Maternity Leave: Allowing and Honouring Choice

My husband and I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times. This week, as I sat down over my breakfast cereal and opened the Style section in search of Social Q’s (I love Social Q’s) I was greeted by an article about Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave. If you’re not familiar, Ms. Mayer is the new CEO of Yahoo!, and she recently announced that she’s six months pregnant. She also announced that she plans to only a few weeks of maternity leave, and she’ll work throughout it.

My first reaction was to wonder why this was in the Style section. Hello, New York Times, stories about women don’t automatically belong in the Style section. This seemed more like a business story than a fashion story, but maybe I just think that because all the estrogen has gone to my head. My second reaction was to think that if a male CEO’s partner was expecting their first child, and he planned to take a couple of weeks off work after the birth (while checking in periodically), it certainly would not be considered newsworthy. However, having given birth and breastfed two children of my own, I do concede that there is a difference when you’re the one carrying the baby.

I spent years on this blog researching and writing about maternity leave. I know how important maternity leave is. I wrote a Maternity Leave Manifesto, which argues for paid, year-long maternity leaves for everyone, as well as dedicated paid leave for co-parents. I’ve taken two such leaves myself, and I was extremely grateful that I was able to take that time with my children.

Having said that, I think that there’s a difference between making leave available, and compelling new parents to take it. Even here in Canada, not every mother who qualifies for a year-long paid maternity leave takes advantage of the whole thing. There are a wide range of reasons why someone may choose not to use all of the benefits available to them, and I believe we need to allow everyone to make their own best decision for themselves, whether it’s Marissa Mayer, or someone with considerably fewer resources. The point is to provide choice, not to dictate one correct choice.

Still, there’s something about the idea that someone can’t take leave that implies there is no real choice. My mother tells me that she wasn’t planning on having any children. When she interviewed for a job at a bank, the interviewer didn’t want to hire her, because he felt that as a young woman she would just get pregnant and leave. She assured him that was not the case, and while she did eventually get pregnant and leave, I think most of us can agree that was her right. In the intervening 30+ years, our societal attitudes have changed. It’s no longer acceptable to say that you won’t hire a young woman because she may become pregnant. That’s a good thing. But as the attention Marissa Mayer is getting shows, we have not come so far that a woman’s decision to become pregnant is a non-issue. We also have not come so far that her professional dedication isn’t called into question as soon as she starts to show.

The more powerful a position that a woman holds, the more likely that her pregnancy is going to become a source of societal debate. We’ll hear that you can’t have it all. We’ll hear that her child is being shortchanged. We’ll hear that she’s not doing her job as well. We’ll hear snide comments about nannies and baby nurses. We’ll hear that no one would speak this way about a man becoming a father. Somehow, we’ll decide that someone else’s decisions about how to combine work and family are our business. And we’ll reflect on what this debate shows us about the state of motherhood and career and gender relations.

If I were to write my Maternity Leave Manifesto again, I would add two more points:

  1. It’s up to every parent and family to decide how to structure their own leave. No one should feel compelled to take either an abbreviated or extended maternity or parental leave.
  2. We must protect each parent’s right to choice, and honour that choice when it’s made. This means we have to change the corporate culture so that women aren’t penalized for taking leave, and we need to get over ourselves when we start thinking that women can’t combine a high pressure career with motherhood.

I don’t know the first thing about Marissa Mayer, and in truth this isn’t really about her. I’ve seen the same discussion many times before when high-profile women announced their pregnancies. I imagine I will see it again. Rather than focusing on what any one person decides, though, I’d like to see the debate move towards an intelligent discussion about labour policy and gender equity. Women will not have equal status in the workplace as long as pregnancy is the source of much hand-waving and public debate. And babies will lose out as long as their parents feel forced to make a decision, instead of free to make the best choice for their families.

Have you seen the discussion over Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy and maternity leave? What do you think would be a positive outcome of the discussion? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Maternity Leave, Adieu

Today is Monday, and I have decided to re-visit Mat Leave Monday for old time’s sake, and because I have an announcement to make.

Service Canada has announced the new maximum insurable earnings for Employment Insurance (EI) for 2011. This is the maximum level of earnings that you pay EI premiums on. And since maternity and parental benefits are paid out through EI (outside of Quebec), this change also affects the amount of money you may receive while you are on leave.

In 2010 maximum insurable earnings were $43,200, and in 2011 they will be $44,200. If your average annual income is $43,200 or less, this change won’t affect you. If it’s more, and if your EI claim begins anytime after the first week of January, then you can expect higher weekly benefits. In 2010 maximum weekly benefits were $457, and in 2010 they will be $468. So, if you are planning on starting your claim in the next few weeks and you can hold out until the New Year, it may be to your advantage to do so.

Maximum insurable earnings! EI! Links to Service Canada! It feels like old times.

Sadly, though, it is time for me to say good-bye to those times. I will not be updating my Quick Guide to Canadian Maternity Leave for 2011. Between Crafting my Life and my book dream, I have more than enough on my plate. And since the guide will be out-of-date in approximately three minutes, I have removed the links to it on my site. Although if you would like to access the 2010 version, you can download it here, knowing that it may not reflect the latest information.

This doesn’t meant that I’m no longer interested in maternity leave. I absolutely am. I still feel very strongly that maternity, paternity, parental and adoption leave are critical for the health and well-being of babies and their parents. I still believe that a country’s policies surrounding these leaves reflect their commitment to new families. And I will still advocate for quality maternity benefits and do my best to answer questions that people pose to me. But I will not be actively working to provide up-to-date information to Canadian families.

I am sad to let go of this guide, but I know it is the right thing for me to do right now. Part of living with intention is setting priorities. And so I’m doing that here. I hope that the guide has been useful to the people who downloaded it, and I hope that you will join me as I move on to other adventures.

Have you ever had to let anything go because you recognized that you didn’t have time for it? What was that like? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Parental Leave and Twins (or More)

Today I am bringing back Mat Leave Monday to talk about parental leave and parents of multiples in Canada. I have two children myself, but they were born 3 1/2 years apart. Parents of twins (or more) have my total respect – I can only imagine what it would be like to have more than one newborn to care for.

Multiple Births Canada holds their annual National Multiple Births Awareness Day on May 28. It’s a day for raising awareness of the unique issues faced by multiple-birth children and their families. The date chosen was the birth date of the Dionne quintuplets, who helped Canadians to understand the challenges faced by our multiple-birth community. Rather sadly so, as the choice wasn’t made freely by either the quintuplets or their family.

The Dionne Quintuplets
Photo credit: Statistics Canada, Canada Year Book Historical Collection

For 2010, the theme for National Multiple Births Awareness Day is:

“Canada’s EI Parental Leave must reflect the needs of multiple-birth infants.”

The maternity and parental leave laws in Canada do not allow any special consideration for parents of multiple-birth infants. Just like any other parents, the birth mother is eligible for 15 weeks of paid maternity benefits through EI, and both parents are eligible to share 35 weeks of paid parental benefits. Last year one couple, the parents of twins, challenged this rule. They argued that the mother should be eligible to claim parental leave to care for one child, and the father should be eligible to claim parental leave to care for the other child. The Employment Insurance board of referees agreed, but so far the laws have not changed, and other parents of twins would have to go to similar lengths to qualify for benefits.

Canada’s approach to maternity and parental leave for multiple births is not universal. Countries such as France, Japan, Portugal, Finland and Sweden offer extended benefits to parents of twins or higher-order multiples. And it sort of makes sense. I’ve had two children and I received 2 years of paid leave. If my neighbour had two children at the same time, she would only be eligible to receive half of that. As well, twin and super-twin pregnancies often face greater challenges, and it’s more common for babies to be born prematurely and require additional care. And no one can doubt that multiple-birth parents face a much greater adjustment, and require far more help.

So, what is happening on Multiple Births Awareness Day? Here is some information, taken from Multiple Births Canada’s website:

  • A rally on the lawn of Parliament Hill and local rallies in front of MP’s offices on Friday, May 28
  • A call for expectant parents of multiples to both apply for EI Parental Leave
  • A call for all supporters to send a letter to Human Resources and Social Development Canada

If you want to know more, or would like to get involved yourself, check out the event page.

We are very fortunate to have access to the maternity and parental benefits that we receive here in Canada. However, we don’t always do the best job of recognizing and providing for special cases. Multiple births are one example. It is my hope that, through campaigns like this one, that will change.

Bellies to Babies Celebration

I am very excited to say that I am going to be speaking at the Bellies to Babies Celebration in Vancouver! I am going to talk about maternity leave, which is one of my passions. I love talking about maternity leave. Maybe a little bit too much, but in this context it works so I’m golden. Plus it will give my poor husband’s ear a chance to rest. Is there a downside? I don’t think so.

Look, if you scroll down they even have my photo! I am especially thrilled to be sharing the podium with fabulous La Leche League Leaders Sandra and Monique who will be talking about breastfeeding, and Karen Randall from New and Green Baby who will be talking about cloth diapering. They will be a tough act to follow, but I will certainly try.

If you are in the area, I would love to see you. Here are all the pertinent details:

Date – Sunday, April 18, 2010
Celebration Hours – 11am-4pm
My Talk – 2-2:30pm
Cost – by donation to Basics for Babies
Location – Croatian Cultural Centre, 3250 Commercial Drive

Come early and check out the exhibitors and hear the other speakers. Then at 2:00pm be sure to catch me. I will give a mom’s eye view of how maternity leave works, what it covers and how to apply. I’ll also share some history and compare maternity leave in other countries. Like I said, I really love to talk about maternity leave.

Lara, the event organizer is a super-cool mama who taught me Strollerobics when Hannah was a baby and led my Salsa Babies class when Jacob was little. She is one dynamic woman! It means so much to me that she asked me to give this talk.

Now, please wish me luck! And if you are a local come on out and say hi – I would love to see some friendly faces.

International Women’s Day, One Day Late

This is one day late, but I wanted to share it. Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I spent the day reflecting on my experience as a woman, and the challenges that I feel women (and men) in our society still face.

I was born in the mid 70s, to hippies who rejected the cultural mainstream. My father wore long hair and a long beard, and worked as a self-trained goldsmith. He made jewelry in the back of our house and sold it out of a room in the front. My mother left her job at a bank to stay home when I was born. In my house the adults chopped wood for heat and held meditation circles, and until I was almost 9 years old nobody held a ‘real’ job.

My parents wanted my sister and me to believe we could be anything we wanted to be. In the late 70s and early 80s it was a popular message, and a lot of TV shows reinforced the idea. There was a common storyline that went like this: a hapless man is looking for ‘Dr. Pat Smith’, only to discover that the woman he assumed was the receptionist is actually the good doctor. Hilarity ensues. We learned not to judge a book by its cover, and that women could be doctors just as well as nurses.

I believed it. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something based solely on my gender. I think most of us got the message, because you don’t see Dr. Pat Smith on TV anymore. She’s no longer considered noteworthy, although I am tremendously grateful for her example.

In high school I did just as well in math and science as English and French. After high school I attended engineering school, where I was surprised to find that women made up only 20% of the students in my classes. I never felt singled out or discriminated against, but it is hard not to notice when the gender numbers are overwhelmingly skewed against you.

I worked as an engineer, in a male-dominated environment, for 5 years before my daughter was born. I was treated with the same respect as my male colleagues, and I generally liked my job. The work environment was comfortable and I was paid well. We had team-building activities and treats on Wednesdays and flex time. My co-workers’ offices were filled with math textbooks and photos of their children, and there were company-wide policies ensuring that all employees were treated fairly.

Things changed a bit once I was pregnant. People joked that I was leaving them to have a baby. I didn’t laugh. I wondered why my decision to procreate implied that I was abandoning my post, but my male colleagues’ similar decisions did not. I wondered why I was asked if I had to work, and my husband was not.

I used all of the year-long maternity leave available to me. When I returned to work I negotiated a part-time schedule, in an attempt to find some kind of balance. I understood that working less and telecommuting would affect my career trajectory, at least for a time. I was willing to sacrifice some of my professional advancement, though – kids grow quickly and I didn’t want to miss it.

Still, questions nagged at the back of my mind. Why was I naturally the one who worked less (and now only sporadically) once the babies came? Would I be able to recover from my time on the mommy track? How come it was so hard to find quality childcare? And why don’t more fathers take advantage of flexible work policies or parental leave?

Over my lifetime Dr. Pat Smith and I have seen gender roles shift. Pretty much any career path is open to a woman if she chooses to pursue it. In my home housework is evenly distributed, and my husband does nearly all of my laundry. We do our best to approach parenting with gender neutrality. I don’t feel that the balance of power swings one way or the other.

And yet the glass ceiling still exists, especially for mothers. While parental leave is available to most fathers in Canada, only 11% of them use it. It’s still uncommon to for men to work alternative schedules to care for children. Working mothers still sometimes hear statements like, “Why even have kids if you’re not going to raise them?” Women bear the brunt of child-rearing, and face most of the conflict over balancing career and family.

I wish that everyone had better access to family-friendly work policies, and that there wasn’t a stigma for using them. I suspect many men feel the same way. There are dads who would enjoy being at-home parents, or taking one day a week off to volunteer in their kid’s classroom. Our current system does not exactly work perfectly for anyone.

On International Women’s Day I am so grateful for my feminist foremothers, who fought so that I could be an engineer and have access to birth control and maternity leave and daycare. I am grateful to live in a country where my rights are recognized and my standard of living is not significantly diminished because of my gender. But I am reflecting on the work there is still to do. I am considering how I can contribute to creating a world that is more equitable for everyone, which better celebrates diversity and variety in life paths and choices. That is the world that I hope my children and grandchildren will inherit.

PS – This post was a variation of a sermon I delivered in cooperation with two other women. You can hear it at Celebrating Strong Women.

Maternity Leave in Maple Ridge

Guess what! I have my first public appearance. I can’t even begin to tell you how excited this makes me. I am going to speaking about my passion, maternity leave, at the fabulous maternity and baby boutique Tiny Fingers Tiny Toes in Maple Ridge, BC. I love talking about maternity leave. In fact, if you ask my husband he might tell you I never stop talking about maternity leave, so I am thrilled to have the chance to share my pearls of wisdom with others. I promise, they will be pearly. Ish.

If you are in the area, I would love to see you. Here are all the pertinent details:

Date – Saturday, March 20, 2010
Time – 10:30am
Cost – $10 per person
Location11997 A 224th Street, Maple Ridge (street parking only)

To register, call the store at 604-466-8637. Space is limited, so call early and all that jazz. My talk will include an overview of how maternity leave works in Canada, a rundown of its history, and some discussion of the benefits parents and babies experience when they have access to quality leave. I will also address any questions that come up as best I can and coo over babies and / or expectant moms who show up. But that’s not all! Attendees also receive $10 in store credit to Tiny Fingers Tiny Toes, so when the presentation is over they can go shopping for some truly fabulous maternity and baby gear. Is there a downside? I don’t think so!

Stacy, the owner of the boutique, is a friend of mine and fellow breastfeeding advocate. She is an example to me of the kind of mama I would like to be – volunteering, running a business, raising a lovely family, supporting new families. It means so much to me that she asked me to give this talk. I am pretty much tickled all over, and my ego is growing to monumental proportions. So, hopefully, there will be room for it in the store.

Now, please wish me luck! And share words of wisdom if you have ever done anything like this before. Or, if you are a local come on out and say hi – I would love to see some friendly faces.

Maternity Leave Eligibility for the Self-Employed

Today I am revisiting Mat Leave Monday, because I have some very important information to share. If you are a self-employed Canadian who would like to be eligible for maternity or parental benefits, then you need to act now to opt into the EI system. (Note – If you live in Quebec you are already covered under QPIP as a self-employed person.)

Late last year the Fairness for the self-employed act was announced and passed in Canada. Under this act, self-employed Canadians who earn at least $6000 per year will be eligible to receive special benefits through EI starting in 2011. Special benefits include compassionate leave, sickness leave, maternity leave and parental leave. If you do not collect benefits, you will have the option of opting out at the end of any calendar year. Once you collect benefits, however, you must contribute to EI for as long as you remain self-employed.

How does one opt in? Service Canada’s information on special benefits for the self-employed states that the opt-in period began on January 31. To sign up you need to register for a My Service Canada Account. If you want to be eligible to receive special benefits beginning in January, 2011 you have to opt in by April 1, 2010. You can still opt in after April 1, but then your eligibility will take a full calendar year instead of happening next January.

Once you’ve opted in, you will pay your premiums, which are $1.73 / $100 of insurable earnings, with your 2010 tax return. You only pay premiums on the first $43,200 you earn annually, since that is the maximum insurable income level under EI for 2010. Premiums and maximum insurable earnings are typically re-examined annually.

If you’re self-employed and you think you might like to start a family in 2011, this is the time to opt in and sign up for benefits. It’s a good idea to think ahead as much as possible since you need to pay premiums for a full year before collecting, so if you’re holding a positive pregnancy test in your hand it may already be too late to receive your maximum benefits. However, even in that situation you may be eligible for some portion of maternity or parental leave, as you remain eligible for a full year after the baby arrives – so keep that in mind!

On a personal note, I am thrilled that the self-employed and small business owners are finally eligible for maternity and parental leave in Canada. While they undoubtedly face special challenges in taking time away from work, they are no less deserving than any other parent.

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