The issue of childcare — who gets it, who needs it, who pays for it and how much — is a huge political hot potato in Canada right now. And for once, I find myself enraged not only by the perspectives and rhetoric of people on the political right, but also by some of the things said by people on the left — my people. I think both sides are missing the point of what we really need to achieve with childcare in this country. While I’m now past the years of needing or providing childcare, I still have strong feelings about it from my own experience as a mother of young children.
Travel back with me in time, if you will, to the spring of 1997. Great changes were afoot in my life. The school where I’d taught and been part of a close-knit community for five years was closing. My job was about to change in a big way. My husband was a year away from finishing his engineering degree. And I found out I was pregnant.
January, 1998: Chris was born. I had been transferred to a new job in a different school, which was OK, but I wasn’t crazy about it. In January I went on maternity leave, earning less than half of what my teaching salary had been. Jason was in his last semester of university. I found, a bit unexpectedly, that I really enjoyed staying home with a baby. Though stay-at-home parenting definitely had its challenges, I enjoyed it more than I’d enjoyed teaching for that last semester, and I was actually getting more writing done than I had when I was teaching. I was well aware that full-time stay-at-home parenting wasn’t for everyone, but it was working for me.
August 1998: Jason got an entry-level engineering job making almost as much as I’d been making after ten years of teaching. I informed the school board that I would not be coming back to work in September. For the next three years, which included the birth of a second child, I managed to hold onto my position with the board through a combination of family leave and educational leave, both unpaid (I was taking part-time classes, usually one per semester, towards a Masters in Education). Finally, realizing that whatever happened in my future life I did not want to go back to teaching high school within the school district, I gave up my full-time position.
From 1998 – 2005, I did not work full-time outside my home for pay, though I did earn some money freelance writing and did some part-time work through the university for a few months when Jason was between jobs. He had two stints of full-time parenting, about three months each, while he looked for a job and I went to university, but for most of those years he was working and I was the at-home parent. When Emma started Kindergarten in September 2005 and I no longer had any child at home full-time, I started teaching at my current, wonderful, non-school-board job, and have been here ever since.
Why do I bother giving you that not-very-riveting sketch of my past life? Because as I look back at the choices I made in those years, I am happy. I did the things I wanted to do — got out of a job I didn’t love anymore, spent seven years at home caring for my kids, did some freelance writing, earned a university degree, and eventually went back to work at a job I liked better than my old one. At every step, I made the choices I wanted to make, and it was wonderful to be able to do so.
The reality is, a huge proportion of Canadian families don’t get to make those choices on the basis of what works best for their kids and their families. Instead, their childcare choices — does one parent stay home with the kids? If so, which one and for how long? Do you put the kids in daycare? When, and what kind? — are constrained by economic necessity. There are parents in the workforce who would rather be home with their kids, and parents at home who would rather be working, because their financial situation doesn’t provide them the flexibility to choose what works best for them. That’s a crying shame.