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



Children can take different pathways into their first lone-parent family episode: they may be born into it, or arrive there at some point during childhood when their parents separate or, more rarely, when a parent dies. As mentioned earlier, the pathway has a strong influence on their experience of lone-parent family life and on their subsequent family trajectory. An earlier report documented the rapid rise, during the 1970s and 1980s, in the proportion of children experiencing life in a lone-parent family and at an increasingly early age (Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999). Increasing rates of separation and divorce among parents establishing families during this period was the principal motor of change; data from Cycle 3 of the NLSCY makes it possible to update this information and evaluate whether this trend continued among children born in the early 1990s. It is too early, however, to assess what additional impact the growing proportion of children born to a lone parent during the late 1990s will have on the overall risk of lone-parent family life, as children from these cohorts are still too young to have experienced their parents' separation.

For the sake of clarity, we separate the two pathways into lone-parent family life, restricting the first analysis to the most common entry, via parental separation. We then expand the analysis to include the other pathways into lone-parent family life, through the death of a parent or through a birth outside a union. In both cases, we compare the experience of children from the oldest NLSCY cohorts (born in 1983-84), with that of children born five years later (1988-89) and ten years later (1993-94), up to the age of 15, 10 and 5 years respectively. Trends are then examined for Canada as a whole and for the different regions.

Recent trends in separation

Figure 2.1a presents the cumulative proportion[6] of Canadian children, born within a marital or common-law union, who experience their parents' separation. Comparing the different cohorts shows:

  • By the age of 15 years, almost 30% of children born within a couple during the early 1980s had experienced their parents' separation, 25% of them by the age of 12 years.
  • Children born only five years later, in 1988-89, reached this level (one-quarter with separated parents) three years earlier, at around the age of 9 years.
  • The rapid rise in separation during the 1980s leveled off by the early 1990s, with the 1993-94 cohorts having a similar experience to that of the 1988-89 cohorts, at least during the pre-school years.

Life with a lone parent

For children born within a union, their parents' separation almost always marks the beginning of an episode in a lone-parent family. The growing minority of children born to a single mother also start life in this type of family. Figure 2.1b presents the cumulative percentage of children who experience a first episode in a lone-parent family, either because they were born outside a conjugal union, or following their parents' separation, once again comparing the experience of older and younger children.

The curves are similar to those in Figure 2.1a, but start at a higher level due to the proportion of children born outside a union and therefore living in a lone-parent family from the start (age 0 years).

  • Altogether, by the age of 15 years, one third of the oldest cohorts had lived in a one-parent family at some point, 30% by the time they entered their teens.
  • Children born at the end of the 1980s reached similar levels approximately five years earlier (at 10 and 8 years).
  • Once again, the youngest cohorts included here followed a similar path during early childhood to that taken by the 1988-89 cohorts.

Differences by province

The last section suggests a widening gap between the different regions of Canada with regard to the matrimonial context within which families are established. Do these differences extend to the durability of the family units within which children are born? Is separation more common in regions in which marriage has lost the most ground? The cumulative proportions of children whose parents separated by their tenth birthday are presented in Figure 2.2a by region of Canada. The experience of children born between 1983-85 is compared with that of those born only six years later, between 1989-1991. This comparison shows:

  • Only Quebec stands out from the other provinces in the earlier cohorts (1983-85), with over one quarter of children born within a union experiencing their parents' separation by their tenth birthday. This compares with between 16-20% in the other regions.
  • The probability of separation rose throughout Canada during the 1980s. However, the rise was not uniform and created greater variation between the regions:
    • Ontario registered the steepest increase, with a more than 50% rise in the probability of separation.
    • The other sharp increase was in British Columbia, leaving it (at 29%), second only to Quebec (32%) in terms of how frequently, and how early on in their children's lives, parents separate.
    • The Atlantic and Prairie provinces were the only regions that had not caught up with Quebec's 1983-85 levels by 1989-91. They were the only areas in which children born in a union still had a three in four chance of living with both parents at their tenth birthday.

Figure 2.2a  Cumulative proportions of children who have experienced their parents' separation by age 10 years, by region of Canada, 1983-85 and 1989-91 birth cohorts, NLSCY, Cycle 3 (life table method)

In addition to the proliferation of births to cohabiting couples in the 1980s, the previous section also showed growth and provincial variations in the rate of out-of-union births—the second gateway into life in a lone-parent family. Figure 2.2b shows how adding this alters the image of lone-parent family life given when parental separation alone is considered. First, including out-of-union births raises the probability of life with a lone-parent across the board. Among the 1983-85 cohorts, at least one-fifth of children had already lived with one biological parent by the age of ten years in all regions. In British Columbia, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, this was the case for more than one-quarter of children.

Figure 2.2b  Cumulative proportions of children who have experienced a lone-parent episode by age 10 years, by region of Canada, 1983-85 and 1989-91 birth cohorts, NLSCY, Cycle 3 (life table method)

Beyond this, however, it is interesting to note that the addition of out-of-union births reduces inter-regional variations considerably, as a high proportion of out-of-union births in some regions compensates for low rates of separation, and vice versa.

  • Among the more recent cohorts (1989-91), three children in ten experienced life with a lone parent before their tenth birthday in all Canadian regions.
  • Children born in British Columbia had the highest probability (36%), overtaking Quebec (34%).
  • Despite its relatively high conjugal stability, high rates of out-of-union births meant that one-third of children born in the Atlantic provinces also experienced lone-parent family life by the age of ten years.

This analysis shows clearly that, although the vast majority of children are still born within a conjugal union, the proportion of children spending their entire childhood with both biological parents fell rapidly during the 1980s and remained at this level in the following decade. Many children share a residence with both parents for only the first part of their childhood, and the duration of this episode also declined rapidly during the period. Despite the leveling off of separation rates during the 1990s, the rise in the proportion of out-of-union births suggests that the proportion of children experiencing life in a lone-parent family will continue to rise.

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