It’s one thing to know that the most developed countries do a better job of supporting working families than the U.S. does. It’s a whole other thing to hear what it’s really like to live in one of these countries.
Today’s guest post is from Lea Singh, a former attorney and mother of three living in Canada.
9 Reasons Why Working Mothers Have It Easier in Canada
By Lea Singh
The United States is our country’s big sister, and we Canadians spend a lot of time and effort trying to be like you. We’ve succeeded pretty well — in terms of culture and language we are pretty much like another American state (except Quebec, which is its own country culture). And our celebrities are just like yours — who can tell that stars like Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne, Michael Buble, Sandra Oh and Russell Peters were born and raised in Canada? (Please tell me you can’t tell.)
But the truth is that we are also different, and we like to keep it that way. It’s not just that we drink Tim Horton’s rather than Starbucks (although we do), or that curling is our favorite Olympic sport. It goes deeper than that. Life for mothers and families really is easier in Canada in a number of ways. As a Canadian mother of three young children, I’d like to share my top nine:
1. New mothers can take up to one year off, scot-free.
Some years ago our government clued in to the fact that working women have babies, and babies still need their mothers, and working women need time to be mothers. So now the law says that employers have to allow new mothers to take up to one year of leave (you can start up to 8 weeks before you are scheduled to give birth). Some conditions apply (you need to have worked a minimum amount before taking the leave, etc.) but in general most mothers will have the option of taking this leave, and their jobs will still be waiting for them when they return. Employers have not been cheerful about this legal requirement but they’ve had no other choice but to grin and bear it, hire and train temporary replacements, and continue on.
2. The government gives us a decent paycheck for taking time off with baby.
How many moms could afford to take off a year without any paycheck? Here in Canada your time off will be compensated by the government at 55% of your regular income up to a total of $47,400 (for low-income brackets the percentage is higher). Note that Quebec has its own plan and will generally give you higher dollar amounts.
Some parents get the 55% figure “topped up” by employers who contribute their own funds, so that parents receive a higher percentage of their regular income. At my last nonprofit, my employer topped up my mat leave compensation to 83% of my regular wage for the first six months (the next six months was back to 55%). According to Canadian Business magazine, top-ups are currently available to about one in five parents who work in the private sector (usually for big firms), and about one in two public sector employees (probably permanent versus term employees).
For the best top-ups and parental conditions overall, it’s still hard to beat the unionized workplace, such as schools, the postal service, and liquor stores (only in Canada, eh?). Employees who happen to work in such sectors, where active unions have hammered out strong collective agreements, usually have downright enviable entitlements. Sneak peek: federal government employees will get their entire year of parental leave topped up to 93% of their usual salary, and they can take up to another four years unpaid parental leave. Five years later their boss may not remember them, but these lucky parents are still guaranteed a comparable job with the same salary.
But handouts often come with a catch, right? So if your employer is offering top-ups, make sure to double-check their good intentions. Some employers offer top-ups with the condition that you must return to work after your maternity leave, or else be required to pay back the supplement. As a mom who chose to stay home after maternity leave, that condition could have placed me in a real bind — thankfully my employer had no such requirement.
3. Dads can take up to 9 months off after birth, paid!
A portion of the paid one-year leave only applies to biological moms, but 37 weeks of it is called “parental” leave and can be claimed by others including the father or adoptive parent(s), who can also split this time among themselves.
I love this policy and our family took advantage of it. For my first baby I took the full year off myself, but for my next two pregnancies I was already a stay-at-home mom and didn’t need mat leave. So my husband used the parental leave to carve out some nice chunks of time at home: 12 weeks for our second baby, and the full 9 months for our third. Outnumbered for the first time by two toddlers and a newborn, my husband and I both found it incredibly helpful that he was home all that time.
4. Overall employment conditions are changing in favor of parents.
I’m not much of an expert on this but a 2011 article by Jasmine Budak in Canadian Business magazine stated that: “Today, the year-long mat leave is standard practice, while parental perks such as salary top-ups, extra health benefits and flextime options have become commonplace expectations, especially among the generation Y.” If Canadian employers are truly starting to come to terms with modern expectations and to offer responsive policies, that’s great news for parents in Canada.
5. The government showers us with cash just for having children.
It’s a great feeling to get that crisp $300 check in the mail each month. What did we do for this money? Really, we just made our children and that’s about it. Once they were born, the federal government started sending us $100 per child each month, “just because.” Thanks, Prime Minister! This week’s groceries were on you.
Okay, here are the facts: we get these checks under the Universal Child Care Benefit, which is given to all Canadian parents regardless of income and “is designed to help Canadian families, as they try to balance work and family life, by supporting their child care choices through direct financial support.” Since we don’t pay for daycare, this amount is just enough to help lighten the shopping load each month. Once a child turns 6 years old, he loses the benefit (we’ve thought about having more babies just to replace that income).
The federal government also gives out other child-related cash benefits, including a nontaxable monthly payment to low to mid-income parents of children under 18 years old. And all Canadian parents get to claim up to $500 per child in tax credits for their fitness and artistic activities that year (just remember, save your receipts, but do not file them somewhere super secret that you will never find again. Ack!)
6. Ontario offers full-day kindergarten from age 4.
Allow me to be entirely hypocritical here. I actually really dislike the full-day kindergarten program that has recently been introduced in my province, and which is available in various versions in most parts of Canada. Yet even though I’m not a fan, it’s true that this program is popular with working parents and certainly does help to make their lives easier.
Our daytime streets may be completely empty of children over the age of three, and four- and five-year-olds are basically “going to work” each day and returning with the grown-ups, but those are their problems. No one can deny that working moms and dads are happier because the burden of childcare has been entirely lifted from their shoulders. They can now rest easy knowing that their children are safely tucked under the wings of certified teachers in bona fide school buildings, with all the resources and assurances of the provincial educational system.
As for me, I’ve chosen to keep our children home at least through kindergarten. It feels good to give them that ancient thing called a childhood, the one that involves running around outside in the sunshine, carefree, exploring, playing and just being for hours on end, without worksheets, without adult-imposed structure, without the constant go-go-go of some bubbly curriculum.
7. Free health care means that we can afford to use the hospital.
The Canadian health care system is far from perfect and I often complain about it, but the truth is that any other alternative would surely be a lot more expensive for us. As parents we have already taken advantage of our health care system many, many times. Shall I start with our fertility issues and subsequent treatment, or the specialist doctor visits for each of my pregnancies, or the three C-sections and subsequent hospital stays? Later on I also stayed at the Children’s Hospital for five days with our newborn son, as he slept utterly adorable in sunglasses under jaundice-fighting blue lights. We regularly visited physiotherapists at the Children’s Hospital with our other two daughters, we often see our pediatrician, and we have accessed other services.
All of this has been free, free, free. And the waitlists have not been bad. So yes, although I generally call myself a conservative and usually dislike public health care, the benefits have clearly been there for us.
8. The culture of private schools is possibly less prevalent.
Here in Ottawa, you would almost think you’re in Manhattan. There are private elementary and secondary schools seemingly on every corner, despite the existence of a very good public and public Catholic school system. Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio, International Baccalaureate, religions of every kind…the list of private schools would make your head spin. In general, the tuition for private schools at least equals Canadian universities, so some children are clearly getting their Bachelor of Science in kindergarten.
And yet, in Edmonton where I grew up, private schools are almost nonexistent and a huge majority of children go through a high quality public or public Catholic system. Which leads me to believe that Ottawa may be a rather extreme outlier as far as the rest of Canada is concerned, perhaps due to all those diplomats and public servants in Canada’s capital. Parents in much of the rest of Canada (naturally excepting Vancouver and Toronto) can probably rest easy and keep their retirement savings, knowing that their children are not missing out by going to public school because after all, there are hardly any private schools to send them to.
9. McGill is the Dollarama version of Princeton.
Ah, do as I say, not as I do…as a Canadian with two American university degrees on my wall, I can only look back and say, what was I thinking? If only I had gone to the University of Toronto, especially on scholarship as they were offering, I would have graduated in the black rather than having to sign away a good portion of my life to loan repayment.
Needless to say, we plan to use our children’s high school years to plead and argue with them incessantly about the need to remain in Canada for university. If we are successful in persuading them, we will feel very relieved indeed.
In Canada, parents (and students) don’t have to win the Powerball just to pay for university. Here, four-year degrees cost a mere fraction of what American universities are brazenly demanding. This means that students graduate free from indentured servitude, and they can choose to do anything they please with their degree. Sure, send us your kids — fees for international students are higher but you will still find them a bargain.
My husband and I also figure that with lower school loans, the children should be moving out of our house sooner…but our overpriced real estate market might blight those hopes. Inflated house prices are eating up the gains from cheap education, and might keep our children living in the basement. Debt is still debt, whether to Princeton or the Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
What’s not to like?
I’ve given the pluses, but not everything is better in Canada (only most things). Canadian women still struggle with a lot of the same issues that American women are dealing with, especially work-life balance.
Just today I got to talking with a grandmother in my daughter’s gymnastics class, and one of the first things she told me was that she cares for her two grandchildren, aged 5 and 8, daily from early breakfast to 6 pm, and part-time on weekends. “My daughter has a very important job,” she explained, “and her husband too. They are always working.” The children “go home to eat supper and sleep, that’s it,” she told me. “I’ve been doing this for eight years — it’s like having children all over again.”
That in a nutshell is one of the main challenges to Canadian family life. The dual-income family has radically altered the way that we parent, and our children are in some ways the guinea pigs of a whole new way of being raised with often minimal parental involvement. Both parents may feel torn and guilty, but there are no easy answers to be found anywhere.
Not even in Canada.
Lea Singh is a homeschooling mother of three (aged 2, 3, and 4) and lives in Ottawa, Canada. In a previous life she worked as a lawyer in a large Manhattan law firm, until she chose a whopping pay cut and entered the field of nonprofit organizations. Soon afterwards she met her husband, and marrying him gave her just the excuse she needed to enter the parental paradise of Canada. Lea is quite sure she will never return to the law as a full-time career and is starting on the journey of re-discovering her own North Star as an aspiring writer.