It is 2:20 am, and I’m sitting writing this (on my phone, one-handed) in my favourite armchair with a babe at my breast. We’ve been doing this thing together— being a mother, being a babe out in the world—for a month now, and we’ve gotten good at it. We eat and sleep and play. We go to our doctor’s appointments and the movies and protests. We cuddle and walk and sing.
I love it.
But the conditions under which I’m able to love it are a function of privileges that aren’t extended to everyone, equally. And that sits wrong with me.
I’m on a paid, year-long maternity leave. My employer tops up my salary to nearly its full value for most of my leave. If I wanted to, I could extend this paid leave to a year and a half. This would not be the case if I was working multiple part-time jobs, or freelancing, or was underemployed, or was a graduate student whose funding was considered educational support by the government thus disqualifying me from receiving EI.
My partner is also a full-time caregiver to our newborn, and will be for the baby’s whole first year. The 2:1 ratio of parents to newborns is one that makes these early days of parenting positively enjoyable, not just endurable. We’re all sleeping enough (not a lot, but enough), and we both have time to do non-parenting things that are important to us, like art and writing.
We can do this—have two parents home full-time for a year—because we don’t have a mortgage or rent since we inherited our home from my partner’s mother, and so can afford to be a single-income family. We are keenly aware that this kind of inherited wealth tends to pass down amongst white, highly educated people, thus consolidating wealth in the hands of an already privileged few. It sucks, and yet I’m so grateful to benefit from it.
I don’t have to worry about my job going away, or even substantially changing, while I’m on leave. My job (or a substantially similar one) is guaranteed to be there for me when I come back from leave, and I crafted a plan for the year with my team that will see things stay steady state while I’m gone. Basically, I got to hit pause on my career, and I’ll get to pick up—and go back to charging ahead on new projects—right where I left off next August. I’m also still teaching my usual career development classes while I’m on leave, which is a nice way to stay connected to work while I’m off.
I was able to properly prepare and train the person who is covering my job. Because I work at a highly family friendly organization (it helps that we only do paediatric medicine!), I was comfortable telling my team that I was pregnant the day I found out. (They found out about five minutes after my partner did.) I was confident that I wouldn’t experience pregnancy-related discrimination, or that I’d be penalized if I had to take medical leave if I miscarried. That means I had a full eight months (you’re generally already two weeks pregnant by the time you find out, and I went on leave two weeks before my due date) to train my replacement. This lets me not worry about work while I’m on leave, and know that I’m coming back to order rather than chaos.
Many women aren’t comfortable sharing their pregnancies at work until late in the game because they fear or know they’ll face discrimination, which means they may shoulder the additional burden of scrambling to find and train their replacement in a short time frame while dealing with a discriminatory workplace.
And just because I didn’t face overt pregnancy discrimination doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience other kinds of pregnancy-related impacts on my job and career momentum even before I went on leave, some of which were my doing and some of which weren’t. I’ll have lots more to say about that.
Many women head into motherhood without these conditions in place, and their job is far harder because of it. So my ability to enjoy my mat leave, even those chaotic, sleepless early weeks, is in large part due to privileges and circumstances that don’t exist for people in less stable employment and financial situations than my partner and I are in. And that’s not cool with me.
I’m not confident that there’s any traction to be had on the issues of fair pay, better parental leave, and stronger employee protection practices at the provincial level, even once the crisis that is Bill 5/Bill 31 gets resolved one way or the other.
But my partner and I are both working at the municipal and federal level—through advocacy, and volunteering, and donations—to try to level the playing field for all new parents. Because I can imagine what having a newborn with no income, or a highly limited one, or one dependent on going back to work after three weeks, is like. I can imagine what it’s like to be doing this on my own for eight or twelve or eighteen hours a day. I can imagine what it’s like to be worried about not getting tenure, or not having a job to go back to, or having a job that’s a hollow shell of what I’d built it into to go back to, while on leave.
None of that is good for parents, or for children. My experience should be the rule, not the exception. Maternity leave should be easier: just not for me.