Why one new mom decided not to return to work.
The cost of child care prevents many parents from returning to work after having a baby. Here’s how one woman managed her own difficult choice.
before I got pregnant, I didn’t think much about whether I would return to work after a maternity leave. In fact, it wasn’t until my son, Jack, was six months old that it occurred to me that I might not return to my full-time position. Pre-baby, I had landed my dream job as an associate editor at this fashion magazine— a post I intended to keep until I died or was forcibly removed from the building. Sure, the publishing industry doesn’t pay a ton, but I was rewarded with perks like travel and enough makeup to stock a Sephora.
A few months before I was to return to work, I crunched the numbers. Turns out that after I paid for a transit pass and daycare, I would barely break even. I really like hanging out with my kid, and spending so much time away from him, without a compelling financial incentive, would be hard for me to justify.
My first step was to talk with my boss to see if a part-time opportunity might be available. When I found out this wasn’t a possibility, I did some online research to see if any kind of job made sense for me. One of the first articles I came across, in MoneySense, concluded that if you earn less than $50,000 a year, it doesn’t make financial sense to return to full-time work after having a baby. This was my situation, and it seemed crazy—CRAZY!— to see it laid out so clearly.
“It’s insane,” agrees Reva Seth, a Torontobased executive coach and author of The Mom Shift. “They’re having this problem in the U.K. too. Daycare is so expensive.” According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, women’s participation in the labour force is closely tied to the availability and affordability of child care—so maybe it’s no surprise that, after a period of decline, the
number of stay-at-home moms is on the rise. According to data from the U.S. Pew Research Center, 29 percent of women with kids under the age of 18 left the workforce last year to take care of their families. (There hasn’t been a comparable study here, but Souha Ezzedeen, an associate professor of human-resource management at York University in Toronto, says that “there are indicators that this is also the case in Canada.”)
The cost of child care, regardless of where you live in Canada, is staggering. In Toronto, it’s the priciest: Parents can expect to shell out $1,676 a month for kids two and under. But even if you live in St. John’s, N.L., monthly fees will run you around $1,394 per child. According to a 2014 survey by Statistics Canada, 49 percent of women in Alberta who work part-time said they opted to do so because they couldn’t afford a full-time nursery.
“I decided to go back to work for 15 to 20 hours a week,” says Lara Meadows, a customer-service manager in Calgary whose son, Holden, is almost a year old. “That way I can stay relevant in the financial industry and offset the cost of child care.” Quebec is the only province that subsidizes daycare costs—parents pay $7 a day, but that system also has problems. “Yes, there are [daycare] availabilities in Quebec,” says Ezzedeen. “But there are extremely long waiting lists.”
In fact, even parents who are willing to pay higher prices to get their kid into daycare face barriers. In Ontario, there are only enough licensed spots for around 35 percent of kids under the age of four. One day, after my son and I attended a music class, a neighbourhood mother who was returning to her job at an ad agency told me about her struggle to find daycare. “I started calling around, and I got laughed off the phone—the waiting lists are over a year long!” she said. Which means, in most cases, you have to sign up for daycare months before you even conceive—or look for alternative options. A full-time nanny, if paid minimum wage for a 40-hour workweek in Ontario, costs $1,909 a month—a relative bargain if you have more than one child. (My neighbour ended up hiring a full-time nanny.)
Or, you need to consider unregulated home daycares, which are cheaper because they can be operated by anyone as long as the facility has no more than five children under the age of 10. But home daycare faced an onslaught of bad press last year after four kids died in separate Toronto facilities over a span of seven months. The Ministry of Education admits it gets “hundreds of complaints” about unregulated daycares each year and is working on a dedicated enforcement unit to investigate issues.
In some cases—regardless of the financial picture—it isn’t possible for a woman to stay at home, and that’s where she has to be creative. “I remember reading about a group of women who had issues with child care who found a way to share the work—like an expanded version of carpooling or people taking turns cooking for everyone,” says Ezzedeen. “There are women who rely on extended family, in particular the immigrant communities, where it’s part of the social fabric for Grandma and Grandpa to look after the kids.”
Even when it doesn’t make immediate financial sense to return to work, says Seth, you may want to consider it an investment in your future. If you fully withdraw, there are studies that show how it impacts your income and your possibilities down the road. Experts call this “the mommy tax” and estimate that a couple who earns a total household income of $81,500 could forfeit as much as $1.4 million in lifetime earnings if they have a child—just from losing one partner in the labour force. Seth also notes that child care gets less expensive the older your kid gets. (In Toronto, it costs about $998 a month for a preschooler, whereas once the child is four and attending kindergarten, parents only have to pay for the cost of a babysitter after class lets out.) Ezzedeen agrees that it’s very difficult for women to pick up where they left off when returning to work. “Especially,” she says, “if what they did was look after a child, because, unfortunately, it’s still not regarded as work. In many ways, it’s the most important job in our society, but it’s the least valued and regarded.”
It’s not an easy balance—especially when many companies are not very flexible about when you can start and end work or take a longer lunch to run an errand, says Ezzedeen. Add to that the growing expectation that
employees should answer their emails at all hours and the prospect of balancing a return to work with raising a toddler is not all that appealing.
On the flip side of that, “there’s also this trend of ‘intensive mothering,’” says Ezzedeen. “The idea that if you’re not always there for your children, shuttling them from one activity to the other, breastfeeding all the time, you’re not a good mom. Feminist sociologist scholars say that, for women, this is just as damaging as being in an intense work environment.”
But leaving your job after having a baby doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave the workforce. In fact, between January 2014 and January 2015, the number of self-employed workers in Canada rose four times faster than the number of paid employees. “A lot of working moms I’ve interviewed used freelance work as part of their journey to post-baby success,” says Seth. Take Kat Armstrong, a former online production manager for the Canadian Cancer Society, who left her full-time job after the birth of her second child. “I opened a small business—a prenatal and postpartum concierge and support service called Sweet Child of Mine,” she says. “But I also work within my other area of expertise as a freelancer—mostly in social-media management and sales.”
In the end, I chose a similar route and decided to become a freelance writer and consultant for my husband’s virtual-reality start-up. This path gives me the flexibility to work on my own schedule—when my son is sleeping, when grandparents can babysit or when I can hire extra childcare help. It’s certainly not as glamorous as sipping champagne in Milan during Fashion Week, but I enjoy the freedom of being self-employed and representing women in the maledominated technology industry. It’s a challenging and exciting field and likely one I wouldn’t have considered without a little push. (Plus, the higher tech-industry salary makes it easier to justify being away from my son more—as in, I can afford it.)
“For a lot of women in my network, their careers actually improved after having kids,” says Seth. “My own career coalesced after my son was born. I sold my first book to Simon & Schuster and went to the U.K., where my legal background let me get good financial clients. It came together, and I thought, ‘This is something you never hear—that kids can have a positive impact.’” n