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Making family and work…work

Montreal Gazette by Eva Pomeroy 29 June 2015

We’re incredibly lucky to be parents in Quebec, right?

Generous parental leave and subsidized daycare have made me the envy of my friends elsewhere. With this kind of support in place, doesn’t it follow that we should be less stressed than parents in other provinces?

Apparently not. With the school year having just ended and some parents still scrambling to arrange summer child care, it’s worth thinking about how we can make family and work … work.

Researchers looking at work-family conflict in Canada expected to find lower levels in Quebec as a result of our family-friendly policies. They were surprised to find that this simply wasn’t the case. Parents in Quebec experience just as much time-stress and work-family conflict as those in other provinces — and that means quite a bit. Statistics Canada reports that 39 per cent of those with one or more children describe their lives as highly stressful. We all know that sustained, high levels of stress impede performance at work and at home, and carry long-term risks to our physical and mental health. Work-family conflict isn’t good for anyone. As dual-earner families constitute over 60 per cent of families in Quebec, the need to find creative solutions to the problem becomes increasingly pressing.

The challenge is this: although progressive, family-focused policy helps, this complex issue can’t be remedied with policy change alone. We actually need to shift our collective perception of the value of caregiving and work in our lives.

We’ve always placed a high value on work. The central aim of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was to gain fair and equal access to paid employment. Though much has been accomplished in this area, this social change has had an unintended consequence. The domestic work and child care that was traditionally done by women has been devalued to the point of becoming invisible. As Andrea O’Reilly of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement at York University puts it, in the fight for gender equality in the workplace, something was left out of the equation: children.

Valued or not, this work still needs to be done. We can contract some of it out, but no one’s advocating that we all hire someone else to raise our children. In fact, research shows us that although the number of hours spent in paid employment has increased over the past 20 years, workers are loath to decrease the time spent with their children. Hence the crunch.

As a society, we haven’t yet figured this out in any satisfactory way. Children are here to stay — and that’s a good thing. Their parents will continue to need to work and, ideally, to do so without stretching themselves or their families beyond their capacity to cope. We need to find new and creative ways to think about and manage the balance between work and family. Flexible work structures go a long way toward creating this balance, and we are hearing more and more about flex-work, telework and job-share options. However, these options are still not widely available.

More than that, though, we need a shift in public — and especially workplace — thinking about caregiving. If the raising of children, and caregiving in general, are valued as important endeavours, then not only will flexible work options be available, but the attitude to those options will enable parents to engage in their dual roles successfully.

Eva Pomeroy is an assistant professor in the department of applied human sciences at Concordia University and the mother of 8-year-old Isaac and 5-1/2-year-old Sam.