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Flexible maternity and parental leave: Is it too much to ask?

matleavecarnivalboxYou know the spoiled little rich girl complaining that her Daddy won't buy her a Porsche and she has to make due with a BMW? If you're American, you'll probably think I sound like that spoiled little rich girl after reading this post. I'm sorry.

I'm Canadian.

I have access to almost a year of leave (combined maternity leave and parental leave) from work after having a baby with some pay.

And I don't think it is enough.

In fact, I think it provides a bare minimum amount of benefits and protection to a select group of people.

Although I think that the amount of time off, the dollar value of the benefits, the eligibility criteria, and the job protection of parents on leave still leaves a lot to be desired, those are not the subject of my post today. What I want to talk about today is the lack of flexibility in the current system, which is something that I think could be addressed without significant expense while making maternity, paternity and parental leave relevant and helpful to a lot more Canadian families.

What do I mean when I say that the current system is inflexible?

  • You have to take the leave starting at the end of your pregnancy or the latest when your child is born.

  • You have to take all of the leave within the first year following the birth of your child (you can't take some leave, go back to work for a bit, and then take some more leave later).

  • Money you earn while on leave is deducted from your benefits.

What is wrong with that? The problem is the lack of flexibility. It seems to assume that the parent with the lower income will stay home for a year with the baby while the higher earning partner continues to bring home the bacon and pay most of the bills. Maybe that is fine for a lot of people, but what happens if:

  • A mother is the higher wage earner and wants to be able to stay home with her baby to facilitate breastfeeding but can't afford to pay the bills with the combination of her husband's salary and the benefits that she is getting?

  • A family is just scraping by on two incomes and can't afford to have one of the two parents earning significantly less or shelling out a lot of money for day care?

  • One of the parents that wants to take leave is in the middle of a critical project or initiative at work during the first year of the baby's life and can't take time off then?

  • The baby turns out to be a very calm baby that just sleeps and nurses all day and the at-home parent is bored and would like to be able to go back to work early (perhaps working from home with the baby there or taking the baby to work)  but defer the leave for when the baby is more active?

Too bad.

So what would I like to see instead?

Just like people need to accumulate a certain number of hours of work to qualify for benefits under the maternity, paternity and parental leave provisions, I think people should be guaranteed a certain number of hours of leave that they can take as they like.  For example:

  • Instead of taking one year off, they could work half-time for two years and get the same total dollar value of benefits (at the moment if you work half-time while on leave what you earn would essentially cancel out your benefits, so you wouldn't be getting any benefits)

  • A mother with a calm baby could continue working until her baby is 6 months old and then take a year off from the time the baby is 6 months until the baby is 18 months.

  • In a family where the one partner is staying home and the other one is a teacher, could have the non-teacher partner go back to work for a few months while the teacher is at home during the summer and then continue the leave when the school year resumes.

  • The stay-at-home parent could gradually reintegrate into the workplace by going back one day per week, then two days per week, then three days per week and so on without the total dollar value of benefits or number of hours off being affected. This would make the transition easier for the baby and the parent.

  • Let families split the leave by having both parents take small amounts of time off. Instead of one parent being off full-time, let each parent take a bit of time off each week and share the job of raising their child.

Quebec has made some changes to its system (the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan) to be more generous and more flexible. For example, parents can choose  between having a year off at the regular rate of benefits or taking a shorter leave at a higher payout. They also allow you to interrupt your benefits and then restart them later, however all of the benefits must be received within 52 weeks of the birth of the baby. This is a move in the right direction, but I'd like to see more options that increase the flexibility for parents without necessarily increasing the cost to the taxpayer.

Let's work towards a system that guarantees a certain number of paid hours off from work and that doesn't penalize parents for taking those hours in a way that best suits their professions, their family and their baby.

My hope for the United States is certainly that they create a system of paid maternity, paternity and parental leave for all Americans. But I hope that they can perhaps learn from some of the failings of our system and implement a more flexible approach from the start.

This post was written as a contribution to the Maternity Leave Carnival at Strocel.com.

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Reader Comments (52)

This post really struck a nerve with me. I had to return to work early after having both of my kids because I was the higher wage earner and we simply could not afford to float the house with me at home. It broke my heart both times and I view this as time I will never get back. The whole way our system of employment works is completely unfriendly towards families. We seem to working harder than ever before and having less family time than ever.

August 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRenee

@Renee: So did I. I went back to work when my son was 3 months old and when my daughter was 6 months old. I am glad that my husband was able to use some of the leave as well, but it was a forced decision.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I think that it reflects a sad state of capitalism when instead of communities striving to make sure the needs of mothers, fathers, and children are met regardless of income level or benefits package, everything has a dollar sign hanging over it and regulations have to be created which are so narrowly worded and tightly regulated that they can at times do more harm than good, or through their bureaucratic inflexibility yield results which are no where near what was intended.
Somehow the fundamental humanism gets lost.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterslee

[...] Flexible maternity and parental leave: Is it too much to ask? by Annie AKPC_IDS += "5389,"; Love this? Share it! [...]

Thanks so much for playing along!

There are countries that offer the sort of flexibility you're discussing - parents can take leaves at various times and of various lengths, or can take leaves where they work 1/2 time or 1/4 time. I agree it would be a real improvement to the system. Each family is different, and so allowing greater flexibility allows each family to craft a leave that works for them. Isn't that what we should be striving for?

(And I always feel a little whiny talking about Canadian leave, too, knowing that our American friends receive so much less.)

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

I got 12 weeks - 6 40% paid weeks and 6 unpaid. Luckily I had tons of vacation time saved up. My friend only got 6 weeks and it was unpaid. My husband took a week of paid vacation. His company doesn't have paternity leave. Most don't.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Neither you nor Amber nor anyone should feel bad about critiquing your own leave system. If anything, I as an American want you to critique - and I hope change! - your scheme so that we here realize we can, and should, aim higher. Your leave doesn't make our lack any worse, and it wouldn't take anything away from us if it were better, so I fully support your complaining.

Plus you are, as usual, spot-on Annie. I'd ideally want even more, but I could be satisfied with what you've described.

By the way, does Canada's system cover adoption at all?

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArwyn

[...] Flexible maternity and parental leave: Is it too much to ask … [...]

Your first paragraph made me laugh. So true. I really try not to complain because I know I have it so good. A year of paid mat leave at 93% of my salary and the option to take up to 5 years of unpaid leave to care for children under 5. I have a good employer.
I like your idea of more flexibility. I also like the idea of allowing self-employed people to have mat/ parental leave.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCapital Mom

Yeah so first time American mom here with a 6 week old baby, so I'm halfway through all the leave I get. I keep joking I will move to Sweden before our next baby.

As much as I want to be jealous of you, I keep reminding myself that many people during my pregnancy told me how lucky I was to be able to take the full 12 weeks of leave because I 1) work for a company that is under the regulations. Don't work for a company that has 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the worksite? Too bad for you. Or many people have told me they cannot afford to take that much time off work unpaid. I'm lucky in that my company pays for 6 weeks of short term disability pay for a birth ( or 8 if you have a c-section) and my husband and I have been able to save up money to make ends meet the other 6 weeks.

It still sucks. I don't know how I'm going to leave my baby with someone else and go back to work but we cant' afford to do anything else.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterZellion

I would also like to add to your post the need to include self-employed women to have the option of paying into EI so they can receive benefits. I was a full time massage therapist. I started taking clients again at 6weeks with both children. I reduced my clientelle load to 1/16 of my full-time load. We barely managed. I would have been better off to have left my profession and worked at home depot full time to receive maternity leave. There are almost no employed RMT positions. I know several other self employed health care worker (md, dc, rmt) who either don't bf or mix feed or are forced to pump for their babies b/c they are FORCED back to work early. For self employed women we have it worse than in the USA - at least they have some maternity leave. Your idea of flexiblity would work well for most self employed mama.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I believe that the Canadian system does cover adoption, but at a lower level. In most of Canada, at the moment, the leave is split between maternity leave (18 weeks or something?? That's a pure guess.) that can only be taken by the mother and is meant as recovery time. The remainining 30-odd weeks is parental leave, and can be split between the parents. Adoptive parents, if my information is still current, covers the parental time, but not the medical recovery time.

I think that's very sad. If anything, adoptive parents need more time to bond with a child, not less. Again, it's a good start, but more could be done.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJuliette

That was, and is, my situation too. We managed to get me 6 months off, and then couldn't afford more. My company doesn't top up the federal benefits, and at the time my daughter was born, I was making significantly more than my husband.

This time, we're trying for 8-9 months for me. Our wage gap has narrowed (I'm now working 80%, and his salary has increased quite a bit), and we are putting more away now. We're also doing this on as much as a budget as possible - the advantage of a second child! Our first time, DH wanted even time off with his daughter, and I don't blame him. However, we ran into feeding problems (she wouldn't take a bottle, and was only just starting solids), and we were both surprised at my level of exhaustion and depression going back after 6 months - so we both agree that a bit more time home for me would benefit us both better - he'd have a better quality of time with an older infant, and I would have more time as well.

I also feel a bit whiny when my American colleagues feel they are "lucky" to get 3 months off due to the "generosity" of our global company, but yes, I do think it's worth pushing for the Porsche, and at the same time, supporting efforts in the US to get there too.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJuliette

@Capital Mom: Self-employed individuals are eligible for leave already in Quebec and I believe that is in the plans for the rest of Canada too.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

@Erin: I am self-employed, as is my husband. As residents of Quebec we had access to maternity, paternity and parental leave.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I'm sorry, but as I toodle along here on my bike I just can't feel that sorry for you in your BMW. I had six weeks of leave (paid, which many people I know did not have); my husband took off two days. So I see maternity leave as a priviledge, not a right, and your ideas about flexible maternity leave sound like taking advantage of a priviledge. What if I want to leave my baby with a sitter from the day she is born, but then after I have my third child I'd like to take three years off work to go backpacking across Southeast Asia? According to your plan, that would be fine too.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

@Channa: I'm not asking you to feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for you though. As I explained in my post, what I am asking for is that parents be eligible for a certain number of hours/days of paid leave for each child that they have with some flexibility as to when that is taken off, either full-time or part-time. So, I guess if you think it is best for your family to leave the kids with a sitter right after they are born but then have the amazing family bonding experience of going backpacking across Southeast Asia for 3 years after the third child is born, then great.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I agree that more flexibility needs to be built in or added in to maternity/paternity leave. I would also add to have more flexibility with the qualifications. I married soon after university, didn't have a job yet, and then got pregnant on our honeymoon. Because of the qualifications needed for maternity leave and because no one wanted to hire someone who would be leaving, I didn't even qualify for any money or time off. My husband worked full time at a great job with wonderful benefits - but he couldn't qualify for any paternity leave either because I was not working. It really should be allowed for single parents, or single income families to benefit from this as well.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNiqi

Hi, just wanted to add some things. (Perhaps they are in other posts in the carnival and I haven't read that far, so forgive me.)

All EI leave related benefits only begin when the baby leaves the facility with mom, not when the baby is born. And by that I mean that for NICU parents, they will not get one dime in benefits until the baby is discharged home. If the baby reenters the hospital, benefits are suspended. Whole thing is a nightmare because the bureaucrats in charge messed it up when they made the rules. (Swear to God it was included in a budget bill specifically because there was a line item of money for it.)

It was originally intended to provide flexibility for the parents of NICU babies who wanted to work while they waited for the babies to come home, or stay home anyway, and the idea was to give them extended benefits, so they got money while the kid was in the NICU if they weren't working, and their one full entire year with the baby. Under the old system, the preemie would be in the NICU for months and mom was getting benefits, but then the baby got discharged with many many instructions for home care and the mom had to go back to work and the medically fragile baby left with a child care provider much much sooner than any doctor would recommend and they needed to fix it. Except they messed it up.

For women who have to leave their jobs early due to pregnancy complications, and be admitted to hospital or on home bed rest, they do start sick leave benefits through EI early, but then they lose the weeks after the baby is born. Another fuck up.

For women who miscarry, they get sick leave benefits, but just barely, and depending on the stage at which you lose the pregnancy, you may need longer than 18 weeks, or a shorter period. If you get pregnant again at any stage, you could lose mat leave benefits for the living child due to the difficulty getting enough hours.

Worst of all, women whose babies are stillborn, are only give maternity leave benefits of 18 weeks, regardless of medical need for recovery. And most employers, including the federal government, refuse to top up benefits for a stillbirth, even though expenses are much much higher for parents of stillborn babies. (They are legally required to pay for funerals, after they buy an entire houseful of baby gear, most of which doesn't get returned.)

Same situation as when a baby dies in a NICU. The mother gets maternity leave benefits after the baby dies and the father gets nothing.

They get no parental leave because in the words of HRDC, they aren't parents.

Nice, huh?

Sorry about the length of this, you have no idea how bitter I am about it.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAurelia

I am jealous! I'm from Australia and I got no maternity leave from either my employer or from the government - they have a thing called the baby bonus which is a lump sum payment - but this would probably only have been equivalent to 6 weeks pay for me. I think that it is important that everyone push for more benefits, regardless of where there country sits on the spectrum. When countries are reviewing their own system they will often look at others as a guide to what they should be aiming for.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterzoey

I am an American and I have often thought companies should make leaves more common and more accessible to ALL workers, those who have kids and those you don't. I interned with a company that was owned by a private German company. The German company had a policy that all employees were entitled to a four-week paid sabbatical after they worked at the firm for five years. And they were REQUIRED to take it. This was in addition to the four weeks of paid vacation time they also got after only being employed for two years. So if you took four weeks vacation and four weeks sabbatical then you could take 8 weeks off at 100% pay. I don't know what their maternity policy was but I bet it was great, too. So there are companies like this one, in the USA, which "get" that employees need time off and that time off ultimately helps them be a better employee. But it is not the norm. The Family and Medical Leave Act protects some employees but not all companies are obligated to follow it (e.g. small/medium companies) and the leave is not required to be paid.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlina

@Aurelia: Thank you for your comment. Those are indeed horrible and ridiculous rules. Not well thought out at all. I wasn't aware of all of these issues and also didn't intend to cover all of the problems in my post. But I would encourage you to write a post for the Carnival too if you haven't already.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

As for a response to your "what happens if...?" Well, it's an extreme move, but parents could sell their house like we did. Depends on the market of course, and not many people consider this from what I've heard, but it gave us money in our pockets and a lower mortgage for the next house. If moms really want to stay home with their baby/toddler, it is possible. It just depends on your priorities and what you're willing to give up to gain.

August 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMelodie

This is the first time I am replying to someone else's comment -- what a cool feature! Anyway I read your blog post and I think it's neat you were able to sell your house and organize your finances in such a way to stay home. But some people are really and truly stuck. Maybe they made a series of bad financial decisions in the past... maybe they were affected by things out of their control. I agree it is possible to arrange your finances in such a way so that a parent can stay home but for some families, that might take years of digging yourself out of a financial mess. By then the kids might be in college!! So although anything is possible given enough time and the right committment to a budget, many Moms desperately want to stay home but cannot do so no matter how much you cut back. It would be nice if there were more "no strings attached" financial planning options available to average people! It would also be nice if companies did a better job looking favorably upon a woman (or man) who took 2-5 years out of their career to raise children. That way, people could stay home with less fear that they will never be able to enter the corporate career track again and the years home with the kids will be a negative spot on their resume.

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlina

You're right Alina, It's not cut and dry or possible for many families. I just wanted to share my story so some people can see that there can be alternatives not otherwise considered. Basically, "selling your house" can also be used as a metaphor for thinking outside of the box.

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMelodie

I got 7weeks – 6 60% paid weeks and 1 unpaid. My husband took another 6 weeks of unpaid leave. His company doesn’t have paternity leave. Our neighbor starting babysitting our daughter when our daughter was a little over 3 months old. Neither my husband nor I have the option for going part time (our companies will not allow) so we stagger our schedule - I'm 6:307am - 2:30/3pm and he's 9/10 - 6pm so she's only with the babysitter from 9 - 3 or less. We both wish that our companies were more flexible and allowed the part time option since we are not able to have one of us stay home but at this time, thats not the case.

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJen Dugan

[...] PhD in Parenting calls for more flexible parenting and maternity leave. [...]

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter» Environmentally Friend

Hi! We really loved your post and decided to feature it as a part of our Mom Blog Round-Up over at KiwiLog. Cheers!

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKiwiLog

Well, if Channa is riding a bike, I must be walking. As a temp employee (3 yrs w/company, but no permanent position), I took 3 weeks upaid leave after my daughter was born, and I consider myself lucky. Why? Because my student husband, is able to take evening classes and stay home with our baby during the day. So at least she's at home and not in daycare at 3 weeks old.

I understand why it would be beneficial to have more flexible maternity leave that Canadians have. You have a good foundation and should build a better system if you can. I'll just keep looking *up* with jealousy. :(

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

[...] However, she believes that it could be improved by making it more flexible, as she explains in Flexible maternity and parental leave: Is it too much to ask?. I think she makes some really excellent points about why the system doesn’t work for [...]

August 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter» Battling Bureaucracy:

I don't think of your post as whining at all. Here in the US, well, it sucks. However, there is nothing wrong with trying to improve a system you already have in place that is working a heck of lot better than anything we have here in the US.

August 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I always thought our parental leave could be better. I'm studying to be a teacher and I've always thought it doesn't make sense for a teacher to lose maternity leave if it ends Sept 15th and s/he would like to start the school year with students on Day 1 of school. I believe Sweden has a system where you have up to age 7 to use up parental leave. So you can save some days for if you want to stay home with your toddler or child.
I also think we need some guaranteed leave for fathers. If I understand this right, it sounds like if dads take leave, moms have less leave. I will probably want to spend a year with my baby if I have one but I'll want the baby's dad to have leave time too. Also, it doesn't make sense that both have to take leave right after the baby is born. If the dad takes 3 months, the baby is in day care at 9 months?
Unfortunately I have heard of any plans to change parental leave. But I'm guessing not many people are asking for it.

August 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLyndsay

[...] PhD in Parenting is talking about the need for flexible parental leave. She tries not to rub it in that she’s Canadian and has “access to almost a year of [...]

August 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWeekly News Round-Up « W

[...] too long ago I wrote about the lack of flexibility in our maternity and parental leave system. Today reader Gayle asked me if I would post about my thoughts on full day kindergarten, which has [...]

I have already availed paternity leave for my first child.Now it so happened that my second child has died just after his birth. I want to avail PL right now.Insuch case , is it possible for me to avail the same? If I do so, is it permissible to avail PL when my spouse conceives next time?

February 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternaresh

@naresh: I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sorry, but I don't know the answer to your question.

February 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] days, I’m proud to be Canadian. Whether I’m talking about our health care system, our maternity and parental leave programs, feminist leaders, or other topics close to my heart, my country usually makes me proud (even if it [...]

[...] More flexible maternity and parental leave. [...]

You forgot to add one more "category" in your list of fell-through-the-cracks: the single mother

The benefit amount I am receiving from Canada EI is very much NOT ENOUGH to sustain myself alone, let alone myself and a child who are trying to survive on only 1 income. And while I may have an opportunity to find work I can do from home while on maternity leave (thereby circumventing the need for childcare), EI will deduct all monies I make at such a job from my benefit rate and I will be no further ahead.

EI needs to give a higher benefit rate to single mothers on maternity leave, AND they need to allow single mothers to make additional income while on maternity leave in order to make ends meet on EI's meager benefits.

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngela


I completely agree.

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Nice topic.

Also, it is really important to have quality time to our family. That is my number 1 priority.

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRex

You just described something very similar to the Danish system. I had both my children in Denmark, while I completed my PhD. The system is very flexible and your time off can be carried over, but must be used by the time the child turn 10 (?).

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJayda

I completely agree and it's not just single mothers who suffer. The benefit is an arbitrary amount that is not enough for most people to get by on. It might be ok if you live in a smaller town, but in a larger city there is no way you can get by on $400 a week. Especially if you're a single income earner or have more than one child. Everyone wants to take advantage of the year at home with the baby, but practically everyone I know has gone into major debt while on maternity leave. There really needs to be a scaled benefit or the ability to work part time.

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaranda

Our system also creates a class system of the Haves and the Have Nots. If you're self employed you're not entitled to any leave at all. I went back to work when my fourth child was two weeks old, after taking four weeks unpaid leave and working past my due date (she was quite overdue). And that's after nine months of unpaid time off for all my prenatal appointments, ultrasounds (of which I had many), etc.

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaranda

Structuring flexibility into maternity and parental leave under Canada's EI system is a very, very good idea. I have four children and didn't really take a formal maternity leave with any of them because what I wanted to do was combine part-time work with parenting in creative ways that the system didn't accommodate. I did precisely what this proposal contemplates: I worked very part-time when they were little and gradually ramped back into full time work by the time the youngest child was 2 and a half. As a result, I received $0 in parental benefits total for four children born in the 2000s despite the fact that I am an employed lawyer. So, yes, very, very good idea.

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca Bromwich

If only. As an American watching the Tea Party take over our national dialogue, I'm quite certain any kind of paid leave (beyond disability pay) won't happen in my lifetime. And definitely not while I'm raising children.

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmie Hood

[...] have no access to maternity leave at all. In Canada, most women have access to maternity leave, but there are things that prevent many women from being able to take leave or that force them to go back.... It can take months to get breastfeeding well established and many women are back at work before [...]

[...] also have maternity and parental leave programs which are not perfect, but are a good start. Oh, and health care that is universally available instead of being tied to that crappy job that [...]

[...] maternity and parental leave [...]

Quebec also has father-only leave that is for fathers only- 6 weeks I think. It is a great thing because once fathers taste the leave they both sympathize more with mothers and want to take more time off . Even though parent can the leave given in Ontario-the vast majority of people who take it are mothers.

A compassionate society would also grant leave for caring for sick and dying relatives and disabled relatives...

It would also be great if there were a transition period of part time work /part time leave.

November 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAurora

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