Canadian Commentary: Society

Revolutionizing Parental Leave

October 1999

In today's throne speech, the Liberal government promised to improve the parental leave provisions of the Employment Insurance system. The improvement they are hinting at is fairly dramatic. At the moment, parents get a total of six months of parental leave in which their salary is partially covered by Employment Insurance. The government is hinting that it will expand the total to a full year.

Beyond simply extending parental leave, the Liberals could make a significant change in the way it is used. At the moment, the parental leave system makes a gesture towards including fathers by stating that ten weeks of the twenty-five week total can be taken by either the father or the mother. In fact, of course, it is inevitably the woman who takes most or all of these ten weeks, for simple biological reasons as much as any others. If a woman is breastfeeding her infant, she simply has to be with her child for most of the day. Furthermore, tradition, across all of the cultures that make up the Canadian mosaic, gives women the primary role as caregivers to children, and this is not a tradition which is easily broken - nor, perhaps, should it be. The fact that any time off taken by the father reduces the time off the mother receives further discourages fathers from taking significant leave themselves. While it is called "parental" leave, it remains effectively maternity leave, and this will remain the case after leave is extended to a full year.

There is an obvious solution - give fathers specific paternity leave under Employment Insurance that is in addition to whatever new leave parents will now receive. For instance, in addition to the total of a year of fixed maternity leave and flexible leave that will now be provided, fathers could be given the right to exercise fifteen additional weeks of targeted paternal leave. Such leave could be taken simultaneously with the maternal leave, consecutively, or some combination of the two. Any such combination would have benefits - if taken together, it would relieve the burden on the mother in taking care of a newborn, while helping the parents to bond with each other and the child. If taken consecutively, it would enable working parents to take care of their child at home for more than a year - reducing the burden of childcare (and, incidentally, relieving the pressure on the childcare system), while again enabling the father to bond with his child as the mother had done.

Such a policy would also have more fundamental benefits to the Canadian family. There has been growing concern about the "alienation" of fathers from their children (although this may well have been a problem since the dawn of industrialized society). A recent study (Globe and Mail, Oct. 11, 1999) found that children feel less at ease with their fathers than their mothers; there is a continuing problem of unwed fathers effectively deserting their children; there is a vague feeling (e.g. in Susan Faludi's Stiffed) that sons in particular are lacking a positive male role model in their fathers; and "father's rights" groups are a symptom of a frightening bitterness on the part of divorced fathers about their exclusion from the mother-child relationship. Paternal leave provisions would cause an instant transformation in Canadian society, encouraging the majority of Canadian fathers to spend extensive time with their children for the first time. Such time could help reinforce the attachment fathers feel for their offspring, leading to a long-term improvement in father's relations with their children. It is possible that the additional sense of responsibility for their child, and the additional time spent with their partner, could reduce possible conflict in the household and perhaps lead to fewer divorces. At the same time, being further exposed to the work involved in caring for their child would make fathers more aware of the work their partners have to put in when raising an infant. The result would be happier fathers, less stressed mothers, and children who had bonded more strongly with both parents.

Such provisions would also have benefits in the world of work. Although no-one wants to admit it, there remains an unspoken concern whenever an employer hires a woman of childbearing age that the workplace will eventually be disrupted by her taking maternity leave. At the same time, women in fast-moving careers may feel that having children and taking time off will subtly undermine their prospects for advancement by contrast to their always-present male colleagues, no matter what the protestations to contrary. If automatic paternal leave were introduced, both of these penalties against mothers would be greatly alleviated. Now employers would have to expect that anyone of childbearing years, whether male or female, is likely to take time off to have children. The subtle bias against potential mothers in the workplace would no longer be relevant. Meanwhile, men as well as women would have interruptions in their careers, so that would be less of a discouraging factor for women contemplating motherhood.

Establishing paternal leave would be easily affordable. Canada's Employment Insurance system is running at an enormous surplus. It would be better to spend this surplus within the EI system than to use it to finance general spending or tax cuts, as is currently the case. Paternal leave would also generate broadly-based political support. Family preservation, and especially the role of fathers, is an abiding interest on the right. Any provision which enhanced their role in the family would be hard to oppose, and in fact would likely draw considerable support. Meanwhile, any provision which eases the burden on mothers and improves child care will draw support on the left. The governing Liberals have promised a new child/family agenda for the next millenium; by moving radically to establish specific paternal leave in addition to extended leave provisions for mothers, they can demonstrate that this is more than simply a platitude.

October 12, 1999

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