Parental leave: highs and lows

In Quebec, most new parents get to spend about a year with their newborn before going back to work. But while this generous paid leave is greatly appreciated, balancing parental leave, family life, and work is not always easy. Between sharing the time off, dealing with stigmas, and tackling money matters, a number of challenges remain.


Mom, dad or both?

While both parents are eligible for parental leave, more mothers opt to take time off than fathers. What are the reasons for this trend? And what are the advantages of sharing parental leave more equally?

By Nathalie Vallerand

While both parents are eligible for parental leave, more mothers opt to take time off than fathers. What are the reasons for this trend? And what are the advantages of sharing parental leave more equally?

The purpose of parental leave is to allow new parents to enjoy time with their baby. “I loved getting the chance to be a fulltime mom for a year,” says Tamaro, mother of fouryearold Jonathan and twoyearold Olivier. “Babies get big so quickly; I would have regretted missing out on those first months.”

“My wife and I took part of our parental leave at the same time,” says LeeChristophe, father of 23monthold Oscar and fourmonthold Félix. “It allowed us both to adjust to our new family life. My older coworkers wished they’d had the same opportunity.” The young dad also took a couple weeks of parental leave on top of his paternity leave. “I chose to have kids, and for me, that means helping to take care of them.”

Like LeeChristophe, close to 80 percent of fathers take advantage of paternity leave. But only one in three fathers also take parental leave.

About the QPIP

The Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) is intended for both salaried and selfemployed workers. The plan offers three types of leave: one for the mother, one for the father, and a third that can be shared between the two parents. Depending on whether parents choose the basic or the special plan, mothers are entitled to 15 or 18 weeks of maternity leave and fathers, three or five weeks of paternity leave. A further 25 or 32 weeks of parental leave can then be taken by either parent. In the case of adoption, parents are entitled to a shared 28 or 37 weeks of leave.

Why mostly moms?

“It was more complicated for my husband to take time off work,” says Tamaro, who took the entire parental leave. “I was also planning to breastfeed for a long time.” As it happens, studies show that breastfeeding is one of the main reasons why women take the bulk of parental leave.

Money is also a factor. In a report on parental leave, the Conseil du statut de la femme states that in 70 percent of Quebec couples, women are the ones with a lower income. That’s why many parents find it easier on the family budget when the mother takes most of the parental leave.

Another reason is the widespread belief that raising children is primarily a woman’s responsibility. Even though men are becoming increasingly involved, many studies and experts report that women are still seen as the “main parent.” As a result, parental leave tends to be seen as an extension of maternity leave.

Few couples really talk about how they plan to split parental leave. Usually, the woman will decide how much time she wants to take, and her partner will respect her choice. “Men who take a few weeks of parental leave feel as though their wives are doing them a favour,” says Valérie Harvey, a sociologist who is writing her doctoral thesis on parental leave. “Even though both parents are entitled to parental leave, fathers say that their spouses ‘gave’ them part of the time.”

“Childcare is such a huge part of a woman’s identity that I questioned whether I was a bad mother because my partner took the entire parental leave for both of our kids,” Harvey explains. “At the same time, I didn’t want to stop working for a full year.”

It’s rare for fathers to take the entire parental leave. In 2014, a survey conducted by the Quebec management board for parental insurance showed that only six percent of fathers had taken the full parental leave. In addition, they often did so only because the mother was either studying, unemployed, or on sick leave, and therefore ineligible for the parental insurance plan.

Parental leave by the numbers
  • Close to 1.5 million parents have taken advantage of the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) since it was introduced in 2006.
  • 21,526 fathers took parental leave in addition to paternity leave in 2016. This represents an increase of 53 percent compared to 2006.
  • Average number of weeks of parental leave taken by the mother: 29
  • Average number of weeks of parental leave taken by the father: 13

Source: Conseil de gestion de l’assurance parentale

Share the leave, share the work

Divvying up parental leave more evenly is better for both parents. When mothers take long parental leaves, there is a higher risk that the family responsibilities will not be equally balanced. During this period, moms often shoulder the bulk of household chores. When they go back to work, they continue to be responsible for most of the housework and childcare.

“Fathers who are involved in their children’s lives early on tend to be more comfortable with childcare tasks and to continue taking on those responsibilities down the road,” confirms DianeGabrielle Tremblay, a professor at TÉLUQ University who is studying parental leave. The bottom line is, sharing parental leave more evenly makes it easier for women to balance family and work.

Fathers who take parental leave get involved in raising their children right from the start and take on more household chores.

To promote gender equality among couples, the Conseil du statut de la femme believes that the government should extend paternity leave by three weeks, on the condition that only the father take care of the child during this time. By spending a few weeks caring for their children, fathers become more aware of the challenges involved and develop a sense of responsibility for their children’s needs.

It’s also an opportunity for parents to bond with their newborns. “Babies are demanding,” says Patrick, father to four-year-old SeanAnthony. Patrick chose to take the full parental leave because his wife was in school. “It’s a lot of work, but I loved it. My son and I are very close. I’m usually the one he turns to when he needs to be comforted. He’s a daddy’s boy.”

The father’s presence is also beneficial for a baby’s development. “Both parents have their own ways of behaving, playing, and parenting,” says sociologist Valérie Harvey. “These differences stimulate the child and prepare them for becoming part of society.”

Longer leaves on the horizon

Last March, the National Assembly tabled a bill to extend the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP). If it passes, mothers who give birth to twins or triplets will be eligible for an additional five weeks of parental leave. The same policy will apply for parents who adopt a child. The bill also gives parents the option to spread their parental leave benefits over two years if their employer approves. What’s more, parents will be able to bank up to two weeks of their parental leave and use those ten days for family obligations after they return to work.

Parental leave and work: all you need to know

Every year, close to 130,000 parents stop working for a few weeks—or months—to care for their newborns. While employers tend to be understanding, not all parents are so lucky.

Every year, close to 130,000 parents stop working for a few weeks—or months—to care for their newborns. While employers tend to be understanding, not all parents are so lucky.

When sociologist Valérie Harvey told her boss that she was expecting, he congratulated her. But one of the other executives wasn’t impressed. “She said, ‘Again!’—as if I had a brood of children, even though it was only my second,” recalls Valérie, who has a two-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. “Then, anytime I had a doctor’s appointment, it was hard to get time off.”

What’s more, Valérie’s work schedule changed while she was on leave. When she got back, she was expected to work from noon until eight o’clock at night. “My husband didn’t get home from work until early evening, so we couldn’t make it work,” she says. “I had no choice but to quit. It was very stressful.”

Parents who take parental leave can miss out on promotions or wind up with no job to go back to. “Others get transferred to new teams or assigned less interesting projects when they go back to work,” Valérie explains.

For both women and men, taking several months off work to care for their baby can be more complicated in certain sectors. This is notably often the case for skilled workers, privatesector executives, and selfemployed workers. “Lawyers, for instance, can’t always pick up where they left off if they are away for too long,” says Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay. “They have to build a new clientele when they get back. Some stay in touch with the office or take a shorter leave just to hold on to clients.”

Fortunately, it’s smooth sailing for most parents. For Lee-Christophe, father of fourmonthold Félix and 23monthold Oscar, things have gone well since he got back to work two months ago. “At the mining company where I work, it’s perfectly acceptable to take parental leave. My boss actually just left for a threemonth leave!”

The mother of two young girls, Marie-Pier was offered a promotion while she was on parental leave for her eldest. But it meant that she had to go back to work earlier than planned. “I wanted the job so I said yes. But it was hard on me as a mother, because our daughter would be starting daycare when she was only seven months old!”

Lingering prejudices

Moms who go back to work early or whose partners take parental leave sometimes feel judged. “People will say that they’re putting their career before their family or that their child is way too young to start daycare,” says Valérie. The sociologist attributes these reactions to the fact that society still views mothers as a child’s primary caretaker.

As for dads, people are often shocked when men take long leaves. David, who works in Quebec for an American company, took the entire parental leave when both of his children were born because his wife wanted to go back to work as soon as possible. “When I told my bosses in New York that I was taking several months of parental leave, they couldn’t believe it,” says David. “It’s not part of the American culture for dads to parent solo.”

Here at home, the reaction was mostly positive; but David still got comments that he likely would not have heard if he were a woman, such as, “Must be nice to be getting a year-long vacation!” Dads on parental leave also tend to get remarks along the lines of “So what’s your wife going to do?”

Tremblay believes that some of the stigmas would go away if more fathers took advantage of paternity leave. “The more parents share their parental leave, the more we’ll start to see a domino effect and the more normal it will become,” she adds.

There are still prejudices around mothers going back to work early and fathers taking long parental leaves.

According to a survey conducted by the Quebec management board for parental insurance, only six percent of fathers have experienced difficulties at work in relation to taking paternity or parental leave. Valérie, whose work led her to do a study on fathers employed in the IT and video game industries, has found that paternity leave is widely accepted. “However, some employers will ask fathers to choose a quieter period or to split their leave in two,” she notes. In addition, dads are often not replaced during a paternity leave of three or five weeks, meaning extra work for their coworkers.

At the same time, companies tend to put up more resistance when men decide to take parental leave. “Dads have to make compromises, such as working a little or keeping an eye on their projects during their time off,” says DianeGabrielle Tremblay, a professor and researcher at TÉLUQ University. “In comparison, women are not usually asked to work while they’re on leave.”

What parents appreciate about parental leave

“I got to experience all of my child’s firsts: his first smile, his first tooth, his first steps. I was there for it all.”
– Patrick, father of Sean Anthony, 4

“I was able to take care of my kids and still have a source of income, which made for one less thing to worry about.”
- Tamaro, mother of Olivier, 2, and Jonathan, 4

“By spending time with my kids, I got to know them better. I know what they like, what they don’t like, what makes them laugh, and what upsets them. Essentially I learned how to be comfortable around them.”
- David, father of Amélie, 3, and Samuel, 6

“When she was nine months old, my youngest daughter was still waking up several times a night. It’s good to have some time during the day to recover from a lack of sleep.”
– Marie-Pier, mother of Amanda, 9 months, and Liana, 22 months

“Parental leave is for dads too. It’s flexible and can be adapted for different situations. After our second child was born, I took eight weeks off. It also gave me a chance to get closer to my eldest.”
- Lee-Christophe, father of Félix, 4 months, and Oscar, 23 months

Being financially prepared for parental leave

Parents planning to take parental leave must be prepared to adjust to having a reduced income. Here are some tips on how to get by with less money.

Parents planning to take parental leave must be prepared to adjust to having a reduced income. Here are some tips on how to get by with less money.

New parents registered for Quebec’s parental insurance program (QPIP) have the option of claiming benefits under either the basic plan or the special plan. Under the basic plan, maternity and paternity benefits, and those provided during the first seven weeks of parental leave, represent 70 percent of take-home pay. The other weeks are paid at 55 percent. Under the special plan, all benefits are paid at 75 percent, but the leave period is shorter. As of 2018, the maximum earnings used to calculate parental insurance benefits is $74,000.

Regardless of which plan they choose, parents earn less money during parental leave. For example, under the basic plan—the more popular option—a parent who earns $770 a week would receive $539 during the weeks at 70 percent and $423.50 during the others. Under the special plan, the same individual would receive $577.50 a week. Some parents can take this temporary decrease in income in stride, but for others, such as single moms or parents who work at minimum wage, it can be difficult to make ends meet.

Pro tips

We asked Lucie Dal Molin, a financial advisor at Montreal’s ACEF family savings credit union, how parents-to-be can start preparing for living on a reduced income right from the moment they find out they are expecting. Here are her tips:

1. Take a minute to crunch some numbers using the benefit calculation simulator on the QPIP website. Once you’ve picked a plan, you cannot change your mind.

2. Go over who will be paying for what during the leave period so that the split is fair. Keep in mind that the individual taking the longest leave will have the lower income.

3. Save up what you can before your baby is born. For instance, try cutting back on dining out and other non-essential spending. You can also save by shopping around for the lowest insurance, phone, and cable rates.

4. Keep track of your budget for at least one month by noting your expenses and income. Think about any new expenses you will have after your baby is born (diapers, clothes, toys, stroller, accessories, etc.). This will give you a better idea of how much money you need per week to get by.

5. Buy only the essentials. Ask other parents what items they could not do without. Shop in second-hand stores and see if friends have anything they are willing to lend or give away.

Good to know

During your leave, you cannot contribute to employment insurance or parental insurance. You are also unable to contribute to your Quebec pension plan (RRQ). However, this should not affect the annuity you receive when you retire, as the months for which you receive parental benefits may be excluded from the calculation of your annuity.

Does your employer offer a group pension plan? While it may be difficult to continue making contributions with a reduced income, making no contributions during your time away may leave you with a lower pension when you retire. To avoid this, some employers allow their employees to buy back these months later. Of course, this would be another expense you would have to plan for in your budget.

As for group insurance plans, you must continue making your premium payments during parental leave to keep your benefits. Once again, this may be hard on your pocketbook. To give yourself some breathing room, ask your boss if you can suspend some of your benefits.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, May–June 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Sophie Mathieu, postdoctoral researcher at Brock University and lecturer in sociology at the University of Montreal


Photos : gettyimages/aleksandarkanic, Maxim Morin, gettyimages/aleksandarnakic