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SAH or WOH? How can we stop restricting mothers' choices?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about choice. I really think that the freedom to make choices is key in a democratic society. Just because we are able to vote in Canada, doesn't mean that we have a true democracy (see Fair Vote Canada) and just because we theoretically have the right to choose in many aspects of our lives, doesn't mean that those are free choices.

The aspect of choice that I want to touch on today is the decision to stay at home (SAH) or to work out of home (WOH). This is not a free choice. Many women are forced in one direction or another. For many of them, neither choice is good and they have to go with the lesser of two evils, often resulting in significant levels of stress.  So what needs to change to make the choice freer? And which of our political parties support those changes?

I want to go back to work...

In Canada, women have the right to take up to a year of maternity/parental leave and they are able to get some minimal benefits if they do so. However, not all women want to stay at home or are able to stay at home (more on that in the "I want to stay at home" section). And even those that do stay at home initially usually end up going back to work at some point. But going back to work is not easy. It means spending less time with our children and having trouble finding a good work-life balance. Some of the specific challenges facing those that do go back to work are:

Lack of affordable, quality child care: Parents need to know that the place they are leaving their children is safe. Unfortunately, with so few licensed child care spaces available, more and more parents are having to turn to unlicensed operations, many of which are great but some that are not. Parents end up with huge amounts of guilt if they learn the hard way that the arrangement they chose for their child is substandard. Also, child care is often not affordable. In most parts of Canada, the cost of daycare is significant. It is so high that it is often not financially viable for the lower wage earning parent to go back to work. In Quebec, where there is theoretically $7 per day daycare (subsidized by the Quebec government), if you put your first child on the waiting list the day you find out you're pregnant, you have a glimmer of hope of getting your third child into a spot. Otherwise, Quebeckers like the rest of Canadians are forced to shell out significant sums of money for day care, if they are lucky enough to find a spot.

All of the major 5 political parties, except for the Conservatives, have a plan for improving access to child care (the Conservatives just want to increase access to jails for young offenders, which is not the kind of day care I want to support). The Bloq Quebecois is supportive of the seven-dollar a day day care regime that exists in Quebec (which as discussed above, has its limitations...but they don't say what they would do to address that). The Green Party  and the Liberal party would restore the 2005 agreement reached between the federal government, provinces and territories (which was canceled by the Conservative government) to achieve a universal child care programme in Canada . The Green Party also wants to ensure that this programme provides workplace child care spaces wherever possible. The NDP wants to enact the Early Learning and Child Care Act (which already passed second reading in Parliament) and ensure adequate funding for a Canada-wide child care and early learning program that will make 150,000 (start) to 220,000 (by year 4) new high quality, accessible, affordable, non-profit and licensed child care spaces available to Canadian families including aboriginal Canadians.

Ability to continue breastfeeding while working: Because of our one year maternity leave in Canada and because most mothers wean before or at a year, there seems to be an assumption that there is no need to support breastfeeding in the workplace in Canada. But many mothers do go back to work before a year and many mothers do continue breastfeeding beyond a year. However, our laws generally do not provide for specific requirements for accommodating mothers that wish to pump or to have their baby close by to facilitate breastfeeding while at work. Beyond lacking legal provisions, there is also just a lack of understanding or knowledge about what it takes to continue lactation while at work among HR professionals and managers. In the United States, where breastfeeding rights and breastfeeding rates are generally behind Canada, 21states have legislation that specifically spells out the responsibilities of an employer vis-a-vis a lactating mother.

None of the parties have addressed lactation in the workplace in their platforms, although the Green Party's policies do indicate that it would establish legislation that would make it an offense to interfere with, distress or harass a women breastfeeding an infant and have specific punishments associated with it. Perhaps like some American states they would include some provisions related to the work place in that.

Babies aren't welcome in the workplace: In some jurisdictions, companies are beginning to implement babies-at-work programs that enable parents to bring their new babies to work and care for them while doing their jobs, generally until the babies are six to eight months of age or crawling. I know that if I hadn't had my 2.5 year old son to take care of, I would have been capable of working full-time when my daughter was a newborn because she was such a calm baby. I could easily have worked all day with her sleeping in a sling and nursing as required. This would have allowed me to go back to work earlier and then potentially take time off later when she was older instead. I hear of a lot of moms of newborns saying that they are bored because their newborn doesn't really interact with them much and you can't really play with a newborn and then they are sad to have to go back to work just when their baby is starting to be fun.

I haven't seen evidence of support of a program like this from any of the parties.

I want to stay at home

Women that want to stay at home with their children also face barriers and some feel forced into going back to work earlier than they would like. In general, it seems like the choice to stay home is not valued.

The Green Party says it would value the decision of parents who choose to stay home with children.

Some of the specific barriers to staying at home include:

Inadequate job protection: In Canada, women can take around a year off from work when they have a baby and their employer has to keep their job for them. However, if they wish to stay at home longer than that, their employer does not need to keep their position for them. I have heard many day care providers and parents say that 12 months is not a great time to be introducing a child to day care and that putting them in earlier (before 9 months) or later (after 18 months) makes for a smoother transition. However, a lot of moms don't have the option to wait until 18 months after the birth of their child to go back to work because they could lose their job. Many European countries offer several years of job protection, making it easier for mothers to choose when to go back (although moms that do go back early face other challenges such as lacking day care for infants and young toddlers).

The Green Party says that it would extend maternity/paternity leave for new parents outside of EI to two years and one additional year for other parents who pay into EI. The Liberals plan to give an option to take up to 18 months of leave.

Maternity and Parental Leave Benefits Don't Pay the Bills: My American friends tell me we should be grateful that we get anything at all. And some days I do feel grateful and then other days I want to throw a toddler style temper tantrum and exclaim over and over that "it's not fair!!!". We pretend to be a country where women can take a year off from work and get paid while they do so. However, in the best case scenario for most of Canada, that means earning 55% of your usual salary. That is the best case scenario, because it is 55% of your salary if you earn $41,100 or less annually. If you earn more than that, it is 55% of $41,000 and don't forget that taxes and other deductions get taken off of that (note: the maximum salary and benefit rates are somewhat more generous in Quebec because the province runs its own Parental Insurance Program). But here is the thing. Those benefits might sound nice if your salary is really just extra spending money. But if your family truly depends on your salary to pay the mortgage, buy the groceries, pay the phone bill, then you are going to be racking up excess debt or are going to have to rush back to work sooner than planned if you haven't put a bunch of money aside. And the effect is worsened, of course, if the mother has a higher salary than her spouse and if she wants to stay home. Of course if you are a government employee or if you work for a company that tops up maternity and parental leave benefits, you may be getting more and you might truly be able to afford to take the time off. However, for most people, the benefits received just won't pay the bills. I still remember the sound of shock in the voice of the government call centre employee on the phone when I called to cancel my benefits when my son was 3 months old. She said "you're going back to work already???". Yes. I was. I only went back part-time initially, but just working part-time gave me more money than the benefits did.

The Bloq Quebecois supports increasing payments under the Employment Insurance Program, which is the program that maternity and parental leave benefits are paid from in all provinces other than Quebec. The Bloq also wishes to promote Quebec's Parental Leave Program, which is more generous than the program for the rest of Canada.  The Conservatives wish to give self-employed Canadians access to the benefits (which is currently only available to self-employed Quebeckers under the Quebec plan).  The Liberal Party wishes to give parents the option to take shorter parental leave at a higher benefit level or longer leave (up to 18 months) at a lower benefit level.

Income splitting is not allowed: In Canada, each person is taxed on their own income. So if one parent earns a high wage and the other earns nothing or next to nothing, then they get taxed at a much higher rate than a family with two working parents that both have average salaries. This is yet another impediment to having one parent stay at home, because that tax burden cannot be shared among the two parents.

The Green Party supports income splitting to ensure greater fairness in situations where one spouse earns more than the other. The Conservatives wish to implement income splitting, but only for families caring for someone with a disability, so it wouldn't affect most families.

Insufficient support for flexible work arrangements: Here and there, there are companies that support flexible work arrangements. However, for the most part, jobs are Monday to Friday, approximately 9am to 5pm. This means that parents waste valuable time and emit excess greenhouse gases sitting in rush hour traffic. This means that parents have to put their children in before and/or after school care programs because the work day is longer than the school day, which not only restricts the time they have with their kids, but also restricts their access to their child's teacher. If more workplaces were open to people having alternate schedules (e.g. working 6am to 2pm or 3pm to 11pm, working Saturday but then having Monday off, working part-time) or having people work from home some or all of the time, then this would give families a lot more flexibility to be there for their children in their formative years. And it is not only work places that don't support flexibility, but a lot of day care and preschool programs are also inflexible. It is either full-time or not at all.

The Green Party says that it supports reforms to our tax and labour policies that will increase the opportunity for Canadians to spend more time with family. Specifically, they wish to promote an integrated programme of supports, tax cuts, and awareness raising that time spent with children, time spent in community, time spent in interdependent healthy relation as community is essential for the continuation of our society. It isn't clear exactly what that means, but the recognition is at least a step in the right direction.


The Green Party appears to be the only one that supports a wide variety of initiatives aimed at making women's choices freer. They have initiatives that would make it easier for parents to go back to work and easier to choose to stay home. The Liberals have a few policies that support either decision, but not as comprehensive a platform as the Greens on these issues. The Bloq seems to be supportive of giving more choice and suggests improvements on both sides. The NDP has some policies designed to help parents go back to work (support for day care) and the Conservatives have some minor initiatives designed to help parents stay home with their kids (income splitting for those with family members with disabilities, giving access to benefits to self-employed), but neither of these parties really has a package that addresses both sides of this choice.

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Reader Comments (15)

Great post!

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

I really like the babies at work program. I only wish that I could have done something like that.

October 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterthroughthemonsoon

A very comprehensive post. I am doing a blog research project for my PhD on work life family interconnectivity in Australia and these issues you raise are BIG. I argue, in one of my posts that 'choice' is just an illusion for many mothers who may not have a choice but to go back to work after children, or to stay home and care for them. In Australia, part-time work is a popular 'choice' for mums returning to paid work, but there are associated penalities. I believe parents, need way more support (yes govt is a big one) to make genuine choices.

October 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteraztec-rose

Thanks so much for sharing this incredibly resourceful info! I plan on putting it to great use!

October 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjanuary

[...] choices are still restricted and that it is not a true choice for many women with regards to whether they stay home or go back to work. However, in Quebec it is certainly closer to being a true choice than just about anywhere else in [...]

[...] Questioning some of the idiocies in society in posts like bias against boys or out of sight, out of mind, out of job, or feminism, fathers and valuing parenthood. Challenging people to question things like religion and sin or consumerism. Getting people to think about our empathy deficit and lack of support for true choices for women. [...]

I'm glad this is the hot topic of the week. I've been throwing my own "it's not fair" tantrum in my head for months and months about this (with a half-finished blog post in my "Draft" folder on Typepad.)

I'm a very "pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps" kind of person. But I have been flat out angry - angry at myself, angry at my situation, and angry at my husband - because I have NO choice but to go to work. The fact that someone could even suggest that I leave my children every day voluntarily is simply INSULTING to me. I know a lot of moms work because they want to, but I am *not* one of them.

But some argue that everything is a choice, and I could simply choose not to feed my kids. Seriously? That's a choice? Well, okay then, I guess I'd *rather* leave my kids than sit home watching them starve. Silly me.

June 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTheFeministBreeder

[...] will help you become the type of parent you want to be. I also want to use this blog as a venue to advocate for political and societal changes that give parents and children more opportunities to be their [...]

In addition to the 21 U.S. states with legislation supporting lactating women, the Federal health reform passed in March 2010 includes new national regulations supporting breastfeeding moms in the workplace.


October 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJo

I am in the middle. But also, not by choice. I would be perfectly happy staying home with just my daughter and caring for her all day - had we won the millions. I didn't want to go back to work outside of the home. Not because I am 'lazy' (which is what people comment a lot on), but because I grew up with a mother at home and feel it's important (for my family, please don't take it the wrong way). I wanted that experience for our daughter. So the only options I had was to take my daughter with me (which no job would allow around here) or create my own business from home.

I do Home Daycare now and what you stated above (that some children are just not ready), is very true and I see it all the time. It's sad, because I know the real problem, but professionally I can't tell the parents because they don't have a choice either. They have to work. I also have my Daycare issues as well, and I don't feel like I am giving 100% to my daughter - even though I am here.

It's very, extremely sad to hear that either side is not valued and a choice (or free will) is not given. Speaking on the side to stay home (because I wont speak about other sides that I have not been through), I would love my daughter to have the choice I never had. I would love to see a way where she could stay home (if she chooses) until her child is in school full time (BTW this F/T school thing would be a very interesting read from your perspective). I just don't see it happening, and that is unfortunate really.

I think there is a better way and more cost effective. Why *just* pay subsidy Daycare? Why not give it to the mother who chooses to stay home too? Are they not doing the same thing, or could they be doing the same thing? And how is this forcing the parents to work creating better future adults? How about opening more accessible work from home jobs that are legit! It's one thing when a parent loves their job and the child sees how their parents light up when they talk about work. I commend that, that means something. But forcing or creating an environment where the Mom (usually) wants to stay home but can't because of money is just not acceptable from anywhere in this world.

Thank you for spelling out what means what, I was never very good at understand politics.

October 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOur Sentiments

Indeed, I'm going to ask if I can include this in a resource binder I'm compiling for a class. I'm in my second year of early childhood education studies.

October 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

[...] no question of that.  But my hope is that our struggles, and our victories, will pave the path for our daughters to have both the career and the family that they want to have and for our sons to do so [...]

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLet’s throw the assumpti

[...] Why can’t people see past the statistics and the rhetoric and realize that the problem isn’t women or mothers? The problem is that our society is working against working mothers instead of evolving to create a better and more supportive environment for them. [...]

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCanadian women: We’re fa

As a mother of four children who took time from working to be a stay at home mom, I don't understand why the government or anyone should be funding mothers or fathers to maternity/paternity leaves. We made sacrifices from the onset knowing the house we bought would be covered by one income, traveling less, not going out as often, very little take out or restaurant trips, not buying expensive or brand new cars, etc. Too many people feel others should subsidize their desired life style. This is ridiculous. If you want it earn it!

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer


In Quebec where we have both paid maternity/parental leave and subsidized day care it has been proven that those programs more than pay for themselves through increased maternal workforce participation and the associated increase in tax revenues paid. So the government isn't "funding" anything, they are making an investment in ensuring that parents can balance their careers and their families, and getting a healthy return on investment for doing so.

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

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