Parental Leave Is Broken

It’s a privilege to take paid time when your baby is born. But the system is far from equal

A black-and-white photo of an opossum mother with several babies clinging to her against a purple-tinted nursery photo
lillybell/iStock/The Walrus

Last November, North Vancouver MLA Bowinn Ma welcomed her first child, Azalea, becoming one of only around a dozen female cabinet ministers in Canadian history to have given birth while holding office. When she posted a photo of a bassinet in her office on social media, the congratulations were mingled with criticisms. “How are you going to do your job when you’re going to be focusing on your baby?” one person replied. Several others decried her decision to continue working as naive and selfish.

If you think that having a baby is incompatible with certain careers, then you effectively believe that birthing parents should only have one or the other. Few people would admit to holding this belief—or at least fewer than in previous generations—but they hardly need to say it. Instead, it is implicit in the expectation that mothers, but not fathers, restructure—or entirely abandon—their professional ambitions after having a baby.

The data reflects this attitude: across Canada, birthing parents still do the vast majority of caregiving for babies. In 2022, 74.5 percent of employed women with a child under one were on parental leave, compared to just 7.3 percent of fathers. Less than a quarter of dads took or expected to take any parental leave at all in 2019/20. The exception to this trend is Quebec, which has its own parental leave program and where most dads take some paid leave, an average of ten weeks each. (Very little data is available on how same-sex parents in Canada share parental leave, and federal data on parental leave does not identify non-binary parents.)

Parental leave was first introduced for birthing parents in 1971 and expanded to both parents in 1990. Today, most parents have access to paid leave through federal employment insurance (EI), which reimburses 55 percent of wages up to a maximum of $688 per week for forty weeks (in addition to fifteen weeks of maternal care available only to the birthing parent); parents can also choose to spread the same amount of money over an extended sixty-nine weeks. Not everyone can access these benefits, but around 82 percent of Canadian parents with a new baby were eligible for paid parental leave in 2022. The effects of this program have been measurable and transformative. Just one-third of mothers with a child aged three or under participated in the labour force in 1976; by 2022, more than three quarters of mothers were employed. And over roughly the same period of time, we’ve seen wages among women increase. Despite these professional advances, birthing parents are still doing most of the caregiving.

There is nothing that mingles the sublime and the mundane quite like caring for a baby, and it’s tragic that many fathers miss out on so much of that essential and rewarding labour. But dads shouldn’t take parental leave just because it’s transcendent; they should take it because it’s also hard. Child care is a grind—a job without coffee breaks or sick leave, often undertaken in isolation and extending well beyond an eight-hour shift.

It’s hard for caregivers to convey how exhausting it is, how often you have nothing to show for your daily ministrations besides a mound of laundry or a sink full of unwashed dishes. It’s easy to become resentful of the partner who comes home in their grown-up clothes and asks, with blithe ignorance, “What did you get up to today?” That resentment can prove ruinous. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research from Europe and the United States shows that couples are less likely to split up if dads shoulder some of that caregiving burden by taking parental leave.

According to a Pew Research Center study, in both Canada and the US, childless men are more likely than childless women to desire children in the future—a detail that could possibly be attributed to their differing expectations about how parenting will disrupt and shape their lives (the Pew Research Center did not provide reasons for the disparities in the data). If men assume that their female partners will do the lioness’s share of caregiving, history suggests they’re correct. But in Japan, where the international crisis of plummeting birth rates is particularly acute, a national analysis of population data found that couples where men participated in housework and caregiving were more likely to have a second child—a good reason for countries concerned about their aging populations to encourage more equal participation in parental leave.

Though the calculus behind parental leave is unique to each couple, most of them—regardless of their myriad personal factors and considerations, such as breastfeeding or personal preference—seem to settle on the birthing parent doing nearly all of it. This is often driven by short-term income considerations: if men are still more often out-earning their partners, it seems sensible for the lower-earning partner to step back during those early years. Countless times, I’ve heard a woman say something like, “My salary barely covers the cost of daycare, so it just makes sense for me to stay home.” Somehow only her salary is factored into this equation, as if the baby is not a mutual responsibility.

Men cite concerns that taking parental leave will hinder their career trajectories, damage their professional reputations, and limit their earning potential, as if women are somehow immune to those factors. In 1988, New York Times journalist Jennifer A. Kingson coined the term “mommy track” to describe how lawyers were professionally sidelined by their colleagues and workforces after having children, believed to be insufficiently committed to their careers, and the term has been used since by sociologists and economists to describe the attitudes faced by working mothers. After having a baby, women experience a drop in earnings—what researchers Michelle J. Budig and Paula England identified in 2001 as the “motherhood penalty.” Quebec researchers found that ten years after giving birth, women are still earning 34.3 percent less than they did before having children. Meanwhile, dads are likelier to be viewed by their employers as hardworking, stable, and committed breadwinners, rewarded with a “fatherhood bonus” that researchers have valued at a 3 to 10 percent wage increase. As some of the responses to Ma’s announcement underscored, many still see parenting as an achievement for men and an all-consuming responsibility for women. Men who take their kids to the playground can attest to the warm glow of social approval they receive for this display of participation, and in 2017, a town full of dads shepherding their children to weekend birthday parties and dance classes as moms attended the inaugural Women’s March on Washington was deemed unusual enough to merit a New York Times feature.

Though most women return to work as their children get older, the unequal distribution of caregiving persists far beyond the initial months of parental leave: Canadian women with preschool-aged children lost 17.4 days of work in 2023, almost twice as many as dads. Even beyond the viral carousel of the toddler years, the roles and responsibilities that couples cultivate during those first months of leave create an enduring dynamic that lasts years. When moms take on the majority of caregiving, they become the experts on their children, taking on what sociologist Monique Haicault has called the “mental load”: tracking sleep schedules, making vaccine appointments, managing grocery lists, signing up for daycare wait lists. In an exceptionally depressing Jimmy Kimmel segment, which ran in honour of Father’s Day in 2019, several dads were unable to recall their children’s birthdays; one dad, standing next to his daughter, guessed her eye colour wrong.

Children are keen observers of their parents, and even those whose fathers remember their birthdays will pick up on subtler forms of absence. A 2014 study by University of British Columbia researchers found that children’s career aspirations were informed by the gendered responsibilities of their parents: fathers who pulled their weight at home had daughters with more ambitious career aspirations. A key finding was that while fathers talking about gender equality did make an impact on their daughters’ career aspirations, taking a more active role in domestic labour had more of an impact. Across Canada, women do 50 percent more unpaid household labour than men, according to 2019 Statistics Canada data. And kids take note of these gender roles and discrepancies and reproduce them: in one 2008 study, teen girls in Ontario reported doing more household chores on weekends, while their male peers had more leisure time.

One obvious solution is to incentivize men to take more leave. This is not as simple as offering more: in 2019, in Japan, where dads can receive up to a year of paid leave separate from the year offered to mothers, only 7.5 percent of fathers opted in. Cultural norms around caregiving won’t change on their own; we also need our programs to reflect the fact that parenting should be a shared responsibility instead of one exclusively left to mothers. Since 2019, five extra weeks of leave (or eight for those taking extended leave) have been offered to Canadian couples who share the leave, which could encourage dads to take some paid time off—a “use it or lose it” policy similar to a benefit program that has existed since 2006 in Quebec. The introduction of the federal program resulted in a 19 percent increase in dads taking paid leave in 2019, compared to the year before, according to the Globe and Mail. In Iceland, each parent is entitled to six months of paid leave and can transfer up to six weeks of leave to the other. In Norway, up to forty-nine weeks of paid leave are available, with fifteen reserved for each parent. The quality of paid leave matters: in Norway, parents receive up to 100 percent of their salary while on leave, and Quebec pays parents more than other provinces and territories do—up to 75 percent of their salary.

But another option, a more expansive one, is to rethink the way caregiving and work fit together beyond those first months. Canada’s parental leave programs are designed for binary arrangements: one parent providing care, the other employed—a model that reflects the long-extinct era when a single salary could support a family. This seems particularly antiquated now, as the pandemic has profoundly reshaped how we work, blurring personal and professional boundaries and normalizing more fluid arrangements. This has not been an entirely positive experience for parents, as anyone who has attended a Zoom meeting with a sick toddler on their lap can attest, but it has had some benefits. Namely, remote work has increased equality in caregiving: dads who worked from home increased their share of child care and household labour.

Rather than uphold an artificial distinction between employment and parenting, professional policies could acknowledge that caregiving is often happening alongside other kinds of work, whether you’re an MLA like Bowinn Ma or, for example, a freelance writer. Federal parental leave policies could be more flexible, supporting temporary and part-time work arrangements rather than all-or-nothing leaves, and could also be retooled for self-employed Canadians. But to realize those benefits, workplace norms would also need to adapt in tandem so that people can take advantage of them without repercussions. Amid a national labour shortage, employers should recognize that people are more inclined to stay in jobs that leave space for the unpredictable, irregular, and evolving lives outside of work.

Since the introduction of parental leave more than fifty years ago, work has evolved, and so has parenting. It’s our expectations and policies that need to grow up.

Michelle Cyca
Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer for The Walrus.