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A narrow definition of family can neglect the experiences of single-parent families. Shutterstock

Expanding the definition of family to reflect our realities

The second Monday in February is Family Day in parts of Canada. Started in Alberta in 1990, four additional provinces celebrate Family Day: British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick. (Other provinces have holidays reflecting their heritage.)

Québec is one of few jurisdictions that does not have a civic holiday in February, though the province has generous family leave policies.

This year, to coincide with the emphasis on family, Concordia University and the Vanier Institute of the Family are hosting a conference on families and family life on Feb. 20. The conference will explore some of the tensions and dichotomies embedded in families. For one, how do we define what family means?

People take to the Rideau Canal on Family Day in Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2019. CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Expanding the definition of family

How we define family (and who gets to do that defining) is an important starting point for conversations on family life. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who actually counts as family? For some, family means married parents with children, or married heterosexual parents with children. For others, it may mean a chosen family, or a cohabiting couple with no children.

For our conference, we are using an adaptation of the Vanier Institute’s definition: a family consists of any combination of two or more people, bound together over time, by ties of mutual consent and/or birth, adoption or placement, and who take responsibility for various activities of daily living, including love.

Our research has identified the need to attend to extended families, including grandparents, aunts and uncles. It also includes the need to extend the definition of family to non-traditional family forms including LGBTQ2S+ families, chosen families, multi-generation families that include grandparents, single parents and people living alone.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Statistics Canada gathered information on multi-generational households, and in 2011 the census first counted stepfamilies and foster children. Families in Canada are diverse and our programs and policies should be responsive to this diversity.

We find that a narrow definition of family can neglect the experiences of single-parent, poor and minority families. For example, research shows that women of colour and low-income women often experience and interpret motherhood differently than white, class-privileged mothers.

This image includes four adults and three children: many factors, including race and class impact family relationships. Gift Habeshaw /Unsplash

Recently, researchers began to examine how diversity related to race, class and sexual orientation affects grandparent-grandchild relationships. To continue to expand our understanding of families’ experiences, we need to think more broadly about what factors matter in families.

Family realities should be reflected in policy

How we define family impacts social policy like parental, maternity and paternity leave entitlements and child-care tax credits. Caregiver benefits and compassionate leave policies are also tied to family status. Eligibility depends on whether you are a family member.

In health-care contexts, visitors in intensive care units and emergency departments are often restricted to immediate family and grandparents often don’t have rights when it comes to child custody cases. So a comprehensive definition of family influences how we develop programs for families and who is eligible.

Besides needing to expand the definition of family, we also need to look at the messy realities of family and family life. The irony of organizing a public family conference while attending to the realities of our private family lives was not lost on us. As we scheduled meetings and conference calls, we were also planning Skype dates, making school lunches and caring for parents across the country.

We believe that practitioners, service providers and policy-makers need to take into account the complexity of family lives when thinking about family practice, programs and policies. Family scholars and the Vanier Institute of the Family refer to using a family lens: needing to look at the complexity of family and family relations beyond individual family members.

Thinking about families in a broad sense when we develop programs and policies can be challenging. It is much easier to use an individual lens to think about developing children, or aging seniors. But these individual family members, even those who live on their own, live out their lives in the context of families —whether biological or social.

The future of families

When using a family lens, it can be easy to slip into a glass-half-empty approach. Family life educators and social workers struggle with the tension between deficit models of family, and asset or strength-based models of family. Instead of only focusing on what problems families experience, we can benefit from understanding what strengths they have and what makes them resilient in the face of life’s challenges.

Some family practitioners and family scholars would say that in the best of all possible worlds, it would be preferable to remain apolitical as we think about family and as we provide information and assistance to families.

And yet, some of us feel strongly that it is important to look beyond families to society to advocate on behalf of families, or family members, who are at risk.

At our families conference we will be exploring the tension between present and future. Based on our understanding of systems and systemic change, we will emphasize envisioning a different future by including all families — in the broadest sense.

Rather than staying focused on the present, we look towards a future of change by asking the question: “Wouldn’t it be great if …?”

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