At the moment, my work is focused on parental leave and the division of childrearing labour in interviewees’ households. I’ve been combing interview transcripts for any references to leave, shared childcare, gendered ideas about appropriate parenting duties etc. and thinking a lot about what parental leave is and who it is for. So it’s not all that surprising that news about the 2017 Federal budget (in Canada) attracted my interest. During the 2015 electoral campaign, The Liberals promised to consider extending parental leave from its current 12 months (ish, depending on the province) to 18 months and it seems they have delivered!
On first glance, this seems like an excellent move. The state is showing an interest in parenting and enabling parents to provide the one-on-one attention that so many parenting experts suggest is essential for optimal development and well-being. What better way to support children while also ensuring that their parents are able to return to the workforce once those early months of child raising are complete? But the more you read about who accesses parental leave, the more you suspect that these policy changes are designed to benefit a very specific group of people: financially privileged women. The finding (cited in The Globe and Mail listicle on these changes) that more than a third of mothers are not entitled to these benefits is striking but unsurprising given that the eligibility requirements (600 hours of insurable earnings) can exclude part-time, seasonal and contract workers.
The new proposal involves reducing the current benefit, 55% of your average income (up to cap) to 33% (also subject to a cap) in order to take the full 18 months. Who can afford to take a pay cut of this magnitude? The current benefit is already below the level deemed “well paid” by the European Commission, a measure used in scholarship on parental leave in the Global North (Baird & O’Brien, 2015). To drop it to 33% is likely to strongly influence which income group manages to take eighteen months of parental leave and crucially, which parent. The new changes make no specific provision for fathers, provision which has repeatedly been shown to improve fathers’ use of parental leave (see Ray, Gornick & Schmidt, 2010 for comprehensive examples) and has specifically improved paternal parental leave patterns in Quebec, where so-called ‘daddy weeks’ are offered (McKay & Doucet, 2010). Who is this change going to benefit?
So again, I find myself wondering who parental leave is really for. Which mothers (as these policies reinforce gendered leave taking practices) are understood as needing to stay home with their babies? Which mothers are given support to do so? And which mothers are tacitly encouraged to return to work, to role model economic productivity for their children? The answers to these questions are raced and classed and it’s precisely these intersections that I hope to untangle.
Anderssen, Erin. (2017). “Seven things to know about Canada’s new parental leave benefits.” The Globe and Mail, March 24. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/federal-budget-2017-maternity-leave/article34414374/?cmpid=PM0317
Baird, Marian and O’Brien, Margaret. (2015). “Dynamics of Parental Leave in Anglophone Countries: The Paradox of State Expansion in the Liberal Welfare Regime.” Community, Work & Family 18 (2): 198-217.
McKay, Lindsey and Doucet, Andrea. (2010). “‘Without Taking Away Her Leave’: A Canadian Case Study of Couples’ Decisions on Fathers Use of Paid Parental Leave.” Fathering 8 (3): 300-320.
Ray, Rebecca, Gornick, Janet C., and Schmitt, John. (2010). “Who Cares? Assessing Generosity and Gender Equality in Parental Leave Policy Designs in 21 Countries.” Journal of European Social Policy 20 (3): 196-216.