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French Canadian Families

The Family And Reproduction

With respect to reproduction, Quebec family behavior changed sharply between the beginning and the end of the twentieth century. Although childlessness, due in part to the many men and women who joined celibate Catholic orders, was relatively high at the beginning of the century, the very high proportion of women who had more than six children made up the difference and ensured fast population growth. Quebec families maintained higher fertility levels than other North American families until the end of the 1940s, although the reduction of Quebec family size started as early as the end of the nineteenth century. This decline, although slow, was definitive (Gauvreau and Gossage 2001). During the post-World War II baby boom, Quebec couples adjusted their demographic behavior to resemble that of North America in general. At mid-century, the age at marriage fell, childlessness became less common, and large families became gradually marginalized, to the extent that women born after 1940 in Quebec had fewer children than those born in Ontario at the same time (Gauvreau and Gossage 2001).

Among cohorts born in the twentieth century, three models summarize the evolution of the distribution of Quebec women by the number of children born. The first model shows a pattern of high childlessness along with a high proportion of women with six or more children (generations born before 1921), which resulted in an average of
3.5 children per woman. The second model is characterized by a marked reduction of the proportion of childless women associated with a decreasing proportion of large families and growth of families with three or four children, leading to an average of 2.5 children (generations 1931–1936). Finally, the third model presents the return of a higher proportion of childless women (this time more related to voluntary childlessness), a domination of the two-child family and a near disappearance of four-child-families, producing an average of 1.6 children (generations born after 1960). Variations in the average age of childbearing are also noticeable. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the mean age at childbearing exceeded thirty years due to the late arrival of the last children. When families started shrinking, the age at childbearing then dropped to between twenty-six and twenty-seven: couples rarely had more than two children, and first and second order children came at an early age following early marriage. Among generations born after 1960, the average age at childbearing grew, to between twenty-eight and twenty-nine, mainly because of the postponement of the first birth.

This transition towards a small family size and lower fertility could not have been possible without effective contraceptive methods. Contraceptive use slowly spread in the population, but at first the main contraceptive method was the rhythm method (periodical abstinence). The influence of the Catholic Church remained a determining factor. Nevertheless, the church gradually lost its influence, and toward the end of the 1960s, women began to use contraceptive pills. Furthermore, in the mid-1970s, a very substantial number of couples turned to sterilization as soon as their desire for children was fulfilled (Marcil-Gratton 2000).

The radical reduction of the family size within the generations born after 1930 resulted from a major decline in the desire for children. How can this be explained? In all likelihood, Quebec, as most Western societies, went through major social and economic reorganizations that profoundly affected society's thinking about families and children. One factor was the influence of structural changes, such as urbanization and industrialization. Generalized education, as well as declining religious values, also had a significant impact, particularly in Quebec. The resulting growth of individualism encouraged both men and women to make decisions based on personal goals rather than social or institutional criteria. Such an evolution necessarily challenged the need or desire for children (Lesthaegue 1988). Second, the declining desire for children was associated with the development of a mentality based on economic rationality: considering their resources, couples compare satisfactions gained from having children with the costs, direct and indirect, they represent; children, especially the third or the fourth, lost in this cost-benefit analysis (Henripin 1989). As this way of thinking became more and more internalized, the desire for children was further reduced. Finally, the entry of married women into the workforce, even though it happened quite late in Quebec, corresponded to one of the most significant transformations associated with family change in Western societies. It provoked an ongoing redefinition of male and female roles in couples' private lives, and major adjustments, still underway, from institutions and labor markets. Numerous authors consider that maintaining a fertility level that is sufficient to ensure social reproduction is founded on the society's capacity to realign its institutions in order to allow men and women to reach equality in their family and professional lives (Chesnais 1996; MacDonald 2000).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsFrench Canadian Families - The Quebec Family And Marriage, The Family And Reproduction, Children's New Family Environment