August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week, and this year’s theme is, “Let’s make it work!” We’re talking about how to support women to breastfeed and work, whether paid or unpaid, self-employment, seasonal, contract, or care work.
I live in Canada where most women receive a year of paid leave. If you’re unfamiliar with how it works in Canada, the first two weeks are an unpaid waiting period (a deductible, if you will). The next 15 weeks are maternity leave, and the final 35 weeks are considered parental leave. The distinction means that either parent (whether biological, adoptive, or same sex) can share those 35 weeks of parental leave, though in the majority of cases the mother adds it to the end of her maternity leave making it a year.
Maternity/parental pay comes from the Employment Insurance premiums we have paid during our working careers. This is the same system that provides benefits to people who are laid off or get sick or need to care for an seriously ill family member. The employer doesn’t pay our wages during our leave unless they offer a top-up. We must work at least 600 hours of insurable employment the year before going on leave to be eligible, and we receive 55% of our average weekly earnings, up to a weekly maximum ($524 per week in 2015). Earnings are taxable income.
When I got pregnant with my first baby, I was working at a women’s hospital almost 90 minutes away from home. After Tee came along, even though I loved my job, I decided I just couldn’t spend 11 hours away from my baby every day. Fortunately, I was able to step down into a casual position and pick up the occasional shift here and there.
Thanks to my year-long leave, I never had to choose between breastfeeding on demand and going to work. After seven months of exclusive breastfeeding and another six months of Tee slowly adding solid foods to her diet, the occasional day of pumping didn’t impact my supply. The hospital provided a private room, a fridge, and even a pump for me to use. There were never any questions asked when I needed to pump – the benefit of working at a Baby-Friendly Hospital!
When Tee was 20 months old, I started a part-time job closer to home. And then I discovered I was pregnant with Kay. Over the next eight months, I worked enough hours to qualify for my next maternity leave. I really enjoyed that job, but ultimately, I made the difficult decision to resign my part-time position and go back to casual work at the end of my leave.
Those two maternity leaves allowed me to breastfeed and care for my babies through their first year and beyond. Having the peace of mind that my job was secure and I would receive a minimum stipend throughout my leave allowed me to focus on caring for my family and laid the groundwork for a long-term successful breastfeeding relationship even after that year was over.
I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky to I live in a country that provides me with legal protections and recognizes the vital role of parenting in our society as a whole. I’m lucky to live in a place and work in a field where those protections are expected and for the most part respected. That’s not to say that some employers don’t look for loopholes, or that a woman might not be let go for a reason unrelated to her pregnancy (say, downsizing), but I don’t personally know one woman who has lost her job as a result of taking a maternity leave.
I’m lucky that I could afford to take the pay cut. Not every family can afford to lose half or more of one earner’s wages, and many women have no choice but to return to work early to make ends meet. I’ve never had to choose between keeping my job and staying with my daughters. I’ve never had to choose between eating lunch and pumping milk for my baby. I’ve never had to fight for time to breastfeed, time to pump, or time with my family.
But so many women don’t have those protections in place. They don’t receive any wages while on leave, and they can’t count on their jobs still being there on their return. They find themselves forced into a situation where the cards are stacked against any kind of successful breastfeeding relationship. And that’s why this is an important issue and this year’s World Breastfeeding Week theme. Not just for the sake of breastfeeding alone, but simply for the well being of women, children, and families who are losing out all around the world.