed by choice, and with intention, play a vital role in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people, where close relationships provide care, affirmation and a sense of belonging.

Research shows that marginalization due to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity has been linked to higher rates of family rejection, mental health challenges, substance abuse and exposure to violence among LGBTQ+, compared with their heterosexual and/or cisgender counterparts.3 These vulnerabilities are further amplified for those with intersectional identities, such as one’s race, class, religion or dis/abilities. Chosen families, friendships and positive community connections are therefore essential, as social connectedness is a key factor in well-being and resilience.4

Chosen families face more barriers yet serve many of the same functions of biological families

Fondation Émergence, a non-profit organization in Quebec that supports and serves the LGBTQ+ community through education and awareness-building, champions the importance of chosen family.5 Julien Rougerie, Program Manager with the organization, asserts that the roles within chosen and biological families are often identical: providing love, support, care and connections.

The difference for family who are not blood-related, however, is that their roles are often impeded by more barriers, such as the lack of formal recognition of such ties as valid or “legitimate.” Research has shown, for example, that LGBTQ+ seniors in long-term care homes are sometimes not able to get access or certain permissions for their loved ones when protocols and regulations are not inclusive to those who do not fall under “traditional” conceptualizations of a family member. Moreover, the fear of disclosing one’s sexual orientation can sometimes prevent an individual from identifying their partner or spouse. When institutions, such as health care or long-term care systems, do not acknowledge these diverse family formations, they block pathways of necessary care and connection.

One study found that, apart from their partner, 59% of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults aged 50 and over indicated that friends are the first people they contact in emergencies, whereas only 9% say that they contact a “family member.”6 Rougerie notes that LGBTQ+ older adults commonly share experiences of estrangement or distance from their biological families, as they grew up in sociocultural and political contexts in which there existed more stigma and sanctions around queerness. Reliance and interdependence with chosen family therefore take on additional significance among LGBTQ+ older adults, whose chosen family often become their caregivers in later life.

Chosen family and well-being are interconnected

In preparing for Chosen Family Day, the Vanier Institute asked people who identify as LGBTQ+ to share what these connections mean to them. Many of the responses and reflections highlighted themes of solace, security and strength:

“Chosen family is moving forward in my life. It’s feeling like I have agency in the experience of fraternity, trust and companionship. It’s building networks that are strong, like the points and spirals on a spider web.” 


“To me, chosen family is the community of support with which you surround yourself. It’s the relationships you hold closest – whatever their nature is – and where you feel unquestionably at home.” 


“Chosen family is wholehearted, wholesome, safe, strength, shared resources, shared emotions, uplifting habits, community, shared creation (such as through food), communion and ritual.”  


“For me, chosen family is a group of people that you can turn to when you face hardships or have something to celebrate, and they can be there for you without judgement, especially when it comes to queer aspects of life such as dating or gender identity. It’s not really about seeing each other all the time or even being best friends, it’s knowing that you can confide and find comfort in someone and be assured that they love you AND your queerness, not despite it.” 


“Chosen family mean there’s always an extra chair, and it’s for you.” 


“Chosen family to me is reclaiming something that you didn’t have before.” 


“Having a chosen family is an extension of self-love. The active choice to surround myself with people who love and support me is the most significant way that I can appreciate and value myself.”


“Chosen family is like a big family gathering but without uncomfortable chairs, heavy air (heavy with secrets) and weird unspoken rules about when to speak. Instead, we are talking about a web of people who bob in and out of my life. I look to them and they look out for me. It’s not all smooth sailing – they teach me hard lessons (like how to avoid jealousy and how to deal with grief). In the light moments and in the rough ones, I’m so grateful for my chosen family.” 


“Chosen family is a place without judgement. It’s where you feel safe and true to yourself. It’s a place ‘where you don’t have to shrink yourself, to pretend or to perform.’”7


“Chosen family are those who help you sustain an environment of peace where you can show up as your authentic self.”


“To me a chosen family is one connected above all by trust and a kind of loyalty that is easy because it recognizes and anticipates change and growth.” 

Special thanks to all those who took the time to share.

 Responses have been edited for punctuation.

 Gaby Novoa, Families in Canada Knowledge Hub, Vanier Institute of the Family


  1. Friends of Ruby – an organization focused on supporting the progressive well-being of LGBTQI2S youth through social services and housing – launched Chosen Family Day in February 2020. Link: https://www.friendsofruby.ca/.
  2. Nathan Battams, “In Conversation: Lucy Gallo on Chosen Family Day and LGBTQI2S Youth,” The Vanier Institute of the Family (February 2020).
  3. Jonathan Garcia et al., “Social Isolation and Connectedness as Determinants of Well-Being: Global Evidence Mapping Focused on LGBTQ Youth,” Global Public Health (October 2019). Link: .
  4. Ibid.
  5. Fondation Émergence. Link: .
  6. Fondation Émergence, “Ensuring the Good Treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Older Adults” (2018). Link:.
  7. The quoted words are lyrics from the song “Family” by Blood Orange.


Research Recap: Exploring Grand-family Experiences

Research recap by Gaby Novoa

February 9, 2021

STUDY: Ashley Martin, MD; Daniel Albrechtsons, MD; Noni MacDonald, MD, MSc, FRCPC; Nadia Aumeerally, MD, MSc, FRCPC; Tania Wong, MD, MSc, FRCPC, “Becoming Parents Again: Challenges Affecting Grandparent Primary Caregivers Raising Their Grandchildren,” Paediatrics & Child Health (May 2020). Link: .

Families are diverse, complex and evolve over time. These dynamics are exemplified in grand-families, in which grandparents are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren with little or no parental involvement. Counted in the Census as “skip-generation families” (also sometimes called “kinship families”), the term “grand-family” is being used by a growing number of support organizations for grandparents who raise grandchildren.

Grand-families have unique experiences, dynamics, strengths and realities, which researchers Ashley Martin, Daniel Albrechtsons, Noni MacDonald, Nadia Aumeerally and Tania Wong explore in a recent study, “Becoming Parents Again: Challenges Affecting Grandparent Primary Caregivers Raising Their Grandchildren.”1

Diverse pathways lead to formation of grand-families

Families adapt and transition to grand-families for many reasons, including mental illness and/or addictions; the absence, incarceration or death of a parent(s); or to provide support in the event of adolescent pregnancy. Similar to findings from other countries, research shows that grandparent primary caregivers in Canada are more likely to be female, out of the labour force and of lower socioeconomic status.

While grand-families are not a new phenomenon, data from the 2016 Census shows that they are home to a growing number of children in Canada (nearly 33,000 children under 15 lived in grand-families in 2016, up 32% since 2001).

“Becoming parents again” is a qualitative look at the lived experiences of grandparent carers based on semi-structured interviews with grandparent primary carers from 10 households in the Halifax Region. The authors note that the study participants were exclusively from urban environments and the majority were Caucasian. Therefore, grandparent caregivers from other ethnicities, cultures and contexts will be essential to further research on the topic, particularly First Nations families, who are overrepresented among grand-families.

Five major themes emerged in the interviews:

Changes in family dynamics: Grandparents consistently described significant role shifts within their family dynamics once they became primary caregivers and had taken on a parental role, while the biological parents adopted a stereotypical grandparent role of “spoiling their child during limited visits.”

The grandparents reported that these changes in family structures affected their relationships with their spouses, children and other grandchildren, expressing feelings of stress and guilt for not being able to meet everyone’s needs. Grandparents describe as “invaluable” the help they receive in cases where they have children, other than their grandchild’s parent, who can offer support and respite.

Psychosocial impact on grandchild and grandparent: Early adverse experiences for grandchildren often lead to the formation of grand-families. The grandparents interviewed said that the urgency in which children were placed under new care led to challenging behaviours for which the grandparents felt ill-prepared to manage.

The Department of Community Services (DCS) was involved in the cases of eight of the 10 grand-families interviewed, with reasons for intervention including the parents’ mental health and/or addiction issues or sudden death. These grandparents expressed complex feelings of sadness and anger toward their children for the resulting impacts on their grandchildren.

Challenges of parenting later in life: All grandparent caregivers discussed the difficulties of raising children as aging adults and the impacts that their chronic health conditions had on parenting. Many expressed feeling exhausted and felt it challenging to balance self-care while caring for grandchildren and spouses.

Many also spoke about the fear of dying before their grandchildren are old enough to be autonomous. The generational gaps between grandparent and child, rather than parent and child, was also noted, particularly in dealing with new and unknown technologies, such as setting boundaries around social media and screen time.

Resilience inspired by the love of family: Despite the challenges described, all interviewed grandparents said that caring for their grandchildren has profoundly impacted them in positive ways and that they had no regrets in assuming care. Their grandchildren’s well-being was cited as their top priority, and the unique relationships fostered out of the formation of their grand-family was described as one of the most fulfilling aspects of their lives. Ultimately, acting out of love inspired a sense of resilience among the study population.

Lack of resources: The majority of surveyed grandparent households (90%) expressed disappointment in the lack of community and financial supports and services available to them. Grandparents described it as emotionally and financially challenging to navigate the court system and DCS while establishing custody of their grandchildren. One expressed frustration over these interactions: “If you say you’re going to take this child and look after them and you’re the grandparents, it’s different than if I had stepped in as a foster parent. There’s no help for you.”

Since becoming a parent again was unplanned, many grandparents had to delay retirement plans and continue their participation in the paid labour force. Most families underlined financial difficulties, with minimal support from the child’s parent or the government, all while balancing work and caring for a young child.

Greater awareness of grand-families can facilitate evidence-based support

Intergenerational relationships are important for family well-being and can protect youth from risk, especially in the case of early adverse experiences, which are a common pathway leading to the formation of grand-families. While such family dynamics come with their challenges, studies nonetheless have reported that 90% of custodial grandparents would take responsibility for their grandchildren were they given the choice again. “Becoming parents again” highlights the challenges faced by grand-families in Maritime Canada that are indicative of similar experiences across Canada and the United States.

Greater awareness of grand-family experiences can facilitate the development of evidence-based supports and services, or the modifications of existing programs, to recognize and respond to the needs and realities of diverse family arrangements.

Gaby Novoa, Families in Canada Knowledge Hub, Vanier Institute of the Family

This research recap was reviewed by Tania Wong and Christina Murray. 


  1. Ashley Martin et al., “Becoming Parents Again: Challenges Affecting Grandparent Primary Caregivers Raising Their Grandchildren,” Paediatrics & Child Health (May 2020). Link: .

Grand-Families Highlight Family Adaptability

September 11, 2020

National Grandparents Day is on Sunday, September 13, 2020, a time to recognize and celebrate the significant contributions that grandparents and great-grandparents make to family life and family well-being across Canada. In many families, they are highly involved in the lives of their younger generations, whether it’s through some degree of co-parenting responsibility with the parent(s) or in leading a grand-family with no parental involvement (referred to in the literature as a “skip-generation” family).

Families adapt and transition to grand-families for diverse reasons, including mental illness and/or addictions; the absence, incarceration or death of a parent(s); or to provide support in the event of adolescent pregnancy. Choice, culture and circumstance can also play a role.

While grand-families are not a new phenomenon, 2016 Census data show that they are home to a growing number of children in Canada (nearly 33,000 children under 15 lived in grand-families in 2016, up 32% since 2001). However, there is little data on their well-being and unique experiences.

The Vanier Institute of the Family recently engaged with grandparents and great-grandparents living in Prince Edward Island to increase our understanding of grand-families in PEI, their well-being and experiences caring for their grandchildren, program awareness and more in the Grand-families in PEI Survey.

While findings from this initiative will be released in Fall 2020, respondents to date report being satisfied with their lives, and most say they are aware of the PEI Grandparents and Care Providers program, which provides financial support to all grandparents caring for children in the province.

The survey is part of the Grand-Families in Canada Partnership between the Vanier Institute, the University of Prince Edward Island and Building GRAND-Families Inc. – an innovative, two-year collaboration that engages with a network of individual and groups to bring together those who serve families, researchers, community organizations and the general public to increase the understanding of family well-being in PEI and across Canada.

Diblings Asking “Who Am I?” – Searching for Answers, Finding More Questions

Sara MacNaull and Nora Spinks

August 13, 2020

“Who am I?” is an age-old question. A growing number of people around the world who are looking at this question, through a family lens, are discovering that they are part of a unique, emerging family relationship, as a “dibling.” The term dibling, which stems from “donor sibling” or “DNA sibling,” is someone with whom you share genetic material – from at least one or both parents – resulting from reproductive technologies or fertility treatments.

People’s curiosity about their origins has been ignited thanks to the mass digitization of historical documents and increased access to records, including birth records, immigration papers and marriage certificates. The growing availability and affordability of DNA testing has meant more people are spitting into a tube or swabbing a cheek and sending off their genetic material for analysis. Pop culture has provided a mirror of this trend in society through television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Long Lost Family, Genealogy Roadshow, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Ancestors in the Attic. Fictitious TV dramas profiling diblings – such as Sisters in Australia or its American remake, Almost Family – are also generating popular interest in the dibling phenomenon.

According to estimates published in MIT Technology Review1 in 2019, more than 26 million people have submitted their DNA to the four leading commercial ancestry and health databases (e.g. AncestryDNA and 23andMe). As a result, family lore is being rewritten, family mythology is being debunked, decade- or century-old questions are being answered, subsequent questions are being asked, and some previously unknown facts are being revealed. Truth is coming to light about ancestors who had once been hailed as heroes, only for DNA or genealogy to reveal that there was more to the story than what had been passed down from one generation to the next, such as a sister who’s actually a mother or a father who’s not a blood relative.

Debunking family lore

Family lore often glamourizes, exaggerates, or even covers up the truth – including socially unacceptable behaviour, crimes, or dishonour brought upon the family. Family lore reduces stigma, helps foster public acceptance or changes family members’ perceptions of a person or event. Consider the story shared at a recent Listening Tour event hosted by the Vanier Institute about a revered late uncle:

“The participant’s great-grandmother’s brother – a fearless countryman, who was well-respected – was a hard-working farmer and fiercely protective of his family. Family lore claims he was thrown from his horse on his way to help a neighbour during a terrible storm and died tragically on the side of the road, not to be found for days. Since his death he has been hailed as a hero, though now-accessible records reveal that your uncle was an alcoholic and had had several run-ins with the law. His death – though still tragic – was, in fact, the result of a late night at the local watering hole.”

And, just like that, the truth is revealed, family stories and identities altered, and the perceptions of others changed, all as a result of access to DNA testing and to public and genealogical records. Our ancestors could never have imagined what would exist one day – for all to see.

A new type of “family”

For M. (name withheld to protect privacy), submitting her DNA for testing was just for fun. Though she had recently learned, in her 30s, that the dad she had always known was not her biological father, she had no desire to find the latter. However, like many others, she took the test, shipped it off and waited. When the results arrived, there were no real surprises. Her ancestors came from the countries she expected and easily explained certain physical characteristics. However, within hours, she started receiving notifications that revealed “close DNA matches” from around the world. Within days, the number kept increasing, eventually exceeding 30 – that is, 30 biological half-siblings, previously unknown to her, now confirmed through DNA testing.

“It was quite overwhelming, to be honest,” M. stated in a recent interview with the Vanier Institute of the Family. “I never imagined I’d find anyone who was related to me, except for perhaps a distant cousin. I had no reason to think I had multiple diblings.”

M.’s family story may seem unique, yet she is not alone in her experience or discovery. Many others are finding new or lost relatives, sometimes asking their parents or extended family awkward questions, and considering tough decisions about whether to foster new relationships with their diblings.

Delaying motherhood in Canada

Families in Canada, like elsewhere, are diverse, complex and ever evolving. Families are formed through various means, such as birth, adoption, coupling, uncoupling or by choice. In Canada, the fertility rate, or average number of children per woman, has been steadily decreasing since 2009, reaching a low point in 2018, at 1.5 children, compared with 3.94 in 1959).2, 3

Women across the country are increasingly waiting longer to have children. In fact, the fertility rates of women in their early 20s and late 30s flipped over the past 20 years. In 2018, the fertility rate in Canada for women aged 20 to 24 stood at 33.8 live births per 1,000 women, down from 58 per 1,000 in 2000, while the fertility rate in Canada for women aged 35 to 39 was 57.1 live births per 1,000 women, nearly double the rate in 2000 (34 per 1,000).4, 5 Given that many women are delaying having children – either by choice or circumstance – the mean age of mothers at time of delivery was nearly 31 years of age in 2018 (30.7 years), a trend that has been on the rise since the mid-1960s.6, 7

Motherhood and reproductive technology

The choice to delay motherhood for women may be the result of focusing first on post-secondary education and career development – continuing a long-term trend observed over the past several decades.8 Sometimes circumstance – not choice – is the driving factor, such as for those who have not met a partner with whom they want to have a child. As a result, some women are choosing to embark on the journey solo, with recent figures showing that the proportion of babies born to single (never married) women in 2014–2018 (the most recent years in which data is available) hovers around 30%.9, 10 This road to motherhood may include the use of reproductive technologies or adoption, either domestically or internationally (within countries and jurisdictions that allow women to adopt without a partner).

Among couples, reproductive technologies and adoption are becoming more common routes to parenthood – particularly among LGBTQ couples. Since the 1980s,11 the proportion of couples who experience infertility has doubled, now 16% (or roughly 1 in 6 couples). These couples may choose insemination or invitro fertilization with the use of a sperm donor or egg donor, or both, which come with their own DNA and physical traits. For adoptees or adults who do not have information or a relationship with one or both biological parents, DNA testing provides an opportunity to reveal ethnicity, cultural background and affiliations, country of origin and close or distant relatives. As M. stated:

“At first, I was reluctant to engage with any of these DNA matches. Part of me questioned the accuracy of the testing and I had so many more questions than when I started. I was confused as to how I was connected to these people. Within a few days of getting my results, I had to turn off the notifications on my phone. I just couldn’t keep up with all of them. This process led to even more soul-searching. I really had to think about and decide whether I was interested in getting to know these people, whether I was willing to put in the time, learn about them, share things about myself and my life, and genuinely foster relationships. Eventually, I went for it. I began replying to messages, receiving pictures and learning about how each one of my diblings came to be. Each story was so unique. All of a sudden, these 30+ strangers and I were trying to piece together a giant, global puzzle.”

Connecting with your diblings

For M., deciding to connect with her new family members included creating a list of pros and cons. The pros included the excitement of discovering the biological traits that stood out, whether others had the same interests or aptitudes as she did, and getting the chance to meet people from around the world – all of whom had the same starting point. The cons included managing her own expectations about what and how the relationships would develop (would they be forced or organic?), dealing with how her family would react to this discovery, and taking into account the feelings of the sibling she had grown up with. It also meant considering what all this meant for her biological father’s family, since, thanks to the DNA testing, it revealed that he had been married, and fathered and raised children in the area where she was currently living. She ultimately decided that the pros outweighed the cons, and within a few short months, an in-person meeting of some of the local diblings took place:

“The night before the gathering, I didn’t sleep a wink. I was so nervous about what I would learn and wondered whether I had made a mistake. And yet, upon arrival at the venue, I was struck by how familiar some of the other faces were, as if I had seen them before or met them before in a different context. I also couldn’t help but notice that some of us had some very similar features, more so than I had expected. Though the first few minutes felt a bit like speed dating or an awkward job interview, the conversation began to flow quite easily afterwards. Since then, we have met several times and are planning a diblings retreat where all of us come together from around the world.”

Though M.’s DNA discovery has a happy ending so far, others who have unlocked the DNA mystery door have dealt with unfortunate or difficult experiences. In a world where access, privacy, Big Data and DNA are colliding at a rapid pace, it is too soon to tell what the next few years will reveal about people’s personal histories and ancestry. All we can do is try to prepare ourselves for the unknown, the questions, the answers and the family stories, and whether we should decide to embark on the journey to discover “Who am I?”

Sara MacNaull is Program Director at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Nora Spinks is CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family.

This article was originally published in Canadian Issues (Spring/Summer 2020), reprinted with permission from The Association for Canadian Studies. Link: https://bit.ly/2XWmWF9.


    1. Antonio Regalado, “More Than 26 Million People Have Taken an At-home Ancestry Test: The Genetic Genie Is Out of the Bottle. And It’s Not Going Back,” MIT Technology Review (February 11, 2019). Link: .
    2. Claudine Provencher et al., “Fertility: Overview, 2012 to 2016,” Report on the Demographic Situation in Canada, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 91-209-X (June 5, 2018). Link: .
    3. Statistics Canada, Crude birth rate, age-specific fertility rates and total fertility rate (live births) (Table: 13-10-0418-01) (page last updated May 22, 2020). Link:.
    4. The Vanier Institute of the Family, “Mother’s Day 2019: New Moms Older, More Likely to Be Employed Than in the Past” (May 8, 2019).
    5. Statistics Canada, Crude birth rate, age-specific fertility rates and total fertility rate (live births).
    6. Statistics Canada, Mean age of mother at time of delivery (live births) (Table: 13-10-0417-01) (page last updated May 22, 2020). Link:.
    7. Claudine Provencher et al., “Fertility: Overview, 2012 to 2016.”
    8. The Vanier Institute of the Family, “Mother’s Day 2019: New Moms Older, More Likely to Be Employed Than in the Past.”
    9. Statistics Canada, Live births, by marital status of mother (Table: 13-10-0419-01) (page last updated May 22, 2020). Link: .
    10. This figure may also include women who are living common-law and who are therefore partnered but not legally married.
    11. Public Health Agency of Canada, Fertility (page last updated May 28, 2019). Link:.


Published on August 13, 2020

In Conversation: Lucy Gallo on Chosen Family Day and LGBTQI2S Youth

Nathan Battams

February 13, 2020

As many families across Canada come together for Family Day on Monday, preparations will be under way for another special observance – Chosen Family Day. On Saturday, February 22, Friends of Ruby – an organization focused on supporting the progressive well-being of LGBTQI2S youth through social services and housing – is launching Canada’s first annual Chosen Family Day to raise awareness of the experiences and challenges faced by these youth, to remind those who need support that help is available, and to celebrate the chosen families who provide them with love, care and support.

To learn more about Chosen Family Day and the importance of this unique family form to LGBTQI2S youth, Nathan Battams, Communications Manager at the Vanier Institute, joined Lucy Gallo, Director of Youth Services and Housing at Friends of Ruby, in conversation.

Tell me a little bit about Friends of Ruby, its history and what you do.

Research shows, and through our work we have seen, that LGBTQI2S youth experience barriers to employment and housing, and have significantly higher rates of family rejection, homelessness, poverty and suicidal thoughts than those who don’t identify with our community. There is a serious need for housing and social services focused on this community.

So, in 2014, with the support of a donor, Egale Canada opened Egale Youth Services, a little centre that served as a drop-in with multiple resources, as well as a little kitchenette where LGBTQI2S youth could have some snacks and food.

It was clear from the beginning that a) there was indeed a significant need for this kind of space, and b) the youth needed more than just housing. Individually and as a group, LGBTQI2S youth have diverse and unique experiences, and they benefit from having a place where they can build connections and relationships of love, care and support.

We’ve moved several times over the years to increasingly large spaces to accommodate this growing community. In 2019, we decided to design our new drop-in space based on our experience with the youth, in order to better support them. This is the space where we are currently located (i.e. 489 Queen Street East). At the same time, we were using our experience to build our emergency and transitional house (at the time called Egale Centre).

It had always been Egale’s plan to spin direct services off when it reached a certain maturity so, in November 2019, Egale Youth Services and Egale Centre merged to become Friends of Ruby, an independent organization that continues to focus on the progressive well-being of LGBTQI2S youth through social services and housing.

Since we started, our programming has expanded. We now offer barrier-free one-on-one counselling – both shorter-term crisis counselling as well as a built-in counselling structure where youth can see a counsellor for up to 20 sessions, and there aren’t huge wait lists (which is pretty amazing for counselling in general).

In addition to therapeutic groups, we also run psychologically beneficial social groups. For example, there’s an Art for Change group, which came from the youth about three years ago and it hasn’t stopped running, which facilitates expression through arts and crafts and community-building in a safe and inclusive environment. Soon, we’ll be launching a group called Skills for Safer Living, and it’s for folks who have experienced regular suicidal ideation.

We now have a weekly afternoon at the drop-in only for youth who are part of the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) community. This is only for BIPOC youth and is staffed by people from the BIPOC community, which develops a whole other layer of safety and an opportunity for folks to talk about their intersecting identities. We run a discussion night that’s run by one of our staff and one of our partner agencies to unpack some of these intersections, which has been very well received.

Our drop-in centre has since extended due to significant demand, and because we recognize that there’s critical need for this space for some people such as trans youth, who may not feel safe to going into a shelter by virtue of their identity. Research shows that some shelters are not safe environments for trans people, who are commonly rejected based on their gender identity and aren’t given access to shelters that match the gender with which they identify, so we offer them a safe place to come in the morning, somewhere to rest and have a warm cup of coffee and something to eat, especially in the winter. The drop-in provides food security, with access to three meals a day, plus a snack in between lunch and dinner.

We also offer support with gender identity or transition, and help accessing housing, health care, and employment. Later this year, we’ll be opening a new programming centre with safe, transitional housing for up to 33 LGBTQI2S youth. The house has a purpose-based design with accessible single- and double-occupancy rooms, embedded mental health supports and case management, and a rooftop terrace for quiet reflection.

In all this growth, we’ve managed to support more than 900 youth, prevent 470 mental health crises and visits to hospital emergency rooms, and save an estimated $300,000 in health care costs, while providing approximately 2,500 one-to-one counselling and case management sessions and serving more than 4,500 meals per year.

Tell me about Chosen Family Day, and why the notion of chosen family is important at Friends of Ruby.

Chosen Family Day was actually inspired by what LGBTQI2S youth at Friends of Ruby were telling us when we asked them what this space means to them. Themes of relationships, connections, friendship, care and family – chosen family – clearly emerged.

We heard that it’s not like receiving services elsewhere, such as at the doctor, where you go have your appointment and leave. Here, there’s an added – and very important – layer of relationships that provides a sense of family that some youth aren’t used to having. It can be particularly important during such times as the holidays, when many people get together with their families, or in the dark months of winter, and now with Family Day. Many LGBTQI2S youth don’t have relationships with their biological families, some of which want nothing to do with them because of their identity, and it can serve as a painful reminder.

This sparked the idea to start Chosen Family Day, which will take place on the Saturday following Family Day every year, giving those who live in these incredibly diverse and unique communities a day to acknowledge and celebrate their chosen families. This idea of chosen family is so powerful — it brings energy and some light to what family itself means to other people.

How would you complete the phrase “Wouldn’t it be great if…”?

It would be amazing if organizations and spaces like ours, which focus on the LGBTQI2S community, didn’t need to exist. If they didn’t need to exist because we could be accepted and feel comfortable in any space.

I say this, of course, as a proud member of the chosen family at Friends of Ruby! I’m glad that we exist and that this space exists – there hasn’t been anything like this in the city before. When I was coming out, there was nothing like this, and to have this now for the youth is exciting.

But it would be great if we didn’t have to have these separations, build our own spaces because our trans youth actually can’t feel safe or comfortable in any other shelter or any other transitional housing. Wouldn’t it be great if all the other transitional houses and shelters that do exist were equally welcoming of youth for who they are, unique and precious like uncut ruby gems?

Chosen Family Day will be celebrated on Saturday, February 22, 2020.

Learn more about Friends of Ruby


Lucy Gallo is the Director of Youth Services and Housing at Friends of Ruby.

Nathan Battams is the Communications Manager at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

This interview has been edited for length and flow.


What’s in a Name? Defining Family in a Diverse Society

Alan Mirabelli

For more than 50 years, the Vanier Institute of the Family has served as a national resource dedicated to exploring and understanding Canada’s diverse families. During this time, the Institute has sought to enhance and mobilize knowledge through research that documents the richness and complexity of families, family life, and family experiences, expectations and aspirations. A central component of this research has been the functional definition of family used by the Institute since the late 1980s.

The Vanier Institute defines a family as any combination of two or more persons who are bound together over time by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement, and who together assume responsibilities for variant combinations of some of the following: physical maintenance and care of group members; addition of new members through procreation, adoption or placement; socialization of children; social control of members; production, consumption, distribution of goods and services; and affective nurturance (i.e. love).

The Vanier Institute needed a definition that allowed people to have a discussion rather than an argument over what constituted a “family.” Inclusiveness was the key to achieving this; the definition needed to apply to everyone’s experience of family, regardless of their history, nationality, socio-economic status, ethno-racial background, sexual orientation or family type. But the definitions being used by organizations and individuals at the time tended to reflect the personal family of whoever was providing the definition. They were projecting their own experience of family into a public policy sphere or into a sociological or community discussion.

The Vanier Institute needed a definition that allowed people to have a discussion rather than an argument over what constituted a “family.” Inclusiveness was the key to achieving this.

This is understandable, as people’s perceptions of social institutions are shaped by their own upbringing and surroundings. But since families aren’t homogeneous (even in the Vanier Institute’s early years, when there was less diversity in the structure and composition of families than today), this approach to defining families left many out of the discourse, such as sole-support families, blended families and families with LGBTQ2I+ parents. Rather than focusing on what families look like, the Institute instead decided to create a definition based on what families do, regardless of the particular structure of the family or who performs roles within.

The deliberate broadness of the Vanier Institute’s definition of family sparked some controversy at first. After some of the Institute’s early documents were released, one of the first questions asked by members of the media was whether it included families with LGBTQ2I+ parents – and the answer was, without hesitation, yes. Yes, because the definition is about people who engage in the task of raising the next generation, regardless of who they are. This initial controversy may have been inevitable, but it was necessary if the Institute was going to take an inclusive approach.

The Vanier Institute’s definition is not about the status of the adults looking after the child. It’s a family if there is a set of relationships over time with individuals looking after the needs of another. It’s not about a marriage per se, but rather the commitment made – it could be common-law, sole-support or any number of family structures. The definition doesn’t require children, but it does require at least one relationship between an adult and another person – a relationship over time, which signifies that a commitment has been made. How it’s made and what specific form it takes is independent of the definition.

Rather than focusing on what families look like, the Vanier Institute instead decided to create a definition based on what families do.

It was in the years leading up to the 1994 International Year of the Family, as governments were searching for definitions of family for use in public policies that involved or affected families, that the value of the functional definition became clear. Up until this point, people were still trying to justify either a nuclear family or one that reflected their own familial experience, rather than trying to find a general approach that captures a better picture of all families. The Vanier Institute’s definition then started showing up in textbooks in the mid-1990s and has since become one of the most commonly cited definitions used in family research nationally.

The definition leads to interesting discussion when one realizes that all families (even if they happen to look alike) do the same things, we may just do them differently. One hundred years ago, people fed their families first by growing the food, then canning or preserving it, then cooking it and then finally serving it to other family members. In later generations, people fed their families by going to the store, buying the food, cooking it and then putting it on the table in front of family members. Now, we may also go to restaurants to buy prepared food and then eat it with our families. Today’s grocery stores, which are selling as much prepared food as raw ingredients, are the next iteration of how we’re feeding our families in a modern context. This shows that families can fulfill the same basic function of providing nourishment while doing so in different ways. It’s all just another way of saying that families are dynamic, constantly performing the same functions but adapting how they do so in response to ever-changing social, economic and cultural contexts.

This definition was also meant to show that the relationship between families and society is a two-way street. Families are shaped by and react to social, economic and cultural factors, but they have an impact on these same forces as well. They create changes at the micro level by making decisions about family aspirations, labour market participation (or the lack thereof) and the consumption of goods and services. Collectively, these changes over time create change at the macro level, as institutions and organizations react to patterns of behaviour among families. Families are not simply the recipient of policies, whether it’s government policies or employment policies – they engage, resist and/or modify them based on their immediate and personal needs. So there’s a constant negotiation and renegotiation between family and culture. They are agents of change, but at the same time they are compliant to the norms of culture to some extent.

“The Vanier Institute must be thoroughly in touch with family life of all kinds, not the ideal of the family but the reality of the family as people live it.”
– Beryl Plumptre (former Vanier Institute president), 1972

The Vanier Institute’s definition demonstrates that, throughout time, there is consistency in terms of what families do to the benefit of their members and to the benefit of society, which has an expectation that families are preparing young people for the economy and the society that they are going to encounter. Society benefits through the future contributions of children, who grow to become the next generation of employees, taxpayers and community members.

Due to its recognition that families are diverse, complex and dynamic, the Vanier Institute’s definition facilitates discussion about families and family life without pitting the interests of one family against another. This was a problem we regularly experienced before this definition was created – there were judgments being made about one type of family versus another due to their structure or composition, which was hurtful to the families being talked about and hurtful to our culture. As Dr. Elise Boulding once said, there isn’t enough love in the world for us to reject loving relationships, whatever their form. So, by looking at what families do, it’s easier to take an appreciative stance rather than a critical one, and it’s a reminder to the culture that when families and parents begin, the culture continues.

In a sense, all of those points in the definition don’t just describe family but also the community that surrounds the family. They have a role in every one of those functions because they pick up where the family leaves off. It’s a very inclusive definition for a reason – it’s a way of saying we all have a responsibility and it’s shared. We are creating not just individuals but also a culture through an agglomeration of families who are performing these tasks on behalf of the society.

Alan Mirabelli was a devoted member of the Vanier Institute team for more than 30 years, serving as Executive Director of Administration and Director of Communications.

Originally published as a Transition article in December 2015.

Republished with updated biographic note on August 21, 2018.

Families in Canada Interactive Timeline

Today’s society and today’s families would have been difficult to imagine, let alone understand, a half-century ago. Data shows that families and family life in Canada have become increasingly diverse and complex across generations – a reality highlighted when one looks at broader trends over time.

But even as families evolve, their impact over the years has remained constant. This is due to the many functions and roles they perform for individuals and communities alike – families are, have been and will continue to be the cornerstone of our society, the engine of our economy and at the centre of our hearts.

Learn about the evolution of families in Canada over the past half-century with our Families in Canada Interactive Timeline – a online resource from the Vanier Institute that highlights trends on diverse topics such as motherhood and fatherhood, family relationships, living arrangements, children and seniors, work–life, health and well-being, family care and much more.

View the Families in Canada Interactive Timeline.*


Full topic list:

  • Motherhood
    o Maternal age
    o Fertility
    o Labour force participation
    o Education
    o Stay-at-home moms
  • Fatherhood
    o Family relationships
    o Employment
    o Care and unpaid work
    o Work–life
  • Demographics
    o Life expectancy
    o Seniors and elders
    o Children and youth
    o Immigrant families
  • Families and Households
    o Family structure
    o Family finances
    o Household size
    o Housing
  • Health and Well-Being
    o Babies and birth
    o Health
    o Life expectancy
    o Death and dying

View all source information for all statistics in Families in Canada Interactive Timeline.


* Note: The timeline is accessible only via desktop computer and does not work on smartphones.

Published February 8, 2018

A Snapshot of Family Diversity in Canada (February 2018)

For more than 50 years, the Vanier Institute of the Family has monitored, studied and discussed trends in families and family life in Canada. From the beginning, the evidence has consistently made one thing clear: there is no single story to tell, because families are as diverse as the people who comprise them.

This has always been the case, whether one examines family structures, family identities, family living arrangements, family lifestyles, family experiences or whether one looks at the individual traits of family members, such as their ethnocultural background, immigration status, sexual orientation or their diverse abilities.

Building on our recent infographic, Family Diversity in Canada (2016 Census Update), our new Statistical Snapshot publication provides an expanded and more detailed portrait of modern families in Canada, as well as some of the trends that have shaped our vibrant and evolving family landscape over the years. Based on current data and trend analysis, this overview shows that diversity is, was and will continue to be a key characteristic of family life for generations to come – a reality that contributes to Canada’s dynamic and evolving society.

Highlights include:

  • According to Statistics Canada, there were 9.8 million Census families living across Canada in 2016.
  • 66% of families in Canada include a married couple, 18% are living common-law and 16% are lone-parent families – diverse family structures that continuously evolve.
  • Among Canada’s provinces, people in Quebec stand out with regard to couple/relationship formation, with a greater share living common-law than the rest of Canada (40% vs. 16%, respectively) and fewer married couples (60% vs. 84%, respectively) in 2016.
  • In 2016, 1.7 million people in Canada reported having an Aboriginal identity: 58% First Nations, 35% Métis, 3.9% Inuk (Inuit), 1.4% other Aboriginal identity and 1.3% with more than one Aboriginal identity.
  • In 2016, 22% of people in Canada reported that they were born outside the country – up from 16% in 1961.
  • In 2016, more than 1 in 5 people in Canada (22%) reported belonging to a visible minority group, 3 in 10 of whom were born in Canada.
  • 73,000 same-sex couples were counted in the 2016 Census, 12% of whom are raising children.
  • In 2016, there were nearly 404,000 multi-generational households in Canada – the fastest-growing household type since 2001 (+38%).
  • In 2011, 22% of Inuk (Inuit) grandparents, 14% of First Nations grandparents and 5% of Métis grandparents lived with their grandchildren, compared with 3.9% of among non-Indigenous grandparents.
  • In 2014, 1 in 5 Canadians aged 25 to 64 reported living with at least one disability. Disability rates were higher for women (23%) than men (18%).
  • More than one-quarter (27%) of Canadians surveyed in 2014 said religion is “very important” in their lives.
  • One-quarter of Canadians reported “no religious affiliation” in the 2011 Census (most recent data available), up from 17% in 2001.


Infographic: Canada’s Families on the Farm

Family farms have played a significant role in Canada’s history, both in terms of the contributions that agriculture has provided in the development of local and provincial economies, and with regard to the role farming has played in shaping community and familial identities. Farming has a strong impact on the lives of families involved in the practice, as it is a unique experience that ties together notions of home, work, culture and kinship.

The evolution of farm families in Canada reflects some of the broader trends that are shaping the “family landscape” across the country, such as population aging, smaller families, a growing share of women in the labour force, the increased use of technology at work and a diversification of family income sources.

To explore Canada’s farm families, the Vanier Institute of the Family has published an infographic that features data from the 2016 Census of Agriculture.

Highlights include:

  • Canada was home to more than 193,000 farms in 2016, down 5.9% from 2011.
  • Canada was home to nearly 102,000 farm families in 2013, and the number of farm families decreased every year over the prior decade.
  • The average age of farm operators increased from 47.5 years in 1991 to 55 years in 2016.
  • The number of farm families with two family members rose from 43% in 2003 to 51% in 2013, while the share with five or more fell from 19% to 14%.
  • 8.4% of all farms across Canada in 2016 reported having a written succession plan, and a family member was identified as the successor for 96% of these farms.
  • In 2015, 57% of operators aged 60 and over were on farms that reported the use of technology, compared with 81% for those under the age of 40.


Learn more in “Families on the Farm: A Portrait of Generations and Migrant Workers in Canada,” a chapter prepared by the Vanier Institute for Deep Roots, published by the United Nations as part the International Year of Family Farming.


Published on January 16, 2018

Infographic: Family Diversity in Canada (2016 Census Update)

Download the infographic


The Vanier Institute of the Family has now been exploring families and family life in Canada for more than 50 years. Throughout this half-century of studying, discussing and engaging with families from coast to coast to coast, one thing has been clear from the outset: families in Canada are as diverse as the people who comprise them.

This has always been the case, whether one examines family structures, family identities, family living arrangements, family lifestyles, family experiences or whether one looks at the individual traits of family members such as their ethnocultural background, immigration status, sexual orientation or their diverse abilities.

These parents, children, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, friends and neighbours all make unique and valuable contributions to our lives, our workplaces and our communities. As former Governor General of Canada, His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston, said at the Families in Canada Conference 2015, “Families, no matter their background or their makeup, bring new and special patterns to our diverse Canadian tapestry.”

Using new data from the 2016 Census, the Vanier Institute has published an infographic on family diversity in Canada.

Highlights include:

  • 66% of families in Canada include a married couple, 18% are living common-law, and 16% are lone-parent families – diverse family structures that continuously evolve.
  • 518,000 stepfamilies live across the country, accounting for 12% of couples with children under age 25.
  • 404,000 households in Canada are multi-generational,1 and nearly 33,000 children live in skip-generation households.2
  • 1.7M people in Canada reported having an Aboriginal identity (58.4% First Nations, 35.1% Métis, 3.9% Inuit, 1.4% other Aboriginal identity, 1.3% more than one Aboriginal identity).
  • 360,000 couples in Canada are mixed unions,3 accounting for 4.6% of all married and common-law couples.
  • 73,000 same-sex couples were counted in the 2016 Census, 12% of whom are raising children.
  • 54,000 military families live in Canada, including 40,000 Regular Force military families and 14,000 Reserve force military families.


Download the infographic.

This bilingual resource is a perpetual publication, and will be updated periodically as new data emerges (older versions are available upon request). Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to find out about updates, as well as other news about publications, projects and initiatives from the Vanier Institute.



  1. Containing three or more generations.
  2. Living with grandparent(s) with no middle (i.e. parent) generation present.
  3. Statistics Canada defines a mixed union as “a couple in which one spouse or partner belongs to a visible minority group and the other does not, as well as a couple in which the two spouses or partners belong to different visible minority groups.” Link: .


Infographic: Modern Couples in Canada

Just as families have evolved across generations, so too have the couple relationships that are a major part of Canada’s “family landscape.” This perpetual change is both a reflection of and a driving force behind some of the evolving social, economic, cultural and environmental forces that shape family life.

Dating, marriage, cohabitation, common-law relationships – the ways people choose to come together, or decide to move apart, are as diverse as the couples themselves. There are, however, some broad trends being witnessed across the country, with family structures diversifying, people forming couple relationships at later ages and family finances taking on a more egalitarian structure.

Using new data from the 2016 Census, the Vanier Institute of the Family has published an infographic on modern couples in Canada.

Highlights include:

  • In 2016, married couples accounted for 79% of all couples in Canada, down from 93% in 1981.
  • One-quarter of “never-married” Canadians say they don’t intend to get married.
  • In 2016, 21% of all couples in Canada were living common-law, up from 6% in 1981.
  • The share of twentysomething women (37%) and men (25%) living in couples has nearly halved since 1981 (falling from 59% and 45%, respectively).
  • In 2016, 12.4% of all couple families in Canada with children under 25 were stepfamilies, down slightly from 12.6% in 2011.
  • There are 73,000 same-sex couples in Canada, 12% of whom are raising children.
  • 1 in 5 surveyed Canadians reported in 2011 that their parents are separated or divorced, up from 10% in 2001.
  • The share of people living in mixed unions nearly doubled between 1991 and 2011, from 2.6% to 4.6%.1
  • 69% of couples with children were dual-earner couples in 2014, up from 36% in 1976.



  1. Statistics Canada defines a mixed union as “a couple in which one spouse or partner belongs to a visible minority group and the other does not, as well as a couple in which the two spouses or partners belong to different visible minority groups.”

The Canadian Family: Redefining Inclusion (video)

On June 22, 2017, Vanier Institute CEO Nora Spinks participated in the 2017 Speaker Series – The Canadian Family: Redefining Inclusion. Hosted by Roots of Empathy, this event brought together leaders and educators to discuss diversity, inclusion and modern families in Canada.

One of Roots of Empathy’s organizational goals is to foster inclusiveness. In this engaging and catalytic panel discussion, Nora Spinks joined Zeena Al Hamdan (Programs Manager, Arab Community Centre of Toronto), Paul Cormier (Assistant Professor, Lakehead University, and member of the Lake Helen First Nations, Red Rock Indian Band), Tesa Fiddler (Indigenous Education Resource Teacher, Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board) and panel moderator Cheryl Jackson (Director of Communications, Roots of Empathy) to explore and discuss what this means for families in Canada.

Watch The Canadian Family: Redefining Inclusion on the Roots of Empathy YouTube Channel.


Published on July 26, 2017

Polyamory in Canada: Research on an Emerging Family Structure

John-Paul Boyd, M.A., LL.B.

Executive Director
Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family (University of Calgary)

The Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family began a study of perceptions of polyamory in Canada in June 2016. The project is only midway through its course, but the data collected so far have important implications for law and policy in the coming decades, as the meaning of family continues to evolve.

The term polyamory is a mash-up of the Greek word for much or many and the Latin word for love. As these roots suggest, people who are polyamorous are, or prefer to be, involved in more than one intimate relationship at a time. Some polyamorists are involved in stable, long-term, loving relationships involving two or more other people. Others are simultaneously engaged in a number of relationships of varying degrees of permanence and commitment. Still others are involved in a web of concurrent relationships ranging from short-term relationships that are purely sexual in nature to more enduring relationships characterized by deep emotional attachments.


The practice or condition of participating in more than one intimate relationship at a time. It is usually not related to religion and it is unrelated to marriage.

The practice or condition of having more than one spouse, typically a wife, at one time, usually for religious reasons.


Polyamory and polygamy

For many people, TLC’s Sister Wives and the religious community in Bountiful, British Columbia are what come to mind when polyamory is mentioned. However, there are a number of differences between polyamory and the polygamy practised by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, that being the common connection between Sister Wives and Bountiful. Polygamy in this sense refers to marriages – the “gamy” of polygamy comes from the Greek for marriage – between one man and many wives that are mandated by scripture and distinctly patriarchal.

In contrast, surveyed polyamorists involved in relationships with two or more other adults place a high value on the equality of their partners, regardless of gender or parental status. They tend to believe that their partners should have a say in changes to their relationships and should be able to leave those relationships how and when they wish.

Although Statistics Canada doesn’t track the number of Canadians who are polyamorous or engaged in polyamorous relationships, in just three weeks we received 547 valid responses to a survey on polyamory advertised primarily through social media.1 More than two-thirds of respondents (68%) said that they are currently involved in a polyamorous relationship, and, of those who weren’t, two-fifths (39.9%) said that they had been involved in such a relationship in the last five years. More than four-fifths of respondents said that in their view the number of people who identity as polyamorous is increasing (82.4%), as is the number of people openly involved in polyamorous relationships (80.9%).

If the number of people involved in polyamorous relationships is indeed growing, the potential economic and legal implications are significant, as almost all of Canada’s most important social institutions are predicated on the assumption that adult relationships come only in pairs.

If the number of people involved in polyamorous relationships is indeed growing, the potential economic and legal implications are significant, as almost all of Canada’s most important social institutions are predicated on the assumption that adult relationships come only in pairs. The Canada Pension Plan pays survivor’s benefits to only one spouse; the Old Age Security spousal allowance can only be paid to one partner. The forms we use to calculate our liability to the Canada Revenue Agency likewise assume that taxpayers have sequential but not concurrent relationships, an assumption shared by the provincial legislation on wills and estates and, for the most part, the provincial legislation on domestic relations.

Polyamorists in Canada are generally younger, and live in diverse relationships

Most of the respondents to our survey live in British Columbia (144), followed by Ontario (116), Alberta (71) and Quebec (37). Respondents tend to be younger than the general Canadian population, with 75% of respondents being between the ages of 25 and 44, compared to 26% of the general population, and only 16% of respondents being age 45 or older, compared to 44% of the general population.

Most of the respondents to our survey had completed high school (96.7%), and respondents’ highest levels of education attained were undergraduate degrees (26.3%), followed by post-graduate or professional degrees (19.2%) and college diplomas (16.3%). Respondents reported achieving significantly higher levels of educational attainment than the general population of Canada: 37% of respondents reported holding an undergraduate university degree, compared with 17% of the general population; and 19% of respondents reported holding a post-graduate or professional degree, compared with 8% of the general population.

The respondents to our survey also tended to have higher incomes than their peers in the general Canadian population. Fewer respondents (46.8%) had incomes under $40,000 per year than the general population (60%), and more respondents (31%) had incomes of $60,000 or more per year than the general population (23%). Although almost half of our respondents had annual incomes of less than $39,999, almost two-thirds of respondents were not the sole income-earner in their household (65.4%) and more than three-fifths of respondents’ households (62.3%) had total incomes between $80,000 and $149,999 per year.

Slightly less than one-third of respondents identified as male (30%) and almost three-fifths identified as female (59.7%); the rest identified as genderqueer (3.5%), gender fluid (3.2%), transgender (1.3%) or “other” (2.2%). A plurality of respondents described their sexuality as either heterosexual (39.1%) or bisexual (31%).

Most of the respondents to our survey described themselves as atheists (33.9%) or agnostic (28.2%). Of those subscribing to an organized faith, most said that they were Christian (non-denominational, 7.2%; Roman Catholic, 3.2%; Protestant, 1.3%). However, more than one-fifth of respondents (22.1%) described their faith as “other,” including Quakers, pagans and polytheists.

We also asked our respondents about their relationships and living arrangements. Almost two-thirds of the respondents answering this question said that their relationship involved three people (64.6%), 17.9% said that their relationship involved four people and 13.8% said that their relationship involved six or more people. Only one-fifth of respondents said that the members of their relationship lived in a single household (19.7%). Where the members of a family lived in more than one household, most lived in two households (44.3%) or three households (22.2%).


Where the members of a family live in a single household, three-fifths of respondents’ households involved at least one married couple (61.2%), and there was only one married couple in those households. Where the members of a family lived in more than one household, almost half involved at least one married couple (45.4%), and 85% of those households involved one married couple while the remainder involved two married couples (12.9%), three married couples (1.4%) and more than three married couples (0.7%).

Almost one-quarter of the survey respondents (23.2%) said that at least one child under the age of 19 lives full-time in their household under the care of at least one parent or guardian, and 8.7% said that at least one child lives part-time in their household under the care of at least one parent or guardian.

To summarize, the respondents to our survey tended to be younger, with higher levels of education and higher employment rates than the general Canadian population. Twice as many respondents identified as female than male, and roughly equal numbers of respondents described themselves as heterosexual and bisexual. Most respondents involved in polyamorous relationships at the time of the survey were involved in a relationship with two other people. However, a significant number of respondents were involved in relationships with more than three other people and the members of most respondents’ relationships live in two or more households.

Surveyed polyamorists highly value equality in relationships and family decision-making

The survey also explored attitudes toward polyamorous relationships and the people involved in them, and about their perceptions of the attitude of the general public toward polyamory.

On the whole, respondents strongly endorsed the equality of members of their relationships, regardless of gender and parental status. More than eight in 10 respondents (82.1%) strongly agreed and 12.5% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of gender or gender identity. More than half (52.9%) strongly agreed and 21.5% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of parental or guardianship status.

Likewise, a large majority of respondents agreed that all members of their relationships should have a say about changes in those relationships. About eight in 10 (80.5%) strongly agreed or agreed that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have an equal say about changes in the nature of the relationship, and 70.3% strongly agreed or agreed that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have an equal say about introducing new people into the relationship. More than nine in 10 respondents (92.9%) strongly agreed and 6.3% agreed with the statement that each person in a polyamorous relationship should have the right to leave the relationship if and when they choose.

Respondents’ conviction in the equality, autonomy and participation of the members of their relationships likely explains another important finding from our research: 89.2% of respondents strongly agreed and 9.2% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have the responsibility to be honest and forthright with each other.

The views of the general public toward polyamory have doubtless been complicated by the popularity of television shows dealing with polygamy, such as Sister Wives, My Five Wives, another TLC offering, and Big Love, from HBO, and by the publicity attracted by the recent criminal prosecution of a number of community leaders from Bountiful under s. 293 of the Criminal Code. The views of respondents themselves have also been influenced by the Criminal Code, sections 291 and 293 of which respectively prohibit bigamy and polygamy.

Although most respondents said that public tolerance of polyamory is growing (72.6%), more than eight in 10 (80.6%) agreed that people see polyamorous relationships as a kind of kink or fetish. Furthermore, only 16.7% of respondents agreed that people see polyamorous relationships as a legitimate form of family.

Polyamorous families have a unique and complex relationship with the law

The responsibilities of people involved in long-term, committed polyamorous families tend to be complicated, especially when those responsibilities must intersect with people outside the family, government services and the law. The difficulties faced by polyamorous families, especially those with children, cover every aspect of life in Canada:

  • Who will schools recognize as parents and guardians, entitled to pick children up from school, give permission for outings or talk to teachers about academic performance?
  • Who can get information from and give instruction to doctors, dentists, counsellors and other health care providers?
  • Who can receive benefits from an employee’s health insurance? Who is entitled to coverage under provincial health care plans (e.g., OHIP in Ontario or MSP in British Columbia)?
  • Who is entitled to claim public benefits such as the Old Age Security spousal allowance or Canada Pension Plan survivor’s benefits?
  • What are the rights and entitlements of multiple adults under the provincial legislation on wills and estates, or the federal legislation on immigration?
  • How many adults may participate in the legal parentage of a child under the legislation on adoption and assisted reproduction?
  • What are the rights and entitlements of individuals leaving polyamorous families under the provincial legislation on domestic relations?

Many of the answers to these questions come down to how the applicable laws, policies and rules define terms such as parent, spouse and guardian, adult interdependent partner in Alberta, or common-law partner under most federal statutes.

The responsibilities of people involved in long-term, committed polyamorous families tend to be complicated, especially when those responsibilities must intersect with people outside the family, government services and the law.

Although schools and hospitals tend to look at the nature of the relationship between the individuals in question rather than a textbook definition of “parent,” agencies providing benefits tend to cleave more rigidly to narrowly defined terms. Some polyamorous families, for example, have been required to decide which of the adults in their family will be deemed to be an employee’s “spouse” for the purposes of health care and prescription coverage, resulting in the coverage of the employee and the family member selected as his or her spouse, but the denial of benefits to others.

The most urgent of these questions, however, likely relate to individuals’ entitlements and obligations under the provincial legislation on domestic relations. When committed polyamorous relationships come to an end, the same range of problems tend to arise as those faced by people ending monogamous relationships. Depending on the circumstances, the departure of one or more members of a polyamorous family may result in disagreements about: where children will live, how parenting decisions will be made and how much time the children will have with whom; whether child support must be paid, and if so who must pay it; whether a person is entitled to spousal support, and if so who is responsible for paying it; and how property and debt will be distributed, and whether an individual is entitled to an interest in property owned only by other family members.

When committed polyamorous relationships come to an end, the same range of problems tend to arise as those faced by people ending monogamous relationships.

On the whole, the legislation of the common law provinces tends toward the generous extension of rights and duties relating to children but takes a more parsimonious approach to spousal support and the division of property.

In keeping with the child-first approach of the Child Support Guidelines, the statutes of Canada’s common law provinces all impose a liability for child support on persons who are step-parents or stand in the place of a parent to a child, whether anyone else is subject to a pre-existing child support liability or not. As a result, all members of a polyamorous family are potentially liable to pay support for a member’s child, particularly where the child’s primary residence was the polyamorous household.

A dependent adult family member may be entitled to spousal support from another member of a polyamorous family if:

a) the person is a married spouse of the other member; or,

b) the person qualifies as an adult interdependent partner (Alberta), an unmarried spouse (British Columbia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan), a partner (Newfoundland and Labrador) or a common-law partner (Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia) of another member.2

A dependent adult family member may be entitled to spousal support from more than one family member where the legislation is not written so as to preclude the possibility of concurrent spousal relationships, as it is in Alberta, or the person qualifies as an unmarried spouse or partner of those members, as may be the case for families living in British Columbia.

In all of the common law provinces but Alberta and Manitoba, a child’s parents may share custody of the child, as well as the associated rights to receive information about the child and make decisions concerning the child, with:

a) other family members who fall within the statutory definition of guardian (British Columbia, Nova Scotia) or parent (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Prince Edward Island); and,

b) any other family members where the legislation does not require a biological relationship to apply for custody (British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan).

The legislation of British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador additionally allow more people than the biological parents of a child to have standing as the legal parents of that child when the child is conceived through assisted reproduction.

In all of the common law provinces except Manitoba, a child’s parents may share guardianship of the child, and the associated obligations as trustees of the child’s property, with one or more other family members.

With the exception of British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, statutory rights to the possession and ownership of property are restricted to married spouses in the common law provinces, limiting the relief available to the unmarried members of a polyamorous family to:

a) the legislation generally applicable to co-owned real and personal property; and,

b) whichever principles of equity and the common law might apply in the circumstances of the relationship.

The statutory property rights available to the members of polyamorous families in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan arise from the application of the legislation to unmarried spouses (British Columbia, Saskatchewan) and common-law partners (Manitoba), and the failure of the legislation to preclude the possibility of concurrent spousal relationships.

A look down the road

The traditional model of the Western nuclear family, consisting of married heterosexual parents and their legitimate offspring, which prevailed almost unaltered for more than 1,000 years, has been evolving at an ever-increasing pace since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, along with the legal concepts and structures that support it. The legal disabilities of married women, such as their inability to own property or conduct business in their own names, were the first to go, followed by the disabilities associated with bastardy, such as the inability to inherit or assume their father’s title.

The federal Divorce Act first allowed Canadians to end their marriages other than by dying in 1968, and the baby boomers, the oldest of whom turned 65 in 2011, are the first generation to have lived almost the whole of their adult lives under federal divorce legislation. Not only has the stigma associated with divorce largely evaporated, but the rate of remarriage and repartnering has continued to rise over the last two decades, as has the number of blended families, which seem to now be as commonplace as unblended families.

Sexual orientation became a prohibited ground of discrimination in the mid-1990s, following which same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario in 2002, and in eight other provinces and territories in rapid succession thereafter, until the introduction of the federal Civil Marriage Act in 2005 legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country. Legislation giving unmarried cohabiting couples property rights identical to those of married spouses became law in Saskatchewan in 2001, in Manitoba in 2004 and in British Columbia in 2011.

In Canada, family is now thoroughly unmoored from marriage, gender, sexual orientation, reproduction and childrearing; the presumption that romantic relationships, whether casual, cohabiting or conjugal, are limited to two persons at one time is likely to be the next focal point of change.

The scant data currently available on polyamorous relationships suggest that the number of people involved in such families is not insignificant and may be increasing: according to a 2009 article in Newsweek, Loving More, a magazine aimed at polyamorous individuals, has “15,000 regular readers,” and more than 500,000 Americans live in openly polyamorous relationships; in Polyamory in the Twenty-First Century, author Deborah Anapol estimates that one in 500 Americans are polyamorous; and the website of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, polyadvocacy.ca, identifies two other national organizations supporting or connecting people involved in polyamorous relationships and eight similar regional organizations based in the Maritimes, 36 in Quebec and Ontario, 23 in the prairie provinces and 22 in British Columbia.

We have successfully accommodated significant, transformational change to how we think of family in the past, and we will do so again.

If the prevalence of polyamory is indeed increasing, a significant number of our most important social customs and institutions will need to evolve. This will require a reconsideration of how we think of parenthood and how we distribute the liabilities parenthood entails. It will also have an impact on how we demarcate those committed adult relationships that attract legal entitlements and obligations and those that do not, as well as how these entitlements and obligations are distributed among more than two people.

Although the magnitude of potential change is significant, it is not pressingly imminent; we have time to acclimate and adapt to the rising number of polyamorous individuals and families. We have successfully accommodated significant, transformational change to how we think of family in the past, and we will do so again.



  1. Survey data have not been weighted.
  2. Note that the legal situation in Quebec is different than in the rest of the rest of Canada’s provinces since it is governed by civil law rather than the common law system used in the other provinces. As such, it is beyond the scope of this article.

John-Paul Boyd, M.A., LL.B., is the Executive Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, a multidisciplinary non-profit organization affiliated with the University of Calgary.

To learn more about John-Paul Boyd’s research into polyamorous relationships and family law, see “Polyamorous Families in Canada: Early Results of New Research from CRILF” from the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family.

Published on April 11, 2017

Infographic: Family Diversity in Canada 2016

International Day of Families is approaching on May 15, a special day to recognize the importance of family to communities across the globe. Parents, children, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins and the friends and neighbours we care for (and who care for us) all make unique and valuable contributions to our lives, our workplaces and our communities.

As we reflect on Canada’s 9.9 million families, one thing that’s clear is that there’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter family. Families are as diverse and unique as the people who comprise them, and they are all an essential part of Canada’s family landscape.

For this year’s International Day of Families, we’ve created an infographic providing a “snapshot” of modern families in Canada that highlights some of the many ways families are diverse:

  • 67% of families in Canada are married-couple families, 17% are living common-law, and 16% are lone-parent families – diverse family structures that continuously evolve
  • 464,000 stepfamilies live across the country, accounting for 13% of couples with children
  • 363,000 households contain three or more generations, and there are also approximately 53,000 “skip-generation” homes (children and grandparents with no middle generation present)
  • 1.4 million people in Canada report having an Aboriginal identity (61% First Nations, 32% Métis, 4.2% Inuit, 1.9% other Aboriginal identity, 0.8% more than one Aboriginal identity)
  • 360,000 couples in Canada are mixed unions,* accounting for 4.6% of all married and common-law couples
  • 65,000 same-sex couples were counted in the 2011 Census, 9.4% of whom are raising children
  • 68,000 people in Canada are in the CAF Regular Forces, half of whom have children under 18

As His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, expressed at the Families in Canada Conference 2015, “Families, no matter their background or their makeup, bring new and special patterns to our diverse Canadian tapestry.” Join us as we recognize and celebrate family diversity, from coast to coast to coast.


* Statistics Canada defines a mixed union as “a couple in which one spouse or partner belongs to a visible minority group and the other does not, as well as a couple in which the two spouses or partners belong to different visible minority groups.”

Timeline: Fifty Years of Women, Work and Family in Canada

While mothers in Canada have always played a central role in family life, there’s no question that the social, economic, cultural and environmental contexts that shape – and are shaped by – motherhood have evolved over time.

A growing share of mothers are managing paid work and family responsibilities compared with previous generations, and the dynamic relationships between women, work and family continue to evolve. To explore these relationships through a broader lens, we’ve created a 50-year timeline for Mother’s Day 2016 that explores some of the long-term trends over the past half century, including:

  • An increase in women’s participation in the paid labour force, which has grown from 40% in 1968 to 82% in 2014 for those aged 25 to 54
  • A growing share of “breadwinning” moms among single-earner couple families, which has steadily increased from 4% of earners in these families in 1976 to 21% in 2014
  • A significant drop in the low-income rate among single mothers, which has fallen from 54% in 1976 to 21% in 2008
  • A declining fertility rate, which stood at 3.94 women per children in 1959 during the peak of the baby boom, but has since dropped to 1.61 in 2011
  • A continually rising average age of first-time mothers, up from 24.3 years of age in 1974 to 28.5 in 2011
  • A greater amount of time mothers are spending with family, with women reporting 421 minutes (7 hours) per day with family in 2010, up from 403 minutes (6.7 hours) in 1986

This bilingual resource is a perpetual publication, and it will be updated periodically as new data emerges. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to find out about updates, as well as other news about publications, projects and initiatives from the Vanier Institute.

Enjoy our new timeline, and happy Mother’s Day to Canada’s 9.8 million moms!


Language, Labels and “Lone Parents”

Victoria Bailey

Lone parent, single parent, one-parent family, independent parent, non-married parent, alone parent, autonomous parent: the words or terms used to identify, or self-identify, adults who parent independently are diverse and subjective, and they have evolved over the years. While our choice of labels may seem trivial, language is powerful and loaded – it shapes how we see the world and the people in it. These familial terms, and the respective ideas they aim to convey, are at best blurry. What can seem like a valid category to one person may be considered a stereotype by another, and these labels can carry stigma with them that has an impact on family well-being and identity – particularly for single mothers,1 who account for 8 in 10 single parents in Canada.

Many labels are used to categorize “lone parents”

Statistics Canada uses the term lone parent to identify “Mothers or fathers, with no married spouse or common-law partner present, living in a dwelling with one or more children.” They are not alone in this choice of terminology: the UK’s Office for National Statistics also utilizes the term lone parent/lone parent family, as does the UK government’s statistics website. The Australia Bureau of Statistics, meanwhile, uses the term one-parent family and Statistics New Zealand lists the term sole parent in its definitions of census family classifications but tends to defer to the same terminology as Australia in census information-related texts.

The United States Census Bureau uses a number of different terms in their definitions and reports; phrases including female householder, no husband present, single parent and lone parent are used to describe different family and/or household structures. In Engendering Motherhood, sociologist Martha McMahon frequently uses the term “unwed mother”; however, this text is now 20 years old and, once a commonly used term, “unwed mother” is now infrequently applied in either dialogue or in media content. To many people, the phrase may now seem dated, archaic and even tied to (and measured more by) religious doctrine.

In a sense, none of the terms commonly used to identify single mothers are satisfactory in their ability to capture family experiences, because they use deficit language. Lone mothers and sole mothers could suggest to some that these parents are “on their own,” without supports, while many of these parents may have rich networks of support that include family, friends, community organizations and even former partners. One-parent families suggests a similar isolation, whereas the child(ren) in these families may have two parents, even if the parents have ended their relationship. Whereas single parent/s, as with “unwed mother,” suggests a deviation from a married-parent norm, it is rare for a determining label of “married parent/s” to be used in conversation or in text unless focusing specifically on the topics of parenting and marriage.

Overall, the use of a variety of terms does seem like a more sensitive, considerate and inclusive approach that is more appreciative of complex family forms and provides options for identifying families. Whether intended or not, what the differing US Census Bureau terms and more modern, emerging phrases such as autonomous parent and independent parent do signify is that terminology related to being a single parent seems to be evolving and progressing in a way that attributes power to the parent’s choice of familial circumstance.

Terms have changed over time, as have family experiences and realities

The use of single-parent synonyms and their attributed meanings have developed over time, reflecting ever-changing family realities. According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of lone parents in our nation is not drastically different from what it was 100 years ago, and it was nearly as high in 1931 (11.9%) as it was in 1981 (12.7%). But what does differ, is the reason behind those numbers, that is, a modern-day choice of relationship status versus a latter-day result of circumstance, often related to mortality rates. As highlighted in the Statistics Canada report Enduring Diversity: Living Arrangements of Children in Canada over 100 Years of the Census:

… diverse family living arrangements were in many cases a result of the death of one or more family members. Death within the family – of siblings, of mothers during or following complications from childbirth, of fathers serving in war, for example – was a much more common experience for young children in the early 20th century than today. In 1921, about 1 in 11 (8.9%) children aged 15 and under had experienced the death of at least one parent, while 4.1% had experienced the death of both parents.

The researchers go on to point out, “In comparison, in 2011, less than 1% of children aged 0 to 14 lived in a lone-parent family in which the parent was widowed.”

Throughout Canada’s history, there have been diverse paths to parenting independently, such as through adoption, sperm/egg donation, surrogacy, in vitro fertilization (IVF) or through separation, divorce from, or death of, a partner – or there never having been a partner in terms of a relationship to begin with. To avoid reinforcing stereotypes, it is important in any discussion about single parents to acknowledge this diversity and avoid generalization or homogenization.

Family labels can have an impact on identities

The language and terms we use to identify family forms matter, as they can carry negative connotations and meaning. An example of this can be found in the 2011 Census definition of family, in which Statistics Canada included stepfamilies for the first time:

A couple family with children may be further classified as either an intact family in which all children are the biological and/or adopted children of both married spouses or of both common-law partners or a stepfamily with at least one biological or adopted child of only one married spouse or common-law partner and whose birth or adoption preceded the current relationship.

While counting stepfamilies is a positive step toward capturing diverse family forms, the decision to contrast this with the label “intact family” could suggest, to some, that families deviating from this status are not intact, that is, not whole or complete due to lack of a partner living under the same roof as a parent and their child.

Labels such as single mother or single parent may also not be terms some people feel comfortable with. For example, in an online article entitled “Single Mother Was Not a Title I Wanted to Own. A Year Later It Still Isn’t,” blogger Mavis King writes how both she, and other mothers, do not want to be labelled as “single mothers”:

The problem with being a “single mum”… is the negative connotations it can conjure. At their worst single mums are associated with welfare, dole-bludging, unkempt and unruly kids. The single mother is just keeping it together, just scraping by. She’s not a heroine, no she’s responsible for her plight. She should have known better, should have never married him, shouldn’t have had children. And what about the kids? She’s selfish, the kids won’t do well at school, they’re worse off than their friends.

However, some parents proudly take ownership of wording that communicates their self-sufficiency. On the Wealthy Single Mommy blog, for example, Emma Johnson writes, “I feel totally fine calling myself a single mom: I float my family financially and am the primary caretaker of my kids.”

Stigma related to “lone motherhood” can affect family well-being

Negative stereotypes about single mothers such as those described by King, that is, assumptions that single mothers are struggling and irresponsible, or that their children are worse off than others, are often fuelled and reinforced in the media. A recent post-graduate study I completed focused on the representation of single mothers in Canadian news media found that coverage typically followed three main trends: a negatively biased dichotomy of representation, homogenization of single mothers and application of the term “single mother” being connected to gender-related identification of familial status rather than relevance to article information.

These depictions bolster stereotypes that can have measurable consequences. For example, in a 2011 study into rental discrimination, single mothers were found to be more than 14% less likely to be granted a positive reply to rental inquiries than a (heterosexual) couple. Similarly, women who participated in a qualitative focus group for my dissertation research reported that the stigma of being labelled a single mother had acted as a barrier that prevented them from leaving negative situations, including statements such as, “I was more scared of being a single mom than of staying in an abusive relationship.”

Family labels gloss over diverse experiences

While many texts claim that being raised in a home by single parents may predispose children to negative outcomes, some research challenges the causal relationship between growing up in a single-parent family and detrimental outcomes. As researchers Don Kerr and Roderic Beaujot point out, “Studies that do not take into account the pre-existing difficulties of children and their families have a tendency to overstate the effect of growing up in a single-parent family.” There are many circumstances in which mothers have created healthier environments for themselves and their children precisely because they ended a negative relationship to become single mothers.

Often, it seems that resources, such as money, time and community supports (i.e. extended family, friends and other community members) have a more significant impact on child and parent experience and/or outcome than a parent’s relationship status. As Jon Bernardes states in Family Studies: An Introduction, “Whilst Queen Victoria was a single parent for many years, she is not thought of as a ‘problem parent.’”

However, what is perhaps most important to note is that children tend not to care about how the census categorizes their parents, nor do they tend to repeatedly quantify any kind of relationship status distinction when speaking about their parents. While they may initially share their familial status with friends – for example, “It’s just me and my dad” or “My dad doesn’t live with us” – there’s most likely an informal, colloquial tone to this statement. It’s highly unlikely that, once this personal information is shared, any future descriptions of an event or issue linked to their parent/s includes determining terminology such as “my single father” or “my lone parent mother.” They most likely simply say “my mom” or “my dad” or “my whomever” with a sense of confident, unconditional, personal belonging and attachment marking the initial, and perhaps most crucial, signifier in that type of statement: “my.”


1 This article frequently uses the terms “single mothers” and “single parents” for consistency, but as it discusses, there are many recognized and preferred terms in use.

Victoria Bailey is a freelance writer and a student of women’s studies. She lives and works in Calgary, Alberta.



Modern Motherhood: The Unique Experiences of Women with Physical Disabilities

Lesley A. Tarasoff

There is very little research concerning pregnancy, labour, birth and motherhood among women with physical disabilities and women with disabilities more broadly. While most women face a variety of social and emotional pressures to have children, research has found that women with disabilities have a very different experience, as they are often pressured not to have children. Many of these girls and women experience “training against motherhood” as soon as they are diagnosed as having a disability. Despite these pressures, there are many women with physical disabilities who are also mothers. Although in Canada it is difficult to determine just how many women with physical or mobility-limiting disabilities are mothers, data from the United States suggests that they are becoming mothers at similar rates to women without disabilities.

As part of a long-term project, a diverse group of women with physical or mobility-limiting disabilities in the Greater Toronto Area have been interviewed about their experiences during the perinatal period – pregnancy, labour, birth and early motherhood. Drawing on other research studies and preliminary findings from this project, this article looks at some of the unique experiences of women with physical disabilities during the perinatal period.

While most women face a variety of social and emotional pressures to have children, research has found that women with disabilities are often pressured not to have children.

There are many misconceptions about women with physical disabilities, including the idea that they cannot or should not become mothers. Women with physical disabilities are often on the receiving end of disability and reproductive “microaggressions.” Initially conceptualized with regard to racial and ethnic minority groups, microaggressions refer to “the brief and commonplace, daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative … slights and insults on the target person or group.” Disability or ableist microaggressions include things such as exclusion, messages of undesirability, messages of burden, assumptions, pity and astonishment (e.g., the realization that a person with a disability is capable of achievements).

For women with disabilities who are pregnant or who are mothers, these ableist beliefs and patterns of behaviour are often compounded with what some call reproductive microaggressions. These can be direct, such as denying privacy by asking when a woman will have a baby, or indirect, such as expressions of gratitude for having a “healthy child.” Underlying many reproductive microaggressions is reproductive privilege (i.e., the traditional idea or ideal of which women should be mothers [read: white, middle-class, heterosexual, women without physical disabilities]), together with the idea that motherhood is the most exalted form of identity for women.

Jane, one of the research project participants – a married and employed mother of two with a spinal cord injury – shared her thoughts about her perinatal experience. While it was positive overall, largely thanks to her strong advocacy skills and a great team of health care providers, she still experienced a number of negative social interactions commonly experienced by women with physical disabilities in the perinatal period. Sometimes these interactions were overtly discriminatory and negative, such as when a stranger on the sidewalk told her she “shouldn’t be allowed to have children.” Other times, the microaggressions were less explicit. Like many women with physical disabilities, Jane found that many people didn’t see pregnancy as a possibility for her or recognize her as being pregnant as they might have with other women. She often encountered subtle reactions of surprise (astonishment) to her pregnancy and status as a mother while in public spaces such as waiting rooms. Sometimes the microaggressions she described took the form of differential treatment, such as the time she was asked in a grocery store whether she had her daughter “naturally” – noting that it’s unlikely a mother without a disability would have been asked the same question.

Research suggests that women with physical or mobility-limiting disabilities are becoming mothers at similar rates to women without disabilities.

Microaggressions at the intersection of disability and reproduction can also take the form of denying identity or personality by asking a mother without disabilities “Is that your baby?” or of desexualizing women with disabilities through comments such as “I can’t believe you have a baby.” These comments were occasionally directed at Jane, who said that many people she encountered assumed that she had adopted. Microaggressions sometimes take on a patronizing form, such as when people say they feel “inspired” by women with disabilities who decide to have children. Finally, microaggressions also include assumptions of helplessness and infantilizing remarks directed at these mothers, such as asking “Do you need help with your baby?”

Despite the assumption that spinal cord-injured women are able to give birth only via Caesarean section, research reveals that they can have vaginal births. “Everyone still thinks that I had a C-section,” says Jane, acknowledging this misconception.

Indeed, a growing body of research indicates that many women with physical disabilities experience fertility no differently than their counterparts without disabilities and they are capable of becoming pregnant and experiencing vaginal delivery. Though limited, there is some research concerning the pregnancy outcomes of women with physical disabilities. Some of this research suggests that expectant mothers who have physical disabilities may experience common symptoms of pregnancy more severely, and that pregnancy can temporarily or permanently “alter the course” of the disability.

Perinatal outcomes among women with physical disabilities vary depending on the type and severity of their disability. “As much as I want to say that my pregnancy was the same as everyone else’s,” Jane says, “I do admit that there probably were higher risks of complications with mine to a certain degree.” For instance, she noted that her mobility worsened during the course of her pregnancy – a change that she says wasn’t fully recognized by care providers. Indeed, studies reveal that health care providers generally do not know a great deal about the interaction of pregnancy and disability. Jane cited an example of her nurses not knowing a lot about the different catheter options.

Likewise, many of the women with physical disabilities who were interviewed, including Jane, reported feeling frustrated with the lack of perinatal information available to them and often experienced feelings of isolation because it was difficult to find others to share their experiences with. “I found it very frustrating that there is so little research. So any question I had, nobody could give me an answer,” she says. “It was always like, ‘We don’t really know. We’re not really sure.’” In addition to informational barriers, many women with physical disabilities report encountering inaccessible care settings. Jane cited examples such as places with bathrooms or showers she couldn’t access or fit her wheelchair into.

Disabled or not, at one time or another, everybody needs assistance, and it is rare that someone really, truly raises a child single-handedly.

Exploring how women with physical disabilities experience the perinatal period will provoke an interrogation of the self, of what is “normal” and what accessibility is, as well as what independence looks like. Parents with disabilities, like all parents, are creative and adaptable. In many cases, formal resources and supports are not available or accessible, and so some parents with disabilities may rely on unconventional resources and other supports to fulfill their roles effectively. At one time or another, everybody needs assistance whether they have a disability or not, and it is rare that someone really, truly raises a child single-handedly.

Moreover, for some mothers with physical disabilities, becoming a parent takes focus away from their disability and places it on other aspects of their lives, such as the new bond between parent and child as well as the child’s imagination and creativity. As Jane puts it, “Becoming a mom is probably the best thing that I did because it totally lessened … my focus or other people’s focus on my disability. My parents ask way less about my own health; they ask more about the kids.”

In particular, Jane talked about how her physical inability to do certain activities with her young son has led to opportunities to bond and play with him in other ways:

“[My son] knows that I do all the creative stuff with him, so I do all the artwork… he kind of sees us [my husband and me] as having those different [roles] … I love doing imaginative things and I think that’s important for his growing and learning … so for me what’s really boosted my confidence in parenting is that I have that ability or that gift to do that with him and the daycare has commented that he’s such a really imaginative kid…”

A number of other mothers who were interviewed shared similar stories about their relationships with their children and talked about how becoming a mother enhanced their confidence.

Many of the mothers also worried about how their children might be treated in school when other children found out that their mother has a disability: “Kids can be mean… I don’t want people to make fun of him because of me.” One mother with a congenital condition that often limits her mobility, as well as causes hearing and vision problems, arthritis and chronic pain, noted, however, that she uses her disability as a learning opportunity for her young son: “I don’t want him to make fun of anybody. I am trying to tell him that everyone is different.”

The experiences of women with physical disabilities during the perinatal period, including their parenting experiences, provide learning opportunities for all families and their children. This ongoing research project will help to develop resources for women with physical disabilities and health care providers and shed light on some of the positive experiences that they have during the perinatal period. Listening to and documenting the stories and experiences of women like Jane will be integral to this process of providing support.


Lesley A. Tarasoff is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Health at the University of Toronto. She conducts research in the area of women’s sexual and reproductive health, with a focus on women with physical disabilities and sexual minority women. For more information about her research, visit www.latarasoff.com.

Learn more:

Lesley A. Tarasoff, “We Don’t Know. We’ve Never had Anybody Like You Before”: Barriers to Perinatal care for Women with Physical Disabilities,” Disability and Health Journal 10:3 (July 2017). Link: http://bit.ly/2fmk65C.

Lori E. Ross, Lesley A. Tarasoff, Abbie E. Goldberg and Corey E. Flanders, “Pregnant Plurisexual Women’s Sexual and Relationship Histories Across the Life Span: A Qualitative Study,” Journal of Bisexuality (August 11, 2017). Link: .

Lesley A. Tarasoff, “Experiences of Women with Physical Disabilities during the Perinatal Period: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations to Improve Care,” Health Care for Women International 36:1 (July 2013). Link: .

Update: In September 2017, a community report was published based on this research into the experiences of women with physical disabilities. “Becoming Mothers: Experiences of Mothers with Physical Disabilities in Ontario” is now available to download on Lesley’s website.



, The Disabled Woman’s Guide to Pregnancy and Birth (New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2006).

Corbett Joan O’Toole, “Sex, Disability and Motherhood: Access to Sexuality for Disabled Mothers,” Disability Studies Quarterly 22:4 (2002).

Lisa I. Iezzoni, Jun Yu, Amy J. Wint, Suzanne C. Smeltzer and Jeffrey L. Ecker, “Prevalence of Current Pregnancy Among US Women with and without Chronic Physical Disabilities,” Medical Care, 51:6 (June 2013).

Alette Coble-Temple, Ayoka Bell and Kayoko Yokoyama, The Experience of Microaggressions on Women with Disabilities: From Research to Practice and Reproductive Microaggressions and Women with Physical Limitations. Presentations at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention (August 2014).

Derald Wing Sue, Jennifer Bucceri, Annie I. Lin, Kevin L. Nadal and Gina C. Torino, “Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience,” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13:1 (2007).

, Nothing About Us Without Us: A Qualitative Investigation of the Experiences of Being a Target of Ableist Microaggressions (2013 doctoral dissertation), retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (dissertation/thesis number 3620204).

, Maternity Rolls: Pregnancy, Childbirth and Disability (Fernwood Publishing, 2010).

, “Pregnancy in Women with Physical Disabilities,” Obstetrics & Gynecology, 117:4 (2011).

, A Provider’s Guide for the Care of Women with Physical Disabilities and Chronic Health Conditions (2005).

Published on December 3, 2015

Updated on September 25, 2017

Timeline: 50 Years of Families in Canada

Today’s society and today’s families would have been difficult to imagine, let alone understand, a half-century ago.

Families and family life have become increasingly diverse and complex, but families have always been the cornerstone of our society, the engine of our economy and at the centre of our hearts.

Learn about how families and family experiences in Canada have changed over the past 50 years with our new timeline!

Strength in Diversity: Positive Impacts of Children with Disabilities

Michelle R. Lodewyks

When it comes to exploring the experiences of families raising children with disabilities, studies tend to focus on the perceived negative impact of the disability on the family. These families are commonly viewed as “victims” who face excessive caregiving demands, emotional distress, physical and/or financial burdens and interpersonal difficulties, while the children are portrayed primarily as sources of stress and anguish. This tragedy dialogue supports an assumption that families with children with disabilities experience “chronic sorrow” and perpetuates the perception of disability as something to be avoided or eradicated. These perceptions have a major influence on today’s assumptions about – and reactions to – disability, including how professionals respond to children with disabilities and how society views and responds to children at birth. Consequently, the general public tends to overlook many positive impacts and meaningful contributions that children with disabilities make within their families, communities and society in general.

In order to explore the positive impact disability can have within families, a qualitative, interview-based study was performed to add narrative depth to the research. All of the parents and children interviewed identified a variety of positive effects the children have had on their families and contributions the children have made to family life. The most unsurprising discovery was the affirmation that a child with a disability can have some of the same positive effects on their families and make some of the same contributions as any other child. Highlighting these similarities is critical, given the tendency for children with disabilities to be distinguished from other children and viewed as less likely to affect their families in positive ways. Yet perhaps even more meaningful was the discovery that children with disabilities can also have unique positive effects and make unique contributions to families and family life.

Raising a child with a disability provides opportunities for personal growth

Parents in the study reported an ability to more readily recognize and appreciate the value, potential and strengths of a person with a disability as a result of their parenting experiences. Many described how their experiences left them with a greater acceptance of diversity, a stronger belief that there is an inherent and intrinsic value in people and a “more balanced appreciation for what people are about.”

One participant said her experience gave her a new perspective on how to help individuals she works with; she learned not to place limits on people or tell them what they can or cannot do, but instead help them strive for self-improvement. Siblings of children with a disability experienced attitudinal changes brought about by this family relationship. For these siblings, increased exposure to disability in their family environment made them more comfortable around other children with a disability, and they discovered a new-found enthusiasm for getting to know people with disabilities in general.

Children with a disability often exceeded expectations and did not necessarily comply with what is typical for their diagnoses, often being nothing close to the worst-case scenarios predicted by some doctors. As one participant stated, “I don’t know what my parents would have thought about people with disabilities before I came around, but I think it’s just… shown them that it really doesn’t mean that much… you can still be productive and still have goals and not really let anything stop you, as hard as that is sometimes.”

All of the parents in the study perceived themselves as having acquired new or enhanced positive character attributes as a result of raising a child with a disability. Attribute changes included family members learning to open their hearts and to be more loving, warm, caring, creative, balanced, gentle, calm, outgoing, responsible, independent and less selfish.

The positive attribute change most commonly reported by parents of a child with a disability was that they became more tolerant and accepting. As family members learned to be more accepting of diversity and of people’s behaviours, they cultivated a greater respect for other families of children with disabilities and experienced more compassion toward people in general.

Several parents commented that their child made them an overall “better person,” “better parent” or made other family members “better people.” Some of these effects carried over into the workplace: one participant perceived himself as a “better person at work” because of the understanding his son has given him about autism. This understanding has enabled him to relate to staff and other people in a different way; he supports his colleagues by helping them understand and interpret the behaviour of a co-worker who also has autism.

Parents experience pride, joy and strengthened relationships

All parents in the study reported positive emotions their children have fostered in them. A sense of pride was the most common. One parent recognized that some of the things that evoke a sense of pride “may not be the same as what other people [her son’s age] are doing,” yet she maintained she had numerous reasons to be proud. Parents expressed pride in, or were impressed by, their children’s knowledge or creativity, their sense of right and wrong, their methods for overcoming fears, their ability to put their minds to something and take a chance, and for being their own advocates. Additionally, all 10 children reported the positive emotions they also felt they evoked in family members – more than half believing they made their family proud.

One mother insisted she derives more excitement from the little things in life than many other people and that she “celebrate[s] things that other people don’t even think about celebrating” because of her daughter. Another explained her pride in her daughter as follows: “Disability-wise, I’m very proud of her because she hasn’t let her disability control her life. She’s got multiple disabilities… And she doesn’t let that slow her down… It would be too easy to say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ and give up… She’s always willing to push the limits and do the best that she can.”

Many parents talked about having met people, gained friendships and made new connections thanks to their child. While any child can expand a family’s social network, certain examples were attributed to the family’s particular circumstances. For one couple, connecting themselves to other families through the creation of a support network for parents with similar experiences has been valuable, as they have been able to offer support to other parents who have approached them for advice and guidance.

Despite one parent noting that having a child with a disability may make some families “fall apart,” many parents perceived that their child strengthened their marriage or made the parents and/or family stronger. Two of the parents felt they had become better at communicating and sharing with their spouse thanks to their child. The father in this couple talked about the difficulty he and his wife experienced when their son was first diagnosed and described the role each played in helping the other get through the “tough parts.” Their experience, he explained, has made him and his wife “more free to talk about things and feelings,” thus improving their communication.

A few parents mentioned how their child added a fresh perspective and/or insight to the family. One father commented on the value of his son’s insight and identified this as something he appreciates most about him: “His insight into things is so different than anybody else. He thinks differently than we do… and I love hearing his insight. He adds such a dimension to our house… I just can’t imagine not having that dimension in our home. It’s… such a core of who we are in this house. He’s so amazing.”

Referring to his natural gifts when it comes to writing and composing music, one of the children insisted that having autism has given him the ability to be hyperfocused and successful with music. He concluded, “I think the music is a positive impact. It can impact everyone else, too, if they hear it.”

When asked how she makes a difference in her family, another one of the children replied, “I suppose it would be a little less lively without me. There wouldn’t be as many interesting dinner conversations.” She also referred to “the whole yin and yang thing” and how she counterbalances the mellowness in her family.

Families learn from their unique experiences and seek to share their knowledge

Before concluding the interviews, all participants were asked what they would like other people to understand about them, their family and/or their experience. Parents shared that their experiences are “not all rosy” – that there have been “challenges,” “struggles,” “obstacles” and “tough times.” Yet parents did not necessarily hold the child responsible for any negative aspects of their experience. One parent admitted that her struggles adjusting to her child’s disability had less to do with the child than with other people’s preconceptions and the parents’ own feelings regarding what their experience would be like. She explained, “There was no question, that period of time where you struggle with it – a bit of a denial thing. Well, you almost grieve, but you come to the conclusion that those feelings are more about you, and what you thought, or what other people might be thinking.”

Other parents agreed that any anger, stress, anxiety and/or crises they may have experienced resulted from having to deal with the ignorance of other people and a general lack of societal understanding rather than from the child. One mother requested that people reconsider their use – or misuse – of certain labels, explaining that, while people with intellectual disabilities are often labelled as hindered in some way, “the hindrance is very often on the so-called ‘normal’ people for lack of understanding them.”

These findings coincided with those from an earlier study in which parents suggested that the sorrow they experienced originated largely from having to deal with recurring messages of negativity and hopelessness from other people, such as professionals, the health system, other family members and friends. This suggests a source of stress and negativity outside the child and that a family’s perceptions about their child may be determined, at least in part, by the surrounding cultural beliefs about disability. Therefore, if society holds negative attitudes toward disability and the surrounding cultural perceptions are largely negative, negativity can be transmitted to the family – to parents’ views of, and beliefs about, their children and to their parenting.

The parents in the study also wished to dispel negative assumptions others might associate with their child and place any negativity in context of the bigger picture. Some described their experience “as a gift instead of a burden,” and insisted it is not a source of anything negative to have a child with a disability in the family, emphasizing that they are not sorry for the way their child has changed their lives. While acknowledging the stress, hard work and commitment required to raise a child with a disability, other parents commented on the unfortunate nature of other people not realizing how rewarding the experience can be. One father reframed his experience raising his son in the following way: “You want a catastrophe? You want tragedy? You know what, let me pick up a paper and show you about somebody who died in a car accident. Let me show you about a young mother that was killed. Let me show you about the tsunami. Those are tragedies. This is a curveball. All you’ve got to do is learn how to hit curves and you’ll be fine… And it’s not easy, but you learn to grow with it.”

Among the most common requests from parents were that assumptions not be made based on disability and that people recognize each child’s ability and potential. Parents insisted that their children can give a lot to society and deserve respect and requested that people make an effort to learn from their children. Elaborating, one parent cautioned, “I was just thinking in terms of the impact of… people with Down syndrome on the world… We’ve been trying to basically eradicate this group of people by all the blood testing and stuff. It devalues the lives that they have. And they have something to offer… They’ve got something really special that we need to sit up and take note of because we could learn a lot from them.”

When asked what they wanted to share with others, similarly powerful messages came from the children. One of the children wanted others to “understand that I have disabilities, but I’m not a worse person for it.” Another child offered the following take-away message: “Lots of people have the perception that I’m kind of slow… I want them to know that I really do know a lot about the world and what’s going on, and it hasn’t stopped me – having cerebral palsy, being in a wheelchair – I’m not an unaware person. I have big ambitions and a bright future. I don’t want them to feel sorry for me, because I think I’m going to have a really good and interesting and fun life!”

The positivity of embracing diversity goes beyond the family

Learning from families who view their circumstances in a positive light, making these perceptions more readily available to the general public and coming to view the experience of raising a child with a disability as one that is not necessarily tragic – but rather enriching and rewarding – can have a variety of positive implications. These findings can provide medical professionals (particularly those involved in prenatal screening and diagnosis) with practical information to share with families when a diagnosis is given. These findings might also benefit other parents currently raising a child with a disability by encouraging them to focus more closely on what their child adds to their life.

In presenting these findings, this study is not denying the existence of challenges and negative family experiences. Sharing these findings is also not suggesting that everything will automatically improve for families who struggle raising a child with a disability. Yet the belief is that appreciating the strengths and positives has potential for beneficial change. There is also evidence that focusing on the children’s positive impacts and contributions may serve to control the meaning and level of stress associated with the experience. This could be helpful in the adaptation process. If more families see their experiences in a positive light, perhaps they can assist in altering widespread perceptions of the impact of disability, provide support to new parents and relieve some of the fear and anxiety around the idea of raising a child with a disability. In doing so, the hope is that a more affirmative way of viewing disability could be promoted.


Michelle Lodewyks is an Instructor in the Disability and Community Support Program at Red River College as well as a graduate of the Master’s Program in Disability Studies at the University of Manitoba.


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