The XX Factor

What Happened When One Canadian Dad Took a 37-Week Parental Leave? (Nothing Bad.)

Subsidized childcare in Montreal is cheap, leaving families more money to pay the Biosphere entrance fee.

Photo by Massimiliano Pieraccini/Shutterstock

The state of American child care is pretty abysmal. Day care is not well-regulated, the quality is often poor, and it’s expensive: In 35 states and Washington, D.C., it costs more than a year’s in-state college tuition. We are the only wealthy nation that does not guarantee paid vacation or sick days, so when a snow day or a fever keeps a child out of school, it can mean a career setback for many parents. And for working parents with low-wage jobs, things are even worse.

We point to other countries—often ones in Europe—as models of how to do child care right. But is it really so much easier to be a working parent in Paris than it is in Peoria? We asked working moms and dads from all over the world to tell us their child care experiences. Here is the eighth in our occasional series, from a mother in Montreal, Canada.

Name: Camille*

Age: 31

Location: Montreal, Canada

Occupation: Economist

Partner’s occupation: Financial analyst

Children: Two kids, 9 months and 4 years old

Hi, Camille. What are your work hours and your partner’s work hours?

I work part-time on an 80 percent schedule, so officially I work 32 hours per week, but in practice is it more 35 to 40 hours of private-sector consultation. My husband is employed in the public sector and works 35 hours per week, which is considered full-time. His work typically does not require any overtime hours.

Who takes care of your children while you work?

Both of our kids go to the same state-sponsored child care, which is in a family setting, in someone’s house. The current rate is CA$7.30 per day per child for everyone (about $6.50 U.S. dollars), but the provincial government might announce the end of the universality of this program soon. This is surprising, given that the government was elected in April with the promise of not touching the rates. Moreover, it has been shown that the program is cost-effective. There might be, and has already been, public agitation against this potential increase in the rates.

There are two types of child care subsidized. One is the Centre de la petite enfance (CPE), which resembles a school setting (many groups organized by age, and it’s quite large, with some having as many as 80 children). It is very hard to get a place at a CPE. My older daughter was registered on the wait list when I learned I was pregnant with her—so about five years ago—and we never managed to get a place.

The other type of subsidized day care, which we have, is in a caregiver’s house. If there is a single caregiver, she is allowed to have six children with up to two infants (under 18 months). If there are two caregivers, they are allowed to have nine kids with up to four infants. Our current day care has two caregivers. We like the fact that our two daughters are in the same group and they can play together, which wouldn’t be possible in a CPE.

The government supervises family day cares, and there are random inspections a few times a year to ensure the quality. Still, I visited many $7-per-day day cares, and I must say that the quality is highly variable. So, although this type of subsidized family day care is relatively easy to get (especially if you are looking for one in September, when many spots are open due to children starting school), some prefer to opt for private day care.

Private day care is also subsidized, but the subsidy depends on how much you earn. For a lower-income family, the rate is almost the same as a $7/day day care and might even be lower. (You can compare the costs here). Typically, in Montreal, a private day care in a family setting goes from CA$25 to CA$35 dollars per day without the subsidy ($22 to $31), and one in a CPE-like setting goes from CA$30 to CA$50 ($26.50 to $44).

Currently, the entire subsidy program is only available in Quebec, but one federal party might include such a program in its next electoral platform.

What happens when a child is sick?

When the child is sick, he cannot go to day care. Most of the time, my mother-in-law, who is retired, will be able to care for our kids. She lives a 10-minute drive from our place. If not, my husband and I alternate taking a sick day from work depending on our deadlines.

Are mothers expected to be the “default parent,” which is to say the person who misses work when the kid is sick or who deals with school events and other organizational tasks?

Yes, but that is changing. Fathers are getting more and more involved, especially those who have a spouse who works and earns more than they do—and this is too happening more and more as women are now the majority in universities.

Did you get maternity leave? If so, how long and was it paid? How long was your partner’s paternity leave, and how much was paid?

I just came back from a nine-month leave. In Quebec, there are two versions of the family leave program described here. I chose the “Special Plan” which gives 75 percent of your salary (up to CA$69,000 insurable earnings—a little more than $61,000). The Special Plan covers 15 weeks for the mother, three weeks for the father, and 25 parental weeks that can be split between the father and mother. This time I took 39 weeks of leave and my husband took four (plus three weeks of vacation for a total of seven weeks). Under the Basic plan (which allows more time off but for less money), the wage replacement rate is 70 percent for the first 18 weeks for mothers and five weeks for father, seven weeks for parental leave at 70 percent, and the remaining 25 weeks of parental leave are at 55 percent of your salary replacement rate.

For our first kid, I was a student in the United States, and as such I was not allowed to receive maternity benefits from Quebec’s government, but my husband did take the maximum parental leave under the basic plan, so he took a 37-week leave. This is quite unusual, and his employer was surprised, but his career did not suffer for it.

One of my male co-workers took eight weeks this year—this is rare. In my industry, fathers generally only take their assigned leave of three to five weeks depending on the plan. Typically, the mother takes all of the parental leave and the father takes only his assigned leave, which would be lost otherwise.

Note that the parental leave program in Quebec is more generous than in the rest of Canada (ROC). In the ROC, they are entitled to 55 percent of the average salary (up to CA$48,600 insurable earnings—a little more than $43,000). The benefits consist of 15 weeks of maternity leave and 35 or 37 weeks of parental leave (no part of this leave is dedicated to fathers only, but fathers can take it).

What is your employer’s attitude toward family responsibility?

They are flexible in the sense that they do not require working regular hours (e.g. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.), but they let the employees decide when to work. For example, before starting working part-time, I was working 9 to 5 and then came back home for a family dinner and worked again later at night when the kid (we had only one back then) was asleep. [Ed note: This doesn’t sound super flexible!] They are also open to giving part-time to whoever asks for it.

However, given the industry, it is often the case that part-time workers actually work full-time hours, but this is because those who truly work full-time work far more than 40 hours a week. Plus there might be some consequences in terms of promotions, etc., if you work part-time.

*Name has been changed

Check out more of Slate’s Child Care Over There series.