Kids, careers and the day care debate
About three million children need supervision
The steady increase in the 1990s in the number of single parents, and marriages where both partners work, has created a deepening conflict with traditional ideas about who should take care of children. The dilemma is greatest for single mothers, who must cope with responsibilities—and bills— once shared with someone else. Some European countries—notably Belgium, France and Sweden—embrace the principle that child care is at least partly a community responsibility. But in Canada, a stubborn and widespread attitude persists that if people want children, they should stay home and look after them. “We have withdrawn our collective support for young families,” said sociologist Robert Glossop of Ottawa’s Vanier Institute of the Family. “We have in a sense privatized responsibility just like we have privatized Air Canada.”
As a result, tens of thousands of Canadian parents are wrestling with the cost, availability and quality of day care. Many single mothers who want to work are forced to stay home and rely on welfare either because they cannot afford day care or because none is available. Most married couples pursuing separate careers while raising young families earn too much to qualify for day care subsidies—but not enough to pay day care fees. Ranged against them are the realities facing all governments—high costs and voter opposition to increased government spending.
For more than 20 years, a succession of federal governments, Fiberal and Progressive Conservative, have proclaimed the need for some kind of national child care program, but none has ever materialized. That has thrown the burden largely onto the provinces, which
in 1992 received $275 million under the Canada Assistance Plan for child care, and the municipalities, whose treasuries are already stretched thin by legions of welfare claimants. Complicating the debate is a simmering battle over what is best for families: a system that rewards stay-athome parents, or governmentsponsored day care centres.
The need for help with children has given rise to yet another problem: an increasing number of illegal nannies— women, principally from eastern Europe, the Philippines and the Caribbean, who stay in Canada after their visitors’ visas expire. They disappear
“Child care is basic; it is the vehicle that will
allow low-income people to get out of the poverty trap. Without it, that just isn’t going to happen.”
—Dawn Black, federal NDP child care critic.
into the underground labor market and find jobs through friends or by answering newspaper ads for child care help.
Although complete statistics on the demand for government-sponsored day care are not available, there is little doubt that there are far fewer affordable spaces than are needed. In 1991, there were 3.1 million children with mothers in the labor force, more than double the 1.4 million in 1974. According to the Canadian National Child Care Study, a $3-million project sponsored by Health and Welfare Canada that based its findings on a 1988 survey, there were then 2.7 million children with working parents who needed some child care at least once a week. Yet in 1991, there were only 333,082 regulated day care spaces available, including spaces in private homes.
Some economists have estimated that a national day care program would cost between $4 billion and $20 billion annually, depending on such factors as availability and the level of subsidies. But with governments facing rising costs and voter opposition to increased government spending, many day care experts say there is little hope for a federally funded program within the next decade.
Said Sylvia Fanjoy, executive director of the Canadian Child Day Care Federation, an Ottawabased information and support service: ‘There is a feeling of despair among parents who need day care.”
At the same time, Canada’s
existing system, day care advo-
cates claim, is in decline. Starting in 1971, the num-
ber of day care spaces in Canada grew every year by 10 to 16 per cent. But in 1990, the annual rate of increase was only 7.6 per cent, and in 1991 it fell to 2.9 per cent, the lowest increase since 1978. In recent years, the federal government capped payments under the Canada Assistance Plan to so-called “"have” provinces—British Columbia, Alberta and Ontarioforcing some day care centres in those provinces to either close or reduce their spaces. In Ontario alone, 73 day care centres closed over the past two years. In March, Manitoba froze the number of subsidized day care spaces at 9,600, down from 10,000 the previous year—the first-ever cap on subsidized spaces in that province. Meanwhile, stagnant incomes and rising fees at day care centres are forcing many parents to either wait months for a subsidized space or search for cheaper alternatives, including unregulated neighborhood babysitters. In Ontario, there are 25,000 children waiting for subsidized space, even while an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 full-fee spaces, where costs typically average between $500 and $800 a month, remain unfilled.
For many parents, the structure of Canada’s day care system, with its sharp divisions between middleand low-income earners, discourages incentive. Lorraine Alexander, 35, of Ottawa worked until two days before the birth of her son, Andrew. As a single mother earning $26,000 a year, she registered for subsidized care. But when she tried to return to work, she was told the wait would still be several months. Determined to return to her job as a credit and collections analyst, she looked into the the cost of unsubsidized care: $125 a week. Unable to pay that fee, Alexander despairingly quit her job and went on welfare. Ten months later, when a subsidized spot opened up, Alexander could find only lowpaying work. Discouraged, she returned to school to upgrade her skills. Now, because her income is limited to family benefits, her day care costs only $12 a month. But once she returns to work, it will rise sharply. For Alexander, the system seems to punish those who want to work. “I just cannot understand a government that would want somebody with ambition and drive to become a vegetable,” she said. “Why are they not supporting people like myself?”
As pressure on the day care system increases, many day care workers are beginning to lose heart. With wages that average about $18,500 a year, turnover is a chronic problem for the industry. The low wages, workers claim, add stress to a career that often ends in burnout. Noted Patricia Kozak, a day care worker at the YWCA Child Care Centre in Saskatoon: “I really believe in it, but I take home less than $1,000 a month and I don’t know how much longer I can last. A four-year-old respects me, but society doesn’t see the value of my job.”
But many parents do. Mary Henry was recently laid off from her job at a fabric company but decided to leave her two-year-old son, Ross, enrolled part time at the West Point Grey Under Three Day Care Society in Vancouver. Henry said that her son enjoys the centre and having him accepted there was an enormous relief. The centre, which has a total of 12 spaces, has a waiting list of about 60 children. The cost for full-time care is $695 a month. “We were desperate before they called us,” said Henry. “I can’t imagine what people do who can’t find a place.”
Despite such confidence in the day care system, there is disagreement about what kind of care is best for young children. Many agree with Henry that good group care is worth sacrificing for. But the critics are vocal. Some social scien-
tists argue that children from birth to age 3 should be looked after by the same person. In group care, those experts say, some children risk serious damage to their emotional development, including the inability to get close to others. According to one expert, group care almost al-
ways damages children under 3. Dr. Elliott Barker, a Midland, Ont., psychiatrist and editor of the quarterly magazine Empathie Parenting, said that shared care can have a severe impact on a young child’s emotional development. In most day care centres, the ratio of workers to children varies, from three or four children to one worker for infants, up to 10 to one for preschoolers. Barker, who has spent much of his career working with the criminally insane, said the trust and closeness that are vital to healthy personality development require the loving attention of one person, preferably a parent until age 3. Children who do not get such care, he said, can develop some of the traits of psychopaths, including aggressiveness and indifference to the pain of others. “We should reward mothers for nurturing their kids under age 3,” Barker said. For children under 3, he added, “day care will never work.”
Like Barker, other groups in Canada advocate more support for stay-at-home parents. Kids First, a Calgarybased parents group with
5.000 members across the country, proposes more support for the traditional family, as does REAL Women, an Ottawa-based organization that represents more than
50.000 women. Kids First president Dianne Klein, a fulltime schoolteacher, is the
mother of two teenage children. She worked part time until her children started school and then stayed home for six years. Klein says publicly funded day care encourages parents to work, instead of doing what is best for their children by staying home. “Subsidies for day care devalue the choice of stay-at-home parents,” she said.
Kids First has won support for its views. Last year, the group persuaded the Alberta government to reduce monthly subsidies for individual day care spaces to $50 from $256, partly on the basis that day care subsidies are unfair to stay-athome parents. Kids First has also launched a court challenge against the child care expense deduction of no more than $4,000 per child, arguing that it discriminates against parents who stay at home.
Instead of such deductions,
Klein, and REAL Women founder Gwen Landolt, say that larger tax credits should be given directly to parents, instead of using tax dollars to build a national day care system.
Greater tax breaks would encourage more women to stay home,
Landolt claims. “The impetus for a publicly funded national day care system comes from radical feminists who believe anybody can look after a child,” said Landolt. “And that isn’t so.”
But Alan Pence, a co-director of the National Child Care Study and a professor in the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria, maintains that such assertions do more harm than good because they ignore a reality that is not going to change. “We don’t have the option of having mom at home because she just isn’t there any more,” he said. “The irresponsible thing is to leave children in situations where they are receiving low-quality care.” Pence also said many recent studies have concluded that children are not damaged by child care as long as it is of high
“Children thrive on stability and when you take that stability away, then you introduce a risk factor into their lives.”
—James Garbarino, president, the Erikson Institute, a child-development research centre in Chicago.
• During the last taxation year, the federal government approved $300 million worth of child care deductions at income tax time.
• Ottawa reimburses the provinces for half the money they spend on child care. Last year, the federal share was $275 million.
• Employment and Immigration Canada last year paid $1.3 billion to parents off work while having babies or completing adoptions.
• Mothers can claim up to 57 per cent of their earnings, to a weekly maximum of $425 for 15 weeks for maternity benefits under the unemployment insurance program. In addition, both mothers and fathers can claim up to 10 weeks of parental leave. All provinces require employers to hold the jobs of employees on parental leave, ranging from 24 weeks in Saskatchewan to 52 in Quebec.
quality, and that disadvantaged children in particular benefit from superior day care. As well, he said, confusion over the effects of day care has impeded the development of a quality day care system in Canada. “Many European countries have comprehensive day care systems and they are not producing a generation of psychopaths,” added Pence. One thing is clear: there will be no return to the days when a sole
parent, usually the mother, cared for children fulltime while the father worked. Said Donna Lero, project director of the National Child Care Study and associate professor of family studies at the University of Guelph: “There is no turning back the clock. Women are in the workforce to stay.” In fact,according to Statistics Canada, in 1991, 61.4 per cent of women with children still at home were em-
ployed, compared with 48 per cent in 1981. And while many women have entered the workforce in pursuit of a satisfying career, the majority work to help support their families. Noted Robert Glossop, director of programs and research at Vanier: “There has been a dramatic increase in the number of families who are dependent on two
incomes just to meet their needs for food and housing.”
But doubling female participation in the workforce over the last 20 years has not come without a price. As husbands and wives try to be both reliable employees and responsible parents, they create a fertile ground for family strife. "In two-eamer families, women are doing double duty, as housekeepers and mothers as well as employees,” said Dr. Susan Bradley, chief psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “Women get angry when husbands don’t help and men, in turn, feel threatened.” The resulting conflict occurs in families at all income levels, Bradley said, but is frequently worse in families that cannot afford good child care and other household support. “It just kind of piles up,” she said.
With day care either out of reach or unappealing, many Canadian families are searching for alternate ways to take care of their children while they work. One of the most popular is day care provided in a private home, frequently unregulated but usually much less expensive. There is a catch, however: it’s often difficult to assess the quality of such care. Christopher Rodrigue, a computer analyst who lives in Timberlea, 50 km west of Halifax, and his wife, Venita, a computer technician, use a neighborhood babysitter. But before finding one they liked, they endured some painful experiences. One sitter spanked their son hard enough to bruise him. Another played loud music all day to drown out the sound of their infant daughter’s crying. But Rodrigue said that his two young children, aged 2 and 6, are happy with their new sitter who charges $125 a week, a lot less than a day care centre. Said a grateful Rodrigue:
“Our prayers were answered when
we found her.”
The hunt for inexpensive, reliable child care has also led to an unexpected increase in the ranks of alien—and illegal—nannies. No one knows how many there are.
But government officials and immigration lawyers argue that the number of illegals is bound to increase because of a new federal program, introduced last April, which says foreign nannies must have the equivalent of a Grade 12 education, six months training in child care or first aid and fluency in French or English. Mendel Green, a Toronto lawyer with one of the largest immigration practices in the country, said few women from the Philippines and the Caribbean, two major sources of foreign nannies, can meet the educational requirements. “If ever there was a change of policy that made no sense, this was it,” said Green. “I foresee a dramatic increase in the number of illegals.”
Meanwhile, some day care centres are adapting to the changing nature of the labor force. In Winnipeg, the River Avenue Cooperative Day Nursery, is tailored to meet the needs of parents who don’t work a stan-
“Politics is predicated on the belief that someone is at home cooking supper.”
—Federal NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin.
“I went back to work for my own personal needs. Working at something that
gives me job satisfaction makes me a better mother. We need to realize that child care is a social need, not a personal weakness.”
—Kathy Fedori, Calgary public relations consultant and mother of two young children.
dard work week. Partly funded by subsidies from the Manitoba government, it stays open from 7 a.m. until 12:30 a.m. for parents who work shifts. Some parents take their children to the centre in mid-afternoon and pick them up after midnight. The children change into their pyjamas, read bedtime stories, brush their teeth and go to sleep, often with a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. Ursula Konopada has used the centre for 3¥2 years. A single parent with a four-year-old son, Konopada earns about $28,000 a year as a night-shift clerk in the emergency ward of Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre. Like all the spaces at River Avenue, hers is subsidized by the province. Konopada pays only $160 a month. ‘With those hours it was really hard to find care for my son,” she said.
In Ontario, another innov-
ative program uses a combi-
nation of fulland part-time services in a rural area, some of which move from community to community in a linked network. Located near Owen Sound, the South East Grey Community Outreach Program provides services to parents in small towns on a fulland part-time basis. It also provides flexible arrangements for parents
with seasonal jobs or working schedules that fluctuate. Initiated by Carol Gott, a graduate of the University of Guelph in early childhood education, Outreach has been providing about 600 families with fulland part-time care since 1985. The program is also used by parents who do not work, providing a reliable break from the pressures of caring for children full time. For preschoolers, the fees are $22 per day, and for infants, $27 per day. The program is also partly funded by government grants. Jackie Bremner, a stay-athome mother in the small town of Singhampton, leaves her two youngest children at one of the centres for only a few hours a week. “It’s called the Grey County Great Parent Break and it really is,” said Bremner. “My kids love it and it gives me time to myself. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have time to think.”
But for too many families, child care often seems like a patchwork arrangement, dictated by the demands of busy schedules designed for an era when one spouse, usually the wife, stayed home. Conservative MP Carole Jacques keeps a shiny red tricycle with white seat and pedals in one corner of her Mercier riding office. It is there for those occasional hours when Jacques’s four-year-old daughter, Mila, is not in one of the three day care facilities she attends each week. Most Monday afternoons, she and her daughter leave Montreal and travel to Ottawa for a week of strange hours, room service meals and hotel hospitality. Like many
other mothers, preparations for Jacques’s week start early, by packing Mila’s lunch. But it also includes packing both their suitcases, dropping the Pekinese dog off at the kennel and, once in Ottawa, attending evening sessions of Parliament and caucus. Mila is friendly with the House of Commons security guards and enjoys coloring with the young pages who watch over her while her mother votes on government legislation. The routine can be hectic and tiring for both mother and daughter. Sad Jacques: “How do I do it? Sometimes, I do not know. It is a tour de force.”
The most satisfied fam-
ilies, however, appear to
be those with enough money to make choices without having to wait for a low-cost or subsidized day care space or shop around for a reliable sitter. Valerie Coyle, 38, quit her part-time job as a Vancouver-area schoolteacher after her second child was born three years ago. Coyle and her husband, Corey, 41, own an insurance agency. Although she is sometimes frustrated by the lack of recognition that stay-at-home mothers receive, she says
that she has no regrets. “I’ll be able to look back and know that I had the time with my kids,” she said.
On the other hand, Halifax lawyer Barbara Beach, 40, said it never crossed her mind not to work, even after she had two children. Beach, the manager of the legal aid office in Halifax, is married to Felix Cacchione, a judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Beach said she has total confidence in the babysitter who comes to
her home every day and that she would not be happy at home all the time. “Through my work, I have a window on the world that I can share with my children,” she said.
But the number of Canadian families free to make such choices remains small. According to Lero, that is why a publicly funded, national child care program is essential. “We need a range of highquality care options for families to choose from, and not just one size fits all,” she said. “Until child care becomes a collective responsibility, there will always be a wide gap between families who have the resources to purchase
high-quality care, and those who will be forced to put their kids in unstable low-quality care.” As that gap continues to widen, there is at least one point on which all sides agree: there are still too few answers to the question of who cares for kids.
PATRICIA CHISHOLM with D’ARCY JENISH in Toronto and ADRIENNE WEBB in Vancouver