A new mom in Parliament

Photo d'Anne Quach devant la salle des conjoints de la Chambre des CommunesIn the coming weeks, a new phase of my life is going to start, a phase that may well disrupt my life even more than when I first got into politics. For this high school teacher turned federal MP is now adding the role of “mother” to the list.

Since announcing my pregnancy, I have been surprised by the number of people who have confided in me. My swollen figure has prompted conversation not so much about my personal life as about how I expect to find a proper balance between my work in Parliament and my family life.

Women in my riding, as well as my co-workers, have shared with me their various attempts to manage this sort of undertaking. I say attempts because, unfortunately, achieving this balance is something easier said than done.

It is a common complaint that there are so few women in politics, especially at the federal level: women make up only a quarter of all the MPs in Ottawa. However low that percentage is, it is still a record—a record achieved, by the way, thanks to the NDP’s efforts to get more women into the corridors of power.

Over a third of the New Democrat candidates in the 2011 federal election were in fact women. After the orange wave broke that year, we became the caucus with the most women in the history of Canada’s Parliament, i.e. 40% of our party’s representation in the House.

The cliché is that the task of balancing work and family acts as a deterrent on women in politics. While this criticism is deliberately simplistic, and ignores a huge number of other factors that tend to keep women out of politics, it is nonetheless true that this is not the best environment in which to become a new mother.

A member’s working days in the House of Commons can be very long, especially when sittings go on until midnight. Weekends in the constituency are also filled with activities and events with one’s fellow citizens.

Furthermore, the sad reality is that Ottawa remains a male preserve. One need only consider the rather offensive comment by Peter Mackay, the Minister of Justice, when asked why the Conservative government doesn’t appoint more women to the Supreme Court. The minister answered that they were too occupied with their children.

But while this all-too-prevalent state of mind in Ottawa is deplorable, I do not want to feel sorry for myself. It is my immense privilege to be able to rely on colleagues who are as cooperative as they are understanding, starting with our leader, Thomas Mulcair.

However, not all Canadian women can depend on a work environment which, if not adapted to new mothers, at least makes an effort to be conciliatory. All over this country, millions of women still have to do the splits between career and family, trying as best they can not to neglect either.

A number of Statistics Canada studies show that, despite the fact that there are ever more women in the labour market, they continue to handle the majority of household chores and to make up the majority of informal caregivers. Although our society continues to evolve, the division of labour continues to retain certain of its traditional aspects. This is not in itself a bad thing. Where it becomes problematical is when a female lawyer or nurse, or any other woman, is faced with having to choose between her career and her family.

There is also an economic component to this reality. Faced with workplaces that are not very flexible or favourable to the work-family balance, more and more women are falling back on the self-employment option, which at least allows them to manage their own schedules.

According to one CIBC report, from 1990 to 2005 the number of self-employed women increased by over 50%, while the number of salaried women increased by 30% during the same period—figures which continue on an upward path.

A career working for themselves offers women a flexibility that is otherwise hard to find, and of course not all self-employed women choose this route for family reasons. However, this flexibility is often accompanied by wage insecurity. According to Industry Canada, 50% of self-employed women earn under $20,000 a year and report being dissatisfied, particularly because of fluctuating income and exclusion from such social security programs as employment insurance and maternity benefits. One Statistics Canada study has in fact demonstrated that one self-employed woman in three returns to work less than two months after giving birth, whereas only 5% of women earning a salary do the same.

These are not new problems: I was aware of them at the time I was elected. However, since I have been carrying a baby that I am most eager to hold in my arms, the truth of these complications for my Canadian sisters has become much more glaring.

It is with new eyes that I now see those women who are under undue pressure from their employers to get back to work faster, or to simply not get pregnant at all, the women whose career goals are being sacrificed on the altar of the work-family balance, the women dealing with workplaces that are not sufficiently supportive. Public policy has come some way toward providing for these women, but there is still a very long way to go.

This is also why diversity of political representation matters. When Quebeckers sent a substantially female caucus of all ages to Ottawa—a phenomenon light years away from the traditional clichés—they chose to make their voices heard, the voices of the women and men of Quebec who are living this reality every day.

Far be it from me to compare my own privileged experience with that of those women who are having trouble making ends meet. But with my New Democrat colleagues Rosane Doré Lefebvre, Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe and Sana Hassainia, all of whom have given or are about to give birth while sitting in Parliament, we are bringing the new mothers’ perspective to this House, in solidarity with all Canadian new mothers, whatever their circumstances.

We are already starting to see results. In recent months the NPD has tabled certain bills or motions designed to assist pregnant women subject to preventive withdrawal, to introduce a tax credit for student transportation at lunch time, to increase the number of women on boards of directors, to introduce special employment insurance benefits for the parents of sick children requiring care outside their region, and to abolish the GST on feminine hygiene products.

In the months ahead, I fully intend to redouble my efforts to see that the federal government adapts certain rules and laws to support future mothers. Nothing is more formidable than a mother whose mind is set on something.

If we all join our voices together, we will be able to guarantee our daughters, our nieces and our granddaughters the chance to combine their passion for career with their desire to start a family.