I have three close friends who are all expecting their first child in the next few months.
One is a lawyer in a midsized firm, another is an entrepreneur with a client services business and the third runs an environmental nonprofit in Vancouver. The general expectation of their friends and family is that they will, of course, be taking a full year of maternity leave once their babies are born.
But the reality is that each of these women is unlikely to do so. And their reasons offer an important and urgent illustration of why it’s time to expand how we discuss and think of maternity leave — from both an employer’s and an employee’s perspective.
Erica is a partner in her legal firm, which, like other partnerships in the professional services sector, is facing a squeeze on earnings and existential upheaval (see the recent implosion of Heenan Blaikie). She doesn’t feel that it would be advisable to her investment in the partnership to check out from the business at a crucial time. In addition, her absence from certain client files would have a significant impact on the firm’s bottom line.
For Anu, the entrepreneur, stepping away from a business she’s working to build is just not an option. The product, the client relationships, the online strategy and the marketing are all driven by her. She has 10 employees and regularly uses a roster of freelancers. All depend on her for their own paycheques. Her plan is to work remotely through a three-month maternity leave but remain accessible through email and phone throughout.
Jane, the nonprofit executive director, has a maternity leave package that doesn’t include any top-ups to the government minimum. For her, as the primary earner in her family, an extended maternity leave is simply not financially feasible.
What each of these snapshot stories shows is that the economic framework and the changing nature of careers in a digital and knowledge economy have evolved, while the structure of parental leave has not.
Maternity leave was one of our coveted social benefits. It was designed to protect new mothers in an era when most women went to work in offices in which employers could cover for a temporary absence — a state of affairs that increasingly applies to a shrinking group of Canadians.
That means it’s time to reconsider maternity leave for a group of women who have vastly different needs than their mothers had.
In 2001, when the Canadian government increased parental leave from 10 to 35 weeks, the move represented a hard-won moment for working mothers and a significant step toward creating a workplace that was more amenable to families. But just a generation later, it is the workplace that has changed, leaving our approach to maternity leave out of step with reality.
For one thing, employment trends indicate that fewer and fewer women will be in jobs that offer genuine maternity leave packages. This tracks the migration of jobs from big institutional employers to less conventional — and often less stable — work arrangements. One 2011 study by MBO Partners suggests that by 2020, over half the workforce will be working outside traditional institutional career roles.
The expansion of self-, contract and freelance employment means that the pool of women who are actually eligible to take a full year of maternity leave will be much smaller. And not many of them will be financially able to step away from businesses that are the sole source of income for their families.
Even the small and medium-sized businesses that have become a key source of job creation face enormous difficulties when key employees step away for extended time.
The good news is that technology has made it easier than ever to navigate these choices. What I found while researching my book The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success after Having Children, is that women engaged in the knowledge economy increasingly expect to be able to check in from outside the office and keep working, at least in some capacity, throughout their maternity leave.
There is no doubt that some women may mourn the disappearance of a secluded maternity leave in which they leave work behind to focus on the needs of their child in that first year of life. But many others want to or simply must continue to work. And this shift in employee and employer expectations actually establishes a better template for supporting working mothers over a longer term, finding ways to accommodate their needs beyond the period of maternity leave.
The work-life balance is more complicated than simply staying home with a newborn. Raising older children and caring for aging parents present their own sets of challenges and needs. The current mindset is focused on the period of the maternity leave, assuming that once that’s passed, work-family balance is no longer an issue.
Which, of course, is not true.
Much of the current discussion on working mothers and their needs is being driven by Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which strongly advocates for women to focus on what they can control and seize the day to create the careers they want. It’s certainly an inspiring and aspirational message. But “leaning in” is also a damaging framework for a discussion on collective policies that could benefit a far larger group of working moms who don’t have anywhere near the financial or personal options of the crowd that Sandberg is addressing.
In my research I spoke with hundreds of working mothers from across the career and ambition spectrum. Many are successful, but they succeed as self-employed or part-time workers, without benefits or long-term security.
The desire for mothers and fathers to be able to devote the time to new babies and families is as strong as ever. What we need is more evolved policies to support the different ways that this might happen. It is time to revisit our public policy discussion to reflect these economic changes as well as a workplace that is remote and flexible and where schedules are increasingly nontraditional.
Finding policies that support both employers and employees in navigating this new environment will come only from creating a cultural framework that understands that conditions have changed. We need to debate issues such as flex time and child care, those deep and difficult policy issues that have not been resolved, however much our political class would like to think they have been dispensed with.
In fact, managing child raising and work has become more challenging for many women, in all its different stages and challenges, and not just immediately after they have the baby. We could start by acknowledging that the old paradigm is gone and see the problem as it really is.