When Parents Separate: Further Findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth



Changes in marital behaviour have altered radically the context into which children are born, in ways that are closely connected to how their family life course subsequently unfolds. Until recently, most children were born to married parents who were both in their first conjugal union; the only other children within their family environment at birth were full siblings, older than themselves, and living in the same household. By the end of the 20th century, however, the declining popularity and stability of marriage produced greater variation in the contexts within which children are born (Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999). Starting a family outside traditional marriage has become more commonplace, and rising separation and divorce rates earlier in the family life course means more men and women are having children in more than one union. The result: growing proportions of children are born outside marriage and into complex family environments.

In terms of the life course approach used here, this means that children may be born earlier or later in their parents' life course, and to parents who may or may not have decided to marry before their birth. Some are born even before the start of their mother or father's conjugal life course, often to young parents who have never lived with each other or with any other partner. Others, on the contrary, are born much later on, arriving into the second or third family of one or both parents. Analyses of Cycle 1 data have shown that these factors have an impact on the child's subsequent family life course:

  • One study revealed that married couples with children are more likely to stay together than those who are cohabiting, although in Quebec the difference is decreasing (Le Bourdais, Neill and Marcil-Gratton 2000).
  • A second study showed a similar association between union stability and family type at birth (Juby, Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 2001). Children born into a "first family" (i.e. a family created by a couple neither of whom has children from an earlier union) are less likely to see their parents separate than are those with either maternal half-siblings living in the family, or paternal half-siblings living elsewhere. This remains true even after controlling for the fact that second families are more often created by cohabiting couples than are first families.

Clearly, the context into which a child is born is closely associated with the number and type of family transitions that occur later on during childhood. Understanding how this context has evolved in recent years, therefore, is the first step towards appreciating how complex and diverse the family life course of Canadian children is becoming. Updating and extending analyses from earlier reports (Marcil-Gratton, 1998; Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999), this section looks in detail at the evolution of the circumstances surrounding the birth of the NLSCY children, comparing the experience of different cohorts of children and different regions of Canada. The parts of this report that relate directly to the family life course experience of these children are based on information collected from the longitudinal sample of approximately 15,000 children included in the first two survey cycles, and aged between 2 and 13 years at Cycle 2, carried out in 1996-97. The other analyses are based on a variety of samples from the first three cycles depending on the subject under observation.

Married, cohabiting or alone?

Figure 1.1 shows the distribution of the longitudinal sample of children according to whether or not they were born within a union, and the legal status of the union:

  • More than three-quarters (78%) of children were born to married parents, although 30% of parents had lived together before marrying.
  • Fifteen percent (15%) of children were born outside marriage, but within a union, to common-law couples.
  • The rest (7%) were born to mothers who were not living with their child's father.

Figure 1.1  Type of parents' union at child's birth, for children aged 2-13 years in 1996‑97, NLSCY, longitudinal cohort (N=15023)

By including all children in the sample, however, this distribution conceals important differences between the oldest and youngest children in the survey, and between the various regions of Canada, as the next sections show.

Changes through time

The matrimonial context within which families are established evolved a great deal even during the relatively small number of years separating the oldest and youngest NLSCY cohorts. Figure 1.2 presents the distribution by context at birth for the oldest and youngest cohorts of children in the survey—those born in 1983-84 and in 1997-98.[4]

  • The proportion of children born within marriage (preceded or not by cohabitation) dropped from 85% of the oldest children to just over two-thirds (69%) of the youngest.
  • The proportion of children born within a common-law union more than doubled, rising from 9% of the oldest children in the survey to 22% of the youngest.
  • The proportion of births to single mothers increased from under 6% to 10%.

By the end of the 1990s, in other words, almost one-third of Canadian children were born outside marriage, although the majority were nonetheless born within a couple, to parents in a common-law union.

Figure 1.2  Distribution of children according to parents' conjugal status at the child's birth for various cohorts of children, NLSCY, Cycles 1 and 3, Inter-regional variations through time

Figures 1.3a and 1.3b compare five Canadian regions in terms of the evolution of the context at birth for the oldest and youngest children. Perhaps the most striking feature of the 1983-84 cohorts (Figure 1.3a) is how similar they are from one region to another. In all regions, Quebec included, at least 80% of children were born to married parents, and under one-tenth were born outside a union in all but the Atlantic provinces. A few inter-regional differences are visible, however:

  • Ontario and the Prairies were the most "traditional," in the sense that almost 90% of births occurred within marriage.
  • Births to cohabiting couples were much more common in Quebec (17%) than in any other region, and out-of-union births much less so (3%).
  • The highest proportions of out-of-union births were found in the provinces at the extreme west and east of Canada—in British Columbia (9%) and the Atlantic provinces (11%).
  • These were also the only provinces where children born to a single mother outnumbered those born to cohabiting parents.

Less than fifteen years later, the situation had changed in all regions, but towards a greater variability (Figure 1.3b). By the end of the 20th century, regional "patterns" of matrimonial behaviour were starting to emerge, with the two central regions, Ontario and Quebec, representing the extremes, at least in terms of the choice of marriage versus cohabitation as the context for starting a family. Ontario registered significantly more births to couples who married without living together first (46%) than anywhere else in the country, while Quebec recorded significantly less (19%). In fact, less than half of all births now occur within marriage in Quebec, and in some of the most predominantly francophone areas of the province the proportion has dropped to below one-quarter (Institut de la statistiquedu Quebec, 2000).

Moving west from Ontario, marriage is still the choice for most couples wishing to start a family—approximately three-quarters of babies in the Prairie provinces and in British Columbia are born within marriage, although more than half have parents who had lived together before marriage. East of Quebec, the situation is very different. In the Atlantic provinces,[5] only three-fifths of births are marital births, while close to one-quarter of babies are born in a common-law union. This is second only to Quebec. In other words, while the rise in common-law union births in Canada is largely the result of births in Quebec, there has been a significant increase in the phenomenon in all regions, doubling in Ontario and the Prairies, and almost tripling in Eastern Canada.

The Atlantic provinces have the highest proportion of births to single mothers, with one in six (16%) babies born outside a union. This last result is unique only in its extent; throughout Canada (with the exception of British Columbia), the proportion of out-of-union births increased just as rapidly between the oldest and youngest cohorts. After years of relative stability in the rate of "out-of-union" births, this rise needs to be interpreted with caution. It does not necessarily indicate that single-motherhood is becoming more popular. It is more likely the consequence of two other demographic changes:

  • Declining fertility within conjugal unions. In the current context of falling conjugal fertility, stable rates of out-of-union births result in an automatic increase in the proportion of out-of-union births.
  • A changing age structure of women of reproductive age. Single mothers are usually young—in their teens or early twenties, while married women have children later on. A decline in the number of women of the age at which marital fertility is highest relative to the number of women of the age at which non-marital fertility is highest, automatically entails a rise in the proportion of out-of-union births.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the steep drop in fertility rates, which could have led to a rising proportion of out-of-union births, was compensated for by the arrival at the main childbearing ages of the baby boom generation. During the 1990s, however, the baby boom generation moved beyond the main childbearing age groups, altering the age structure of women of childbearing age. The ratio of women aged 15-24 years (highest rates of out-of-union births) to those aged 20‑34 years (highest rates of in-union births) rose from 55% in 1991, to 59% in 1996 and 66% in 2001.

First or second family?

Earlier and more frequent separation among parents in intact families means that more mothers and fathers establish a second family with a new partner. In consequence, a growing proportion of children are born into a family environment that includes older half-siblings—the children from a previous union of their mother or father. As custody is given to women in the majority of cases, children from their first family are usually living with mothers when they start a second family. This means that children born into their mother's second family are usually born into a stepfamily—their biological father is the stepfather of their maternal half-siblings. This is less often the case when fathers start a second family. Most of the children who are born into their father's second family live in a residential family unit that includes themselves, their biological parents and full-siblings. They are born, residentially speaking, into an "intact" family.

Earlier research has shown, however, that children born into their father's second family have more in common with children born in stepfamilies than intact families in terms of their subsequent family life course (Juby, Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 2001). In this analysis, we consider that the "context at birth" for this group of children is very different from that of children born into their parents' first family; they have therefore been classified separately as being born into a "quasi-intact" family. Here, we identify four types of two-parent families:

  • The term "intact family," used synonymously with "first family," is restricted to families where neither biological parent has had children with another partner. As Figure 1.4 shows, four out of five children were born into the first family of both parents.
  • The rest of the children from two-parent families were born into a "second" family, in that at least one of their parents already had children from an earlier union. Three types are considered here:
    • "quasi-intact" families (5%): children's half-siblings are living elsewhere (usually paternal half-siblings living with their mother);
    • stepfather families (5%): children with maternal half-siblings only living in the family;
    • stepmother or stepfather/stepmother families (3%): children with paternal half-siblings, and at times maternal half-siblings, living in the family.

Figure 1.4  Family context at birth, for children aged 2-13 years in 1996-97, NLSCY, longitudinal cohort (N=14949)

Figure 1.5 illustrates the evolution of this phenomenon for children born within a conjugal union, comparing the family context at birth for the oldest (1983-84) and the youngest (1997-98) NLSCY cohorts.

  • The proportion of children born within the second family established by their mother or father rose from 11% to 18%, with a corresponding drop in the proportion of births within a first intact family, from 89% to 82%.
  • Among the youngest cohorts, 11% of children lived from birth in a family that included half-siblings; another 7% had half-siblings living in another household.

Figure 1.5  Distribution of children born in two-parent families according to the family context at birth, 1983-84 and 1997-98 cohorts NLSCY, Cycles 1 and 3

Combining these two "situation at birth" variables, Figure 1.6 shows the strong relation between the increasing popularity of common-law unions and the rise in second families. It shows:

  • Couples who choose to marry without living together first are generally in their first union and rarely have children from an earlier union. As a result, more than half the children born in an intact family (56%) had parents who had married without living together first, compared with less than one-fifth of children born in other two-parent family types.
  • Cohabitation is the union of choice for establishing a second family. Four-fifths of children born in a stepfamily were born to parents who had cohabited; more than half the time, parents were still cohabiting when they were born. As a result, 43% of children born in a stepfather family, and 48% in other stepfamily types, were born outside marriage.
  • Quasi-intact families (with half-siblings not living in the family) are closer to stepfamilies than to intact families in terms of the type of parents' union at birth.

Figure 1.6  Distribution of children, aged 2-13 years in 1996-97, born in two-parent families by family context and by type of parents' union, NLSCY, Cycle 2, longitudinal cohort (N=13870)

The context at birth and family transitions

How are these different birth contexts associated with the way the family life course unfolds during childhood? How are they linked to the likelihood that children experience radical change in their family environment? By the second NLSCY cycle in 1996-97, almost one-quarter of children (24%) in the longitudinal sample had already experienced at least one family transition even though, at an average age of just under eight years, they were still relatively young. For the vast majority of children—those born within a conjugal union—their parents' separation marks the first transition. For the 7% of children whose parents were already "separated" at their birth, the formation of a conjugal union is the first transition, either when their parents start living together, or when their mother or father enters a union with someone else.

Evidently, the younger children are, the less time they have had to live a family transition. As Table 1.1 shows, 18% of pre-school children had lived some change in their family situation between their birth and Cycle 2; the proportion rose to 26% among children aged 6-9 years, reaching 28% among children aged 10-13 years. Differences would be even larger were it not for the increase in separation during the 1980s which affected the younger cohorts more than the older ones.

However, age is not the only factor that raises the probability of experiencing family change. The context within which children are born also appears to have an influence on children's family life course. Table 1.1 indicates that the proportion of children who had already lived at least one family transition by 1996-97 varied considerably according to their parents' conjugal status:

  • Among children whose parents had married without prior cohabitation, one child in eight (12%) had experienced a family transition.
  • This proportion rose to 20% for children whose parents had cohabited before marrying.
  • It more than doubled (44%) among children born in a common-law union.
  • The difference between marriage and common-law unions is particularly marked in the early years. Among children aged 2-5 years in 1996-97, the proportion with separated parents was five times higher among children born to cohabiting parents than among children born to married parents with no previous cohabitation.
  • Over three-quarters of children born outside a union experienced some change in their family environment. This high proportion is due to the different nature of the first transition for this group: parents who are already "separated" at their child's birth are more likely to enter a union than couples, especially parents, are to terminate theirs.
Table 1.1  Proportion of children aged 2-13 years in 1996-97 who have experienced at least one family transition, by age group, and according to:
a) By conjugal status of parents at child's birth
In a conjugal union Not in a union Total
Child's age at survey Direct marriage Marriage preceded by cohabitation Common-law Total
2-5 years 5.9 11.2 33.6 13.8 62.0 17.6
6-9 years 11.8 21.7 48.7 21.3 82.1 26.1
10-13 years 17.2 28.0 54.2 24.6 86.2 27.9
Total 12.3 19.9 43.6 20.0 75.7 23.9

b) By family context at birth (children born in a two-parent family)
Child's age at survey Intact Quasi-intact (half-siblings absent) Stepfather Stepmother or Stepmother/ stepfather Total
2-5 years 11.7 28.4 27.8 25.2 13.8
6-9 years 17.7 43.5 40.1 43.4 21.3
10-13 years 21.2 45.7 59.0 38.5 24.6
Total 17.0 39.8 41.1 36.1 20.0

The second part of Table 1.1 confirms that the point at which children arrive in their parents' family life course is linked to their own experience of family change: the percentage of children born in a second family experiencing their parents' separation is much higher than among children born in a first family. Compared with children born in intact families (17%), children from quasi-intact families (whose half-siblings do not live in the household—40%), and from stepfather families (whose maternal half-siblings are present in the household—41%), are particularly likely to have lived a family transition between birth and 1996-97.

These figures represent the combined experience of children of different ages and from different parts of Canada. They do not indicate whether children from more recent cohorts, or from regions with high proportions of common-law union births, are more likely to experience their parents' separation. The next section examines in greater detail the most common family transition, and the first in the lives of most children: their parents' separation.

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