Family and Kinship

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Slovaks/

Slovak community life has revolved around the family, the fraternal-benefit society, and the parish. In the European homeland, the traditional peasant family was patriarchal and changed from nuclear to extended depending upon the age of the family members. Young married couples usually lived in the home of the groom’s parents until they were financially able to establish a household of their own. That is why so many single or newly married Slovak men immigrated to the United States and Canada before World War I – to earn enough money to return home and set themselves up as self-supporting farmers. Those who did return to Slovakia lived in a nuclear family until their old age, when one of their married children (usually the eldest) would bring his wife and children into the household (making it an extended family), in order to care for the parents. The parents usually assured themselves of this filial care by willing their house and land to one of the children, with the proviso that they be cared for until death.

In Canada a single man would usually live in a boarding house run by a Slovak family. Since the first two waves of Slovak immigrants arrived in migration chains, the boarders and the householder were often from the same or neighbouring villages. Some were even relatives, and others might become relatives by serving as godparents for the children of the household. Thus, Slovak immigrants initially lived in an extended family (whether real or created) until they could establish households of their own. Even then they, too, often took in boarders until they were financially secure enough to discontinue this practice. Some of the post–World War II immigrants still used this strategy to increase family income while they were getting established. Only the last wave of immigrants could afford to avoid this practice. Meanwhile, as in the Old World, the children of Slovak immigrants usually took their aging parents into their own homes rather than sending them to an old-age home. The Slovak family in Canada, therefore, has also moved between the nuclear and extended forms, depending upon the age of the family members and their economic circumstances.

Women, and sometimes also children, who were left behind in Slovakia while the husbands/fathers went to work in Canada, suffered many hardships. The wife not only assumed all of the household duties, but she also had to work in the fields and care for whatever livestock the family owned. Often the young children had to help her cope. Their only relief was the money sent by the husband/father in far-off Canada, usually on a monthly basis. However, if the husband were unemployed (as many were during the Great Depression), or if the money could not get through (as it did not during World War I), then the family suffered want and deprivation. If relatives could not help out, the children were often reduced to begging. Although a few men abandoned their families in Slovakia, in most cases, they did eventually save enough to send for their families and establish them in Canada.

Gender roles among Slovaks have changed in North America, in varying degrees. Among the immigrants of the first two waves, the man worked outside the home ten to twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week, while the woman took care of the needs of her husband and children, and, in addition, generally looked after numerous boarders. While she worked very hard, she also acquired a great deal of authority. In addition to cooking, cleaning, and shopping for a large household, she also took care of the family’s finances, and often those of the boarders. Furthermore, with the father out of the home for most of the day, the mother became the disciplinarian of the children and the overseer of their homework. In effect, she became the dominant influence in the family and reversed the traditional patriarchal hierarchy that had been common in Slovakia.

Ironically enough, this change in roles did not happen in the households of the immigrants in the third and fourth waves. In the third immigration wave the husbands usually had more education than their wives. Eventually they found white-collar or professional employment, and they retained their authority as heads of their families. Generally, their wives did not work outside the home, either because the family did not require the additional income or because it was not yet fashionable for women to hold jobs in the 1950s and 1960s. The fourth-wave immigrants have also retained the patriarchal family structure. In this group, husbands and wives tend to have equal levels of education, but the husbands have been more successful in finding suitable outside employment because of Canada’s past “depressed entrance status” for women. Also, many wives have chosen to stay at home for a time in order to devote themselves to raising their children until they are in school.

Patterns of marriage among Slovaks in Canada have varied depending upon the period of arrival. The first two waves of immigrants usually married within their own ethnic group, as their parents preferred. Intermarriage with other ethnic groups increased in the second generation, and was the norm in the third and subsequent generations. However, even here there is a discernible pattern – Slovaks of the second, third, and fourth generations tend to marry groups culturally and religiously akin to them. Thus, Roman Catholic Slovaks, if they do not find a spouse who is a Slovak Catholic, may marry a Pole, a Greek Catholic Rusyn or Ukrainian, a Croat or Hungarian, or an Irish or French Catholic. They would seldom marry an Anglo-Canadian Protestant or a Scots Presbyterian because the cultural, religious, and social differences between them are considered too great.

The third and fourth waves of Slovak immigrants to Canada have intermarried with outside groups more often. Their high levels of education have brought them into contact with a broader range of other Canadians and made them potentially more desirable as marriage partners, and their small numbers have made it fairly difficult for them to find a spouse who is a fellow-Slovak. Religion and level of education thus play a greater role in selecting a marriage partner than ethnicity among the later immigrants.

Child-rearing has been taken seriously by Slovak parents in all four groups of immigrants. Immigrants in the first two waves were concerned that they and their children be accepted by an initially suspicious (and sometimes hostile) Canadian society. Therefore, mothers usually saw to it that their children behaved themselves at school and in public life. The children were toilet-trained early, neat and clean when sent to school, and always well-dressed for church (even if, as was usually the case, they had only one “good” outfit). At home the children were given chores early in life in order to instil in them a sense of responsibility, and they were physically disciplined for unacceptable behaviour. They were taught to respect their parents, not to talk back to them, and to speak only when spoken to. Most children of Slovak immigrants in all four waves revered their parents, appreciating how hard they had worked in order to give the children a better life. If the children were old enough to remember their refugee experience, they also appreciated the hardships that their parents had endured in order to start over in the New World.