Tales around the dinner table
Mitchells take do-it-yourself approach to creating family connections
By: Viola Pruss
| Posted: Monday, Feb 17, 2014 06:00 am
Those who study the evolution of the modern North American family have noticed rapid changes among family structures in recent years.
Fewer women are becoming mothers now, and those who do reproduce do so more sparingly, averaging one or two children each, compared to three or four in the 1970s.
That's among the lowest birth rates in the world, below Australia, France or Britain but still higher than Japan and Germany, based on research by the University of Ottawa. In 2000, Canada's birth rate fell to a record low, following 10 straight years of decline.
One reason is that it's expensive to have children. MoneySense Magazine places the average cost of raising a child at $243,660. That's $12,800 per child, per year, or $1,070 per month. These numbers don't include university tuition.
In addition, many women are delaying or avoiding child-bearing, afraid that it could damage their economic future and careers. Women often lose 10 to 20 per cent of their income in the 10 years following the birth of a child.
They may not return to work full-time and often take less prestigious jobs. MoneySense suggests that for each year parents take off from work, they experience a three per cent loss in income.
Changing labour markets only add to the problem, increasingly demanding skilled workers. That also makes raising children prohibitive to developing steady careers.
In recognition of Family Day, the Gazette interviewed two local families – the Mitchells and the Mentzes – about their approach to achieving a strong family bond. Here is the story of the Mitchell family.
It's a tight squeeze but most of the Mitchell family can fit on one couch.
There's Tarra and Derek, their seven-year-old daughter Aerya, and Tarra's parents Debra and Richard Huggatt.
They seem like a typical Canadian family as they hunch together on their living room couch. But it's that very couch, that iconic symbol of family gatherings and evenings in front of the TV, that the St. Albert family says they like to avoid. In this household it's the kitchen table that's the focal point of family life.
“If you want to know how tight your family is ask how much time do you spend around the kitchen table,” says Derek. “It's something that's taken for granted until it's gone and then it's this social problem – where did we go wrong?”
Growing up, Debra Huggatt knew the kitchen table well.
Her family moved into her grandmother's home in Chilliwack, B.C. in the late 1950s. Most of the time they had 15 or 16 people living together in the house, sometimes as many as 22, she says.
There were siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents. And then there were friends who'd stay the night or come over for supper.
While living with such a large family had its downsides (Debra says she was the youngest of four and had “way too many people” telling her what to do), their living arrangements also engrained in her a deep sense of belonging.
Nobody needed to hire a babysitter and there was no worry about who'd be picking up the children from school. Parenting was shared among the adults and someone would always side with you in a fight, Debra says.
But most importantly, there was always someone to talk to, and most of the conversations happened at the kitchen table.
“You sat around there and you talked about anything, like politics, religion, sex,” she says. “I grew up in a very open family where you could talk about anything, you could ask anything. It didn't matter who it was, they'd explain it to you.”
That community held together for many years before it broke apart.
Marrying Richard meant Debra had to move. With their children in tow, they moved to Edmonton and in the process went from a family of 22 to a family of five.
Daughter Tarra was 13 at the time. She had grown up with most of her extended family living within 10 minutes from home. Suddenly losing that connection created a painful, lonesome void in their lives, she says.
“That was a big loss. It was like leaving a sibling behind, or a parent,” she says.
But while the supper table had grown smaller in their Edmonton home, the family continued to fill the chairs with Tarra's friends and those of her siblings. And today, with only one child of her own, Tarra says these friends have taken the place of the relatives she left behind.
Now grown up, these friends still meet for dinner once a week, play board games on weekends, and attend their children's school performances and sports events. Some of them spend whole vacations together, and with all of their children being of similar age, they encourage them to play together.
Having no cousins or siblings, Aerya now considers this group to be her family.
“There are no cousins. That just doesn't exist for her generation,” says Tarra. “The biological family is still very important, but because we all sort of moved away from the nuclear family, we created our own.”
A family community made up of fewer people takes dedication, says Derek.
He grew up with divorced parents and rarely saw his grandparents. That meant he lacked the sense of family community that Tarra and Debra had so easily accepted as part of their lives. That is, until he met Tarra, he says.
So when they had Aerya, they wanted an extended family for her, even if that meant creating one.
Today, the couple tries as much as possible to include their friends and remaining family in Aerya's life. They want her to grow up exposed to different thoughts and ideas. But they also want to provide her with a group of responsible adults that can give direction when needed.
That takes a lot of effort, and someone to clean the kitchen table at night so the family can sit down together and talk, Derek says.
“A person can have many friends but at the end of the day family can't leave you and they won't leave you,” he says. “I think in a world so diversified and with so many opinions it's nice to have that baseline. And that wasn't something I necessarily had growing up.”
The original family community that Debra and Tarra grew up with is not only diminishing because families are now scattered across the country, but also because there are fewer children being born.
Tarra says there is less of an assumption today that women and couples will have children than there was one or two generations ago. Now many couples want to travel or focus on their careers and personal lives first, rather than having children right away, she says.
Derek is a teacher in St. Albert while Tarra decided to stay home with Aerya for now. Even that decision is contentious these days, she says. Taking a year off when you're trying to build a career is challenging and costly, she adds.
“In this generation there is a lot more expectation that you can do other things, that it's OK if you decided that you want to travel the world and maybe not have children,” she says. “By the time she grows up there will be even more options.”
Most of their friends have only one child, she adds. Yet she is confident that Aerya's generation will have even fewer children.
To Debra and Richard, that's regrettable. Not because they think couples should necessarily have children (Debra admits she never planned on having any), but because they believe shrinking family sizes will make it more difficult to form a tight-knit community that can instil family values.
Looking at society as a whole, Richard says many of the core values are already lost or have been refocused. He sometimes worries that families won't dedicate the same time to their children as before, which leaves more of them to draw on information from outsiders.
“I think it's sad but I see why,” adds Debra. “You just can't have big families like we did. You have to work harder when there are not as many. You have to be willing to give and take more.”