“Family work” has been broadly defined as a type of “social reproductive labour” (1) involving routine activities that maintain the health and well-being of family members, including housework, emotion work, and child care.
As such, to round out my blog posts so far on housework and emotion work and to complete the “family work triad,” the following is a study I began during my undergraduate degree that focused on mothers’ experiences with navigating child care in Alberta, Canada.
– Rebecca Horne, P.H.Ec.
Canada does not have a national child care policy. As a result, the child care systems in the majority of Canadian provinces are characterized by a lack of regulated, affordable, and accessible spaces (2). For example, there is a shortfall of over 154,000 child care spaces in Alberta (3), and group child care centers cost between $800-900 per month (4), the third highest across all Canadian provinces. This leaves some mothers using up to 36% of their annual incomes to pay for child care fees (5)!
Given that mothers continue to be primarily responsible for the care of children (6), such limited options may prompt them to make sacrifices—or give up their own desires and interests—to mitigate child care constraints. Yet, there is limited research on these types of sacrifices and even less from the perspectives of mothers themselves.
Let’s hear from the mothers themselves!
To better understand mothers’ lived realities within the Canadian child care context, Dr. Rhonda Breitkreuz and I asked the question: What messages of sacrifice are embedded in Canadian mothers’ stories about their experiences with navigating childcare? (7)
Dr. Breitkreuz and her research team conducted thirteen focus groups in five locations across Alberta, Canada with 95 mothers who were using or looking for child care for their young children. They asked questions in the focus groups about how mothers integrated paid work and child care, the kinds of care arrangements they made, and the facilitators and barriers to accessing and maintaining child care.
Well, mothers are making A LOT of sacrifices…
We found that mothers are making sacrifices in three main areas to access child care.
Sacrificing employment: The mothers spoke of forfeiting job advancement opportunities, taking time off of work, and altering/quitting their careers to accommodate the limited child care options available or to take care of their children themselves. Many participants expressed ambivalence about missing their previous jobs while recognizing the importance of their decisions for their children’s development.
As one mother put it: “it seems like [for] most women, it’s either they sacrifice their career or their children.”
Sacrificing personal goals: Numerous immigrant women in our study sacrificed
their educational attainment to care for their children at home due to the lack of child care. Participants also missed having alone time and felt that they no longer had unique identities outside of their motherhood roles.
As one mother put it: “sometimes you just want to be who you are…not ‘this is my mom,’ and you know, ‘this is my wife’.”
Sacrificing interpersonal relationships: Mothers often relied on their parents or friends to watch their children, but thought that doing so too frequently would compromise these relationships. Moreover, many were concerned with alternating care shifts with their romantic partners/spouses because they “barely got to see each other” and spend quality time nurturing their relationship.
As one mother put it: “you never have couple time, you never have that opportunity to connect as a family, to connect with your partner, to be first and foremost a strong unit.”
Take away messages
The sacrifices mothers make for child care are frequent, filled with ambiguity, and may have negative impacts on vocational, personal, and relational aspects of their lives. Continually normalizing maternal sacrifices may impede efforts by policymakers or researchers to critically recognize and analyze the constrained child care contexts from which these behaviours arise.
Our research has implications for improving diverse policies and initiatives in Canada to alleviate the amount of sacrifices mothers are making for their children. First, shifting workplace policies (e.g., implementing flexible work hours, utilizing non-discriminatory hiring practices, providing on-site day care services to employees) could help mothers better integrate—rather than tradeoff—their paid work and family lives. Second, increasing the availability, affordability, and flexibility of child care spaces in Canada would diminish the amount of sacrifices mothers make. Finally, implementing formal and informal parental support programs could mitigate some of the stresses mothers encounter from sacrificing by connecting them with resources and other parents in similar situations.
(1) Coltrane, S. (2000). Research on household labour: Modeling and measuring the social
embeddedness of routine family work. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 1208-1233.
(2) Beach, J., Friendly, M., Ferns, C., Prabhu, N., & Forer, B. (2009). Early childhood education and care in Canada 2008 (8th ed.). Toronto, ON: Child Care Research and Resource Unit.
(3) Breitkreuz, R. (2014). Child care experiences of families with preschool children in resource-based towns in Alberta. Edmonton, AB: Muttart Foundation.
(4) Friendly, M., Halfon, S., Beach, J., & Forer, B. (2013). Early childhood education and care in Canada 2012. Toronto, ON: Childcare Research and Resource Unit. Retrieved from http://childcarecanada.org/sites/default/files/CRRU_ECEC_2012_revised_dec2013.pdf
(5) Macdonald, D., & Friendly, M. (2014). The parent trap: Child care fees in Canada’s big cities. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). Retrieved from https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2014/11/Parent_Trap.pdf
(6) Sperling, J. H. (2013). Reframing the work-family conflict debate by rejecting the ideal parent norm. Journal of Gender, Social Policy, & The Law, 22, 47–90. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons. wcl.american.edu/jgspl/vol22/iss1/9
(7) Horne, R. M., & Breitkreuz, R. S. (2016). The motherhood sacrifice: Maternal experiences of child care in the Canadian context. Journal of Family Studies. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/13229400.2015.1109540
The Ontario Home Economics Association, a self-regulating body of professional Home Economists, promotes high professional standards among its members so that they may assist families and individuals to achieve and maintain a desirable quality of life.