What the fuck am I doing?
That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot these days as I learn how to keep an infant alive and on a good day, help him become a well-adjusted human. I’m operating on exhaustion levels that would classify as torture in any different scenario, plus they’re self-inflicted which is what really burns. And in the middle of all this child-rearing I’m trying to maintain a semblance of the person I used to be, a professional hoping to hold on to the career I spent 15 years building. And as I start counting down the end of my maternity leave I’m looking at the financial reality of returning to work and asking myself, is it worth it? It’s something I know mothers ask themselves every day and the answer has warped our workforce, particularly excluding women from leadership roles.
The first three months of my pregnancy were a vomit-fuelled blur. The excitement of having my first baby was arrested by a never-ending nausea that had me running to the bathroom at home, at work and more often than I’d rather admit, in public bathrooms. But once I hit the four-month mark, the sickness dissipated and was replaced by joy, excitement and then slowly, panic. While the thrill of bringing life into the world was overwhelming in a good way, it was tempered by a real and growing fear that I’d be trading my management track for motherhood.
This was not an imagined paranoia (though that was a persistent pregnancy symptom for me, envisioning all kinds of doom and gloom scenarios for my corporeal invader). A 2015 University of Kansas study shows that burnout in the media industry disproportionately affects women, and one of the factors in their desire to leave journalism is the stress of balancing work and family life. And a 2014 Nieman report pointed out that there are fewer women in leadership positions in newsrooms across the US than 10 years ago. When we talk about diversity, not just in newsrooms but in industries across the board, the lack of women in senior management is glaring.
My husband and I live in a major urban centre, my family is here, our friends are here. Both our careers are such that to have any hope of advancement, we have to be in a city like Toronto. Daycare in the city is an average of $1,758 A MONTH. The just over $21,000 a year for infant care is nearly half the gross salary for the average Canadian. Unless you’re making well over six figures these numbers force a “what’s the point” conversation for many of us. Is it worth it? And the starkly honest truth is that it’s often not. So we take a professional leave for a few years until the cost of daycare decreases (toddler fees are much more manageable.) If you have more than one child you’re looking at several years out of the workforce. As more and more of us have children in our early-to-mid 30s, this means we’re disappearing from our fields in the peak of our earning power.
Before I had a kid, I honestly could give two shits about the cost of daycare—my childless myopia was well-developed. But the truth is affordable childcare affects every single one of us. The sacrifices parents (and more often than not that means mothers) make means that women are disappearing from professional life right when their careers should be advancing to management levels. From #MeToo to #TimesUp it’s beyond evident that women in senior roles are critical to changing the landscape of how we work. We need women in leadership and yet we continue to overlook many of the societal barriers keeping us from a seat at the table. This is especially true for women of colour, whose earning power is statistically lower than white women’s and who represent an even smaller proportion of corporate leadership.
As part of her throw-whatever-you-can-at-the-wall election platform, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised free daycare for children aged 2 ½ to kindergarten. It’s the Liberal leader’s answer to a consistent plea from parents in Ontario (though this need is echoed across the country) for a solution to rising childcare costs. Justin Trudeau’s answer to the crippling cost of daycare was to introduce a longer parental leave option for Canadians that would allow an 18 month leave, the idea being when you returned to work daycare for a toddler would be incrementally cheaper. But neither of these address costs for infants, the most unaffordable stage. Women who might choose to return sooner than 18 months are financially disinclined to do so.
If we’re going to genuinely move the needle on diversity in the workforce, in increasing the number of women and women of colour in leadership then we have to contend with the childcare issue. I don’t have any answers (I slept for two hours last night please help me), but we can’t put off asking the question any longer.
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