Mothering in the North, or How America is Letting Parents Down
Since we moved to Canada nine months ago, friends on both sides of the border have asked me about the biggest differences I notice between the two countries. Honestly, I didn’t expect to see many, aside from French labeling on our breakfast cereal and free healthcare. (Which, by the way, is awesome. Also, it feels as if there’s a lot more reluctance by medical practitioners in Ontario to prescribe antibiotics. “It’s just a virus” has become our family mantra through endless fall and winter illnesses.) Recycling and composting are de riguer here. People know how to deal with low light in winters and driving on snow. Etc etc.
There’s one difference between our two countries, however, that is writ large in households across Canada: maternity leave policy. Here, it’s a politically-supported given that mothers will spend a full year at home with their new babies (adoptive parents, gay dads and other guardians receive similar leave benefits). A new 18-month maternity option has just passed, although women earn a smaller percentage of their salaries if they opt for the longer stay at home.
These policies have myriad practical impacts: establishing and maintaining nursing is easier for women who aren’t panicked about pumping and building a milk supply before returning to work six, eight or twelve weeks post-partum. The globally typical period of “laying in” after childbirth can be a reality for Canadian moms. They can truly check out from their careers and sleep when the baby sleeps. As their newborns grow, there are free community programs and drop-in play groups daily—in churches, community centers, parks and museums—offering mothers a break from the isolation that can go hand-in-hand with time at home with a baby, along with social connection, advice from peers, and fresh air. At times my town feels like a throwback to the 1950s, its sidewalks filled with cadres of mothers leisurely pushing prams and chatting about sleep training and homemade baby food.
From my perspective as a mother of older children (four and nine,) there’s another effect of Canada’s generous maternity leave policies: an indelible bond created between mother and child in that first year of life. Please don’t panic; I am not suggesting that American mothers do not bond with their children. Nor am I suggesting that all women should stay home with their children for a year—or that they should even want to. But I will concede that the mothers I’ve met here seem…happier. Calmer. Focused on one job, parenting, without fear of losing ground professionally, losing their milk supply, losing their identities outside of motherhood. If there is leaning in happening here, it’s a leaning in to the joys and quiet routines of life with an infant.
We Americans have become professional parenting slaggers, with more than a handful of ordinary people rising to fame via snarky parenting-focused tweets and personal blogs that detail their kids’ most miserable behaviors—Target tantrums, puking in the master bedroom, coloring the walls or arguing with their siblings. We’ve become a culture that leverages the challenges of parenting into our own misanthropic rants. And that’s okay. As parents we absolutely need to let off steam, and laughing at our kids is a lot easier than giving in to anger or grief in our lowest moments as moms and dads. Reading those parenting tweets on an endless Sunday afternoon can make all the difference in my own attitude toward my current phase of life. I get it, I really do.
But I’m also inspired by my new friends, who make it look easy, in part because parenting is easier—it’s never straight up easy—when we’re able to make it our primary focus. Well paid and appropriately long maternity leaves are a huge key to what I perceive to be a different culture of parenthood north of the border. Many times we’ve lamented that I didn’t have a chance to have a baby after moving here. What a difference it would have made, we speculate. Would I be the kind of mother who loved pureeing sweet potatoes and walking to playgroup at St. James? Or would I have been bored out of my skull, missing my colleagues and the reliable pinging of my work email account? I honestly don’t know. But I wish I, and all my American friends, had had the chance to find out.