This article originally appeared in the Hub.
By Aaron Wudrick and Jasmine Moulton, October 4, 2022
It wasn’t that long ago that a majority of Canadian children had a stay-at-home parent. It was just 1976. Prime Minister Trudeau was nearly five. His father was still in office.
Yet today that number has fallen to a mere 18 percent. There are many reasons for this massive shift in social norms, including of course expanded professional opportunities for women and the rising costs of housing, university, and so on.
This development is widely heralded as an example of social progress and a boon to the economy as female labour force participation has come to match men’s. But what’s sometimes overlooked is the increasing cultural pressure on parents — and specifically mothers — to get back in the workforce. In effect, we have moved from a society that pressures mothers to stay home to a society that pressures them to go back to work, whether they want to or not.
This pressure is particularly notable when it comes from self-styled progressive voices, who generally frame the importance of mothers getting back to work as necessary to help boost the economy — a talking point highlighted again and again by supporters of the federal government’s subsidized child care program.
There’s something paradoxical happening here: progressives who are generally dismissive of concerns about economic efficiency suddenly become hard-core economic utilitarians when it comes to women getting back into the workforce.
It’s important to emphasize the changing social expectations from the 1970s and 1980s are generally positive. The expectation that “women’s place is in the home” and their “proper role” was to be full-time parents wrongly deprived women of choice and autonomy — and in many cases left them financially dependent on partners, forcing them to endure family arrangements that were sometimes unhappy or even abusive.
But it is fair to ask whether the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Many women now feel pressured to “do it all.” The expectation, particularly in professional circles, is to juggle both a career and family, and face a barrage of messaging implying they are “letting down the team” if they don’t abide by this modern progressive mantra. This is both inappropriate insofar as government messaging should not be contributing this pressure, and also insulting to stay-at-home parents by implying that their contribution to society is only measured by their contribution to GDP.
Surely the goal of government policy should not be to dictate to Canadian families what their work-life arrangements should be, but rather to empower all parents to make the choices they want — and there’s a myriad of options beyond the false binary between staying-at-home and working 9-to-5. For example, the ideal scenario for some — indeed many — families may be to enlist help from their extended family for childcare.
While the mutual benefits of grandparent time are largely unquestioned, it remains unfashionable to point out the benefits associated with stay-at-home parenting, including improved education and health outcomes. Such evidence further underscores the flaws of a government policy that discourage parents from opting to stay at home with their children.
So what could governments do to make it more viable for families that want to have one parent stay home do so? Cost of living overall is at the top of the list and is the main reason Canadians are not having as many children as they want to.
Lowering taxes is the most obvious place to start because taxes are the single biggest cost faced by the average Canadian family (which typically spends more on taxes than necessities like clothes or food). The more taxes erode the take-home income of a single earner, the less practical it is for parents to make the choice to stay at home. The government could remove other policies that penalize families who have one parent who stays home, including revisiting the Trudeau government’s decision to cancel income splitting for families with children.
The government could also move away from a narrow focus on daycare, which does not assist families who don’t wish us to pursue that particular model. For example, some parents choose to stay home simply because they’d prefer a child-care option with someone they know like a neighbour or family member. Others cannot make practical use of it because of shift work or other atypical workplace arrangements.
Modern Canadian families need more flexibility and nuance to childcare policy than the government’s current one-size-fits-all approach. The government must find a better solution that works for a wider range of families, whether they want two working parents or one stay-at-home parent. Indeed, unless the government pays more attention to this preference, stay-at-home parenting will become a luxury option available only to the richest — if it already hasn’t.
The liberation of women from having to bear almost the entire burden of raising children and families is one of the most important social developments of the past half-century. But giving women more choice means little if they feel pressured as to what the “right” choice should be. Stay-at-home parenting is a social good that isn’t captured in GDP but that doesn’t make it unvaluable. Government policies need to reflect that.
Aaron Wudrick is the director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s domestic policy program. Jasmine Moulton holds an MBA from the Rotman School of Management and is a businesswoman turned stay-at-home mom.