Parental leave and work: all you need to know

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


Photo: Maxim Morin


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