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.
The feminist movement told us that women didn’t have to stay home with the kids if they didn’t want to — that they could take a place in the workforce alongside men, earning the same money as men. But the battles of feminism in this area will not have been won until:
1) a mother can actually make that choice without having to pay so much for childcare that it’s not worth her while going to work
2) a mother can receive both financial and moral support to make the opposite choice — to stay home if that’s what she believes is best for her and for her children.
3) a father can also have the choice to stay home if that’s what’s best for that family.
The Conservative government’s new income-splitting tax scheme is supposed to make life easier for stay-at-home parents by giving them a tax break. Believe me, during the years I was a stay-at-home parent I would have welcomed anything — a tax break, an income-splitting scheme, or best of all an outright paycheque sent to my mailbox — that would have replaced some of my lost teaching income and sent the message the the government of Canada recognized that I was making a valid contribution to society by staying home to care for my kids. That would have been great. I strongly believe something needs to be done to compensate parents of either gender who choose to stay at home with their kids, not just for the first year but throughout those crucial early years.
The Conservative scheme has also been criticized, justifiably, on the basis that it will only help about 15% of Canadian families. Families where both parents work aren’t helped by this scheme. Single-parent families aren’t helped. Families like mine was between 1998-2005 — where one parent has a well-paying professional job and the other stays home — will be helped, but a scheme that only helps a small segment of families simply isn’t good enough.
Instead, say voices on the left (again, the people I usually agree with), what we need is subsidized, excellent, widely-available daycare, so that both parents can re-enter the workforce when they choose to, and know that their kids will be well cared for and it won’t cost so much that it practically negates their salary. I agree with all of that — except the word “instead.” This should not be an either/or. This should be a both/and. The government needs to be providing better, more affordable daycare options AND supporting parents who choose to stay home and do their own child-care. But nobody, on either side of the political spectrum, is saying that.
Where I part ways with my red-blooded socialist sistern and brethren on the left is when they speak as if daycare is the ONLY right choice, the only thing the government ought to support — when they say that income-splitting schemes like Harper’s encourage an “outdated model” of family life where one parent stays home with the kids. It’s not an “outdated model” — it’s the best choice for some families, some of the time, and it deserves support.
The right gets it just as wrong by promoting schemes like the current income-splitting proposal that only help two-parent families with one stay-at-home parent, and ignore the many families who want and need daycare. They get it wrong when parents (or politicians!) characterize daycare as bad parenting, and make parents feel guilty for making that choice. Putting your kids in daycare is not bad parenting — it’s the best choice for some families, some of the time, and it deserves support.
It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. There are myriad reasons why a mom or dad might want to stay home with their kids while the kids are small; there are myriad reasons why another parent might want to get back in the work force as soon as possible. You can find evidence to support the belief that either choice gives a child a good start in life — as long as the daycare teachers are qualified educators in a well-run centre, and as long as the stay-at-home parent is engaged and committed to his or her child’s development.
Let’s honour and respect all these choices, and the people who make them. And let’s all work together to create a society where one of the reasons for making those choices never has to be, “I couldn’t afford to do it any other way.”