Photo: Emily Gowan
The other day I was walking down the street with Robin, my nine-month-old son, in the stroller, loaded up with groceries and library books. I was freshly showered, balancing my coffee cup in one hand and wrangling the dog on his leash in the other, when it occurred to me that it has taken me almost nine whole months to master these skills and really get into my maternity-leave groove. It’s taken me this long to learn how to manoeuver the stroller up and down our front stairs, let alone be able to get us anywhere fun on time. I mean, for the first six months of my maternity leave, I was lucky if I showered twice a week.
If I were doing a standard 12-month leave, just when I really hit my stride, I’d be getting ready to head back to work. Thankfully, I’m taking an 18-month leave, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
The Canadian government introduced extended parental leave in December 2017, giving parents the option of choosing 12 or 18 months. (Anyone who has been paying into Employment Insurance and worked full-time for at least 15 weeks in the previous year, or 600 hours total, is eligible for either standard or extended parental leave.) While the longer break affords you more time, it doesn’t give you any more money. Whether you decide on 12 or 18 months, you still receive the same total benefit, just spread out over 18 months instead of 12. For the standard 12-month leave, you get just over half of your weekly earnings (up to a max of $562 a week); and for the extended 18-month leave, you receive only a third (up to a max of $337 a week).
When I first began thinking about maternity leave, taking 18 months away from my job seemed out of the question. I’m the type of person who finds it hard to be away from the office for two weeks of vacation in a row. Eighteen months is a long time. Would I be replaced? Would I be forgotten?
What about the loss of income the extended leave entails? I thought $337 a week sounded OK, but when you subtract rent or mortgage payments, hydro, groceries and bills (phone, Internet, a car payment), you’re not left with much of a cushion for emergencies, not to mention “extra” things like travel or takeout. I have a partner with a full-time job, and I knew it would still be a stretch to make the finances work.
For us, the final decision came down to one calculation: what I would earn at work in six months, minus the price of daycare for six months, equals the cost of the longer leave. Essentially, after the cost of daycare, my income during those six months would be drastically reduced. Would I rather work at this reduced salary, or not work and be with my baby?
When I spoke to friends who already had kids, they unanimously said I would regret not taking 18 months of mat leave if I was able. As I mulled it over, I started to realize that there are some serious benefits to the longer leave.
We have a little help from family, but once I’m back to work, full-time daycare will be a necessity. Where I live in Toronto, finding affordable daycare for any age is hard. The minute you find out you’re pregnant, forget sharing the news with loved ones—your first phone calls should be to every single daycare within commuting distance. I’m currently on eight waitlists, and as far as I can tell, that guarantees me a whole lot of nothing.
Finding daycare for an infant (a child under 18 months) is even harder. In Ontario, there are fewer spots available for infants than for toddlers. If you are home with your child until they reach 18 months, you can avoid the headache of finding an elusive infant spot, and go straight into a toddler room.
Toddler room rates are usually a bit cheaper than infant room rates, so if you can avoid paying for daycare until your baby is eligible for a toddler room, you'll save a couple hundred bucks per month, which really adds up.
Also, if you already have an older child who’s in school, the longer leave allows you to avoid paying for after-school care, since you’re likely available to pick them up at 3 p.m.
To prepare myself for the financial hit of 18 months off, I started saving as soon as we got pregnant. I set aside money every month during the pregnancy, enough to stay comfortable when I wasn’t earning as much. (I consider this my emergency takeout food fund.)
Many babies between the ages of 12 and 18 months still take two naps a day, but some daycares can only accommodate one midday nap, realistically. When my niece started daycare at 12 months, she desperately missed her morning nap and would inevitably fall asleep in her high chair, face down in her lunch plate. This meant she missed out on a meal and it messed up her schedule for an afternoon nap—tired and hungry is not a winning combination. If you’re home with your baby until 18 months, you can ease into the two-to-one nap transition slowly, letting your baby drop to one nap only when they’re ready (and maybe, if you’re lucky, you can enjoy some naps of your own at the same time).
Another perk to the longer leave is being able to frequent drop-in centres, baby swim classes and play groups. Now that Robin isn't feeding and napping as frequently, his nap times are more compatible with all the super-fun baby programming in my neighbourhood, and he's finally old enough to really benefit from these activities. Robin and I just started a music class and we’re planning to hit the pool once the weather warms up.
While I’ve disconnected myself from the “work” of my job, I do try to keep in touch so they don’t forget about me. I still check my email (when my partner isn’t looking) and stay in the loop on turnover and major office news or changes. Every couple months I bring the baby in to see my colleagues or to meet my boss for lunch.
Of course, the most obvious benefit of taking an extended leave is more time to bond with your baby. They’re only this little once, and, as everyone always reminds new moms, we’re never going to get this time back with our babies, so I want to make sure I really enjoy it. There’s so much fun and exciting stuff happening as Robin becomes more active and interactive. Before my eyes, I’m watching this little lump of baby clay form into a tiny person with agency, thoughts, and personality. Just watching him grow and figure things out is arguably the coolest life experience I’ve had thus far. I don’t want to miss a second.
The best thing about an 18-month leave is feeling like there is no rush—like I have all the time in the world. Robin was born in June, so I'll get two whole summers off with him, which is amazing. I’ve got a mat-leave bucket list that includes more travel, more takeout, more time with the baby. I’m drinking in each day of my leave—along with my five daily cups of coffee. I’m savouring each smile, each step, each nap. Giving Robin a little longer cuddle each day, reading one more book at bedtime.
Everyone tells you that once you’re a parent, time goes by in the blink of an eye. So if you could slow down and give yourself a longer look, why wouldn’t you?
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