When working women become pregnant they, at some point, need to decide when to go on maternity leave — and for how long. However, a full maternity leave is not always an option.
For Lisa Armstrong, an assistant manager at A&W on Vancouver Island, her maternity option was two weeks of paid vacation. Her story made headlines earlier this month after her A&W co-workers pitched in to give her money to allow her to take more time off.
As the family's primary breadwinner, Armstrong couldn’t afford to go without her full salary, and the maternity and parental Employment Insurance (EI) of 55 per cent of her income simply wasn’t enough to live off. To give her an extra two weeks with her newborn son, Armstrong’s co-workers gathered $1,011.50.
While a thoughtful gesture, news outlets spun Armstrong’s experience as a "good news story." In reality, it was just one of many cases highlighting the gap in support for new parents.
When Lydia Cardinal became pregnant with her daughter, she was hoping to take 18 months of leave.
"I was very confused about how maternity leave worked… Before I even got pregnant, I [thought] when someone goes on leave, they get 55 per cent of their full salary," she explained to Yahoo Canada. "I was working at a company where they would top us up, but I didn’t know what that meant."
There's a cap on EI
Some employers—like Cardinal’s—offer maternity top-ups to supplement an employee’s EI maternity and parental leave benefits in order to minimize the gap between the government benefits and their usual earnings.
"I'm the primary breadwinner in our family. My husband makes significantly less, I make double his salary… I thought 55 per cent of my full salary should be fine, but there’s a cap," she claimed.
As of Jan. 1, 2022, the maximum yearly EI maternity amount is $60,300, which comes to a maximum of $638 per week.
"I’m very fortunate that my work [offers] top-ups for six months," Cardinal said.
As the fine print of the government’s maternity and parental leave benefits sank in, Cardinal quickly realized once the employer top-ups ended, EI alone would not be enough. Taking 18 months to be with her daughter wasn’t a financially viable option.
"Being on EI was not a lot of money for us. While it would be nice to spend that time with my daughter, I couldn’t afford to do it."
Not all employers offer maternity top-ups.
When Vanessa Subramaniam became pregnant, she realized she would have to move to a company with maternity top-ups.
"I made an intentional decision to change employers because of the financial implication. When I calculated it out, even if I got the maximum amount of 55 per cent of EI, it wouldn’t have been enough to cover my basic expenses," she said.
A senior operations manager, Subramaniam explained securing a job with a maternity top-up of six months put her in a better position when it came to making choices about how much time she could take off.
"Being a new mother, I didn't want to feel financial anxiety and stress on top of all of the other things," she told Yahoo Canada.
'A lot of strain' in current setup
Both Cardinal and Subramaniam also found the way maternity and parental leave, and employer benefits, are currently set up makes assumptions. Subramaniam explained that while she would receive employer top-ups, her partner did not.
"I wanted to go back to work, but it didn't make financial sense for me to do that. So we were in this horrible situation where my partner would have liked to take time off, but as a woman, I was kind of forced into this circumstance.
"If the government had paid everything and we weren't reliant on our employer contributions, it would have been an easier decision."
As a woman, I was kind of forced into this circumstance.Vanessa Subramaniam
Cardinal echoed that sentiment, adding the way maternity and parental leave benefits are set up with the EI salary cap makes the presumption that a woman can’t be the breadwinner of the family.
"It’s frustrating. It’s like 'go take a year off because your family isn’t relying on your salary.'"
Subramaniam added that while she was privileged enough to receive the full amount of 55 per cent of EI, the fact that maternity and parental benefits are calculated at a percentage is even more of a setback for new parents with a lower income.
"The cost that you need to survive is the same as someone who was working a six-figure job. If you're already struggling on a salary and EI is calculated as a percentage, it puts a lot of strain on you mentally, financially, and physically.
"Most likely you're not going to be able to [afford] the services you need to recover from childbirth," she said.
While some hospitals offer essential post-birth services like mental health and lactation support as part of free healthcare, Subramaniam found she really had to search for access.
"Any appointment where I would leave my house was a huge burden on me psychologically," she recalled, adding lactation consultations were not easily accessible.
Subramaniam is also calling for the Canadian government to make formula milk more accessible to new mothers.
"Formula is extremely expensive, and it's really stressful to go through a breastfeeding journey and feel a little bit like a failure, and then be financially penalized for it."
Some countries stepping up
Some governments are stepping up to give the kind of support new mothers need.
Earlier this year, a TikTok video highlighting postpartum care in Germany went viral. Alison Opalko-Berry shared all the free resources she had when she become a mother.
Some of the resources recounted in the viral video included daily in-home visits with a nurse-midwife, weekly mental health appointments every other week, a sleep specialist and exercise classes with her infant. She said she had regular postpartum appointments with a doctor, parenting classes, a medical-grade breast pump, domestic help where there’s a medical need, and up to three weeks in a rehabilitative retreat for overwhelmed mothers along with their infant.
Scotland is another country whose resources for new mothers and infants have been highlighted on social media. For example, they offer a free Baby Box filled with tons of baby clothes, bathing essentials, nursing and maternity pads, crib bedding, a blanket, a playmat, books, and other goods to help all new parents at the start of their journey.
While there is still room for improvement, the recent changes to daycare costs did feel like one of the bright spots during Subramaniam’s maternity leave, she said.
"The government offering a portion off was a game changer because it made it possible to have a transition period of a month while I was coming to terms with my child being away from me. If I had to pay the whole amount making just the EI component of the paycheck, it would have been impossible," she said.
Before going on maternity and parental leave, Subramaniam and Cardinal saved as much as they could from their salary for almost a year.
For pregnant mamas preparing to go on leave, Cardinal recommends crunching numbers as soon as possible.
"See what you can afford to live on, and maybe even test how that can work before you have to cut back and see how it goes," she advised.