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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: THE GLOBE AND MAIL. SOURCE PHOTO: NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer currently working on a book about child care.

One evening this winter, as I was steering two overladen grocery carts toward the checkout of our local superstore, the employee handling cart traffic control came to my aid. Taking hold of one of carts, he said, “It’s people like you I feel sorry for.”

I assumed he was reacting to the sight of a small woman attempting to stock up for her family (plus an elderly neighbour) for several weeks, thus limiting our exposure to COVID-19. And while I certainly wasn’t looking for pity, I did appreciate the acknowledgment that what I – like millions of other mothers – was doing was hard work, as I piled the gargantuan haul into the car and headed home to a quarantining child, half-made dinner and desk piled high with unfinished work.

These concerns seem trivial in the face of a pandemic that has claimed more than 22,000 Canadian lives. The central tragedies of COVID-19 have unfolded in long-term care homes and hospitals, meat-packing plants and overcrowded highrises. But in its wake, the pandemic has also prompted a giant social experiment among Canadian families: what happens when parents start working from home, kids stop going to school and everyone has to co-exist under one roof? It too will prove instructive.

Of particular interest to sociologists is the question of how the cookie crumbles between parents: Who does what and why and at what cost? Two outcomes were predicted: either women would be catapulted back into their grandmother’s Mary Janes, abandoning the labour market to take up the traditional burden of housework and child care; or this massive shakeup would cause a shift in social norms and spawn policies that led to a more balanced playing field between parents.

From the outset, it didn’t look good for women. A report published by the Royal Bank of Canada showed that by April, women’s participation in the work force had dropped to its lowest level in three decades. Unlike most recessions, which strike male employment first and worst, the pandemic was hitting female-dominated industries such as retail, hospitality and personal services hardest.

But there was another particularity of this situation, which explained why only half of the women who had lost their jobs were seeking new ones: Schools and daycares were closed, children were home and women were stepping into the breach to look after them.

In the past year, nearly 100,000 women have exited the labour force – 10 times more than the number of men. And those figures don’t account for the thousands of us who didn’t lose our jobs but were, between school closings and COVID-19 exposures, working less than half of our usual hours.

Economists call us “underutilized” – which is certainly not how it feels to be parenting, educating, feeding and cleaning while trying to keep a career alive. The pandemic exacerbated a problem familiar to many mothers: that the unpaid parts of the labour equation – domestic drudgery and child care – tend to get in the way of the “paid” part. Surveyed by Statscan in June, 64 per cent of mothers, and only 14 per cent of fathers, claimed to have taken primary responsibility for home-schooling.

For many, the pandemic division of labour was a function of basic math. While most families in Canada are now headed by two working parents, mothers typically earn less than fathers, owing largely to the financial hit they take when they have children. So it was only logical for lower-earning mothers to ditch their jobs and devote themselves to the stove and Google Classroom.

The CERB payment made that decision more tenable. But it’s not just income that women have been losing; it’s also professional experience – and well-being. A joint survey by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies conducted in January showed unemployed women and single parents to be the groups reporting the worst mental health as a result of the pandemic.

So does it really matter if some women leave the work force? Quite apart from the moral – and legal – argument that Canadian women and men should have equal access to (and compensation for) work, there’s also an economic one. With women earning 42 per cent of household income prepandemic, the Canadian economy, as economist Armine Yalnizyan has pointed out, cannot bounce back without restoring women’s contribution to it.

The Trudeau government seems to understand that child care will be central to the “she-covery.” In last September’s Throne Speech, it committed to “make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and child care system.” That would be a game-changer.

Feminists have been pushing for universal child care for the past half-century, while successive federal governments have kicked the can down (or right off) the road. The national child-care programs put forward by the Conservatives under Brian Mulroney and by the Liberals under Paul Martin both fell victim to the same old ideological battle over who is responsible for children: their parents or the state?

COVID-19 exposed this false dichotomy for what it is. Last spring, municipal and provincial governments scrambled to provide emergency child care to front-line workers to ensure they could continue to work – treating municipal water, guarding prisons, saving lives. Child care itself proved to be an essential service – and not for the first time in Canadian history. In 1942, as women toiled in munitions factories and on assembly lines, Ottawa realized its responsibility for their children – occasionally found tethered to fenceposts as their mothers worked – and set up 34 wartime day nurseries in Ontario and Quebec.

Critics of universal child care paint it as a program to co-opt young children, force mothers to work and diminish the role of parents. In fact, it has the opposite effect. My children, born in Berlin, were welcomed into the local child-care centre without so much as a wait-list. The fee was calculated as a percentage of our household income, the hours were flexible and the care exceptional. Only when I returned to Toronto did I realize what I had been spared: the struggle so many Canadian parents face to find and afford child care while leaning on nannies and grannies or sacrificing careers. The patchwork provision of child care across this country – in which 36 per cent of parents report having trouble finding any whatsoever – is the single biggest obstacle to ensuring young families thrive.

COVID-19 has also put a lie to the “natural order” of nurturing mums and bread-earning dads. Just as more women came out of the Second World War wearing pants, more men are coming out of this pandemic with Pablum on their cuffs. Amid the additional burden borne by women during the pandemic, sociologists report that fathers working from home during the lockdown have played a more active role in domestic work. That’s good news in a country where, prepandemic, mothers were spending an average of 30 per cent more time on housework and 40 per cent more time on child care than fathers – an imbalance that persists even when women work full-time.

It also bolsters the case for a more ambitious parental-leave policy. At the moment, only 24 per cent of fathers in English-speaking Canada are availing themselves of the parental leave that they are entitled to after the birth of their child. The current incentives are too low to entice men away from their paid work. But the pandemic experience suggests that men are willing – maybe even eager – to be more involved at home, under the right terms.

To figure out what those are, we have to look no further than Quebec, where higher wage replacement rates and a “use it or lose it” provision have resulted in 93 per cent of fathers taking some form of parental leave. Combined with the low-fee child-care system that the province introduced in 1997, which led to a 20-per-cent leap in women’s labour-force participation, Quebec is forging a path toward greater equality.

But if Canada really wants to go for glory, it needs to study best practices in Europe, where parental leave is conceived less as a feast at the beginning of the journey than a series of snacks along the way. Since 2015, German parents have had the option of taking paid leave in stages over the child’s first eight years, with enhanced benefits for single parents and couples who divide the leave evenly.

In Sweden, which pioneered shared parental leave in 1974, parents can stretch 16 months of paid leave over their child’s first 12 years, with three of those months reserved uniquely for each parent. Swedish men worry less about being the only guy in the office heading home to change diapers than being the only guy who is not. As a result, the country boasts a gender wage gap of 7.6 per cent – less than half of Canada’s – and a female work force participation rate 10 per cent higher than ours.

In addition to balancing the scales, initiatives such as these address a major defect of Canadian policies, which treat child care and parental leave as preschool needs and ignore the yawning gap between the usual school schedule and the working day, not to mention the 10 weeks of school-free summer holidays. Jurisdictions that get family policies right don’t only commit to universal child care – they dovetail it with parental leave to form a coherent whole.

This issue has never been more pressing. Once the pandemic threat has passed, another one looms. Economists predict that the structural shift to automation, only accelerated by the pandemic, will have a disproportionately large impact on women’s employment.

COVID-19 should spur Canada to action. Of course, there will be resistance. Gender fault lines lie deep, as suggested by the more granular analysis of how Canadian fathers spent their domestic time during the lockdowns: doing more of the grocery shopping and household finances, but still steering a wide berth around the laundry and kitchen.

But with enough of a jolt – such as a war or a pandemic – those norms can shift. I’m seeing it with my own eyes. As a single parent, I’ve had no partner to lean on through this past year, but I have had my sons. Wielding mops, scrambling eggs, driving our vacuum cleaner to the brink of collapse, they’ve become a mighty force in our home. They don’t care about gender norms – they just want life to carry on, and their mother to not break.

If anything, this pandemic has shown just how unbreakable mothers are. But it has also shone a light on the hurdles we continue to stumble over. Now it remains to be seen if enlightened leadership will clear them out of the way.

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