Motherhood, Depression and Social Policy in Canada

A day does not go by when a Stay at Home or Working Out of the Home mother does not find a news story telling her what she is doing, not doing and feeling.   We live in an era when findings from studies – well designed or not – are easily disseminated by way of social media links, online media outlets or attention-grabbing headlines on the national news.    This type of information even shows up on websites like this one!

The latest research about mothers and depression was presented this week by Katrina Leupp, graduate student from the University of Washington, at an American Sociological Association conference in Nevada.   Leupp accessed a National Longtitudinal Survey run by the US. Department of Labor that included data from a survey of 1,600 married women carried out in 2006. At the time the average age of the women was 40. These same women were interviewed previously when they were between age 22 and 30 about their attitudes towards being a working mother. Leupp concluded that the women who were keenest to engage in careers while being parents were more likely to suffer from depression than women who were initially against the idea of trying to balance both roles. Or to put it another way, the keen women initially responded that the combination of a career and parenthood could be done with relative ease.

A second finding was that women who are stay at home mums, and who often cannot enter the workforce due to circumstances beyond their control, are more likely to experience depression than mums who work outside of the home.  Many of the news articles reporting the findings are highlighting the idea, to use their wording, that super moms, with high flying careers, need to chill.  You can hear the gnashing teeth of hard working women everywhere who are busy working outside of the home and raising children.

In media interviews Leupp repeatedly states that working is beneficial for a woman’s health; however, does it follow that staying out of the workforce is bad for women’s health? Nobody would suggest that there aren’t women who are happy to be at home full time  caring for their children.   While many of these women would be able to point to daily challenges that they experience, many would also argue that their mental health is as good as the average mother who works outside of the home.  Are all women who are forced to exit the workforce due to economic or other circumstances likely to suffer in terms of their health? Here in Canada Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party colleagues favour the stay at home option.  The Federal government currently provides Canadian parents with modest payments that can be used as parents see fit.  This is a soft version of the “everyone can look after themselves” attitudes you find in the United States and increasingly in Great Britain.  One could argue that it is an approach that would be more favourable to conservative (with a small c) Canadian families who believe that the mother should stay at home with their children in the early years.

Conversely, in many western European OECD countries governments have promoted social policies, such as fully funded and accessible childcare for pre-toddlers and older, that support the re-entry of mothers into the workforce.  The underlying strategy was to increase female participation in the workforce in order to strengthen their economies.  Here in Canada the question of mothers (or a stay at home father) entering the workforce and the funding of Early Childhood Education & Care (ECEC) centres is never discussed in these terms.   In Scandinavia, where social policy related to women and children is advanced compared to North American standards, a reporter would be hard pressed to find a mother who isn’t working outside the home.

The current approach to ECE&C funding by the Federal and Provincial governments is an alternative to the Federal and Provincial funding of accessible and affordable ECEC facilities.   In cities such as Ottawa, the New Democrat Party are reporting that 9,000 families (you read that right) are on wait lists for licensed care facilities.  The situation in Vancouver is equally as bleak.  It is not unusual to meet a parent who will tell you that they were on a licensed child care facility wait list for three years before a space opened up.  For two years following maternity leave, the parents “made do” with less than adequate alternatives.

Meanwhile many women in more senior positions, such as older mums over 30, are returning to their jobs before their maternity leaves are over in order to protect their jobs.  A long absence from a management position, for example, greatly reduces a woman’s influence in an office, in a  political sense; can affect future work allocation and participation in ongoing projects;  and, can directly or indirectly lead to changes in a job profile or even dismissal while on maternity leave. (See:  Working to Live )  Accommodations for all of these possible outcomes are usually included in the administrative policies of larger organizations.  As one female author online asked, “who’s more likely to be dismissed during an office reshuffle?  The man who gave a PowerPoint presentation last week or the woman who’s been off for months on maternity leave?”

How does these considerations relate to a study about mothers and depression?  In North America we receive failing grades from international organizations such as the OECD in the area of ECE&C.  Privately we value our children, but collectively we have been unable to decide how we want to support parents and caregivers, as they in turn care for children.  We debate about whether children should be cared for by the parent or a licensed care giver.  We debate about how should pay for these services.  We debate about what types of programme should be in place and who should pay for these programmes.  Some might argue that – quite frankly – we’re hardly debating about these topics at all. They arise every four years during election time, and disapear again.  Meanwhile women  – young and older mothers – are struggling to reconcile their role as parent with their role as employee without the support of strong policies in the workforce and the understanding of Canadians in general.  Leupp concludes that, at least in the United States, for many women these struggles include depression.

In reference to the University of Washington study, Leupp points out that there are women at home with their children who cannot fully engage in the workforce in the United States where, despite the shorter maternity leaves, working conditions are similar to those in Canada. Why is that?  Is there no available childcare?  Is childcare too unaffordable?  Are the terms of her working life so restrictive that it became too difficult to work?

Leupp also mentions a finding that has been highlighted in other research studies.  Women – whether or not they work outside of the home – still complete the majority of the housework in the home. In Canada that rate is well over 50%.  How does this rate compare to other countries?  As the author suggests, should women simply accept this reality, or can we, in our society, encourage new attitudes towards sharing the workload on the home front?  Leupp also touches on the topic of stay at home fathers.  Increasingly fathers in Canada are taking advantage of paternity leave or are considering their options when it comes to staying at home with their children.  In Scandinavia there are strong examples of how men can contribute to the full time care of children, thereby allowing mothers to protect their careers as well.  (See:   Fatherhood in Sweden )

A focus of Leupp’s study centres on womens’ expectations.  Her findings suggest more questions. Is it realistic for a young woman to expect that a career and parenthood should go together seemlessly?  How do the attitudes of a Generation X parent compare to those of younger women today who were raised in slightly different family circumstances?  How do the depictions in the media of harried, super multi tasking, hovering, Tiger mums influence a woman’s ability to define what she wants and can expect for  her own parenting journey?

Tomorrow, or the next day, another study will be released with more information about motherhood and parenting.  Here in British Columbia and in Canada the challenge for mothers and parents everywhere is to engage in increased and louder discussions about their experiences and needs.   Many questions need to be asked.  What types of work/childcare arrangements are working for them?  What isn’t working?  What types of changes help them?  How much does it cost parents to pay for childcare? How much does it cost them to live in the Lower Mainland or other parts of British Columbia and Canada?  How much are their mortgage payments  and what is their cost of living compared to their income?  How long is their commute?  What type of commute do they have?  What type of transit options can parents access? What type 0f childcare facility/provider are they using?  What type of childcare programme does their child experience in this center?  How would they assess the quality of care there?  What are the professional qualificiations of their childcare provider?  What did she/he have to study in order to achieve these qualifications?  How supportive are their employers and colleagues regarding the daily challenges they face as a parent?  Do some of their colleagues resent that they might use sick time to support their sick child or that they might arrive late or leave early in order to support their child’s needs?  Does their office allow for some work-at-home time?  Did the mother return to work before her maternity leave was finished?  Does she feel that her position at work was compromized because of her absence from work? Did she feel that she needed to stay in touch with the office and with the progression of work and ongoing projects at the office while on maternity leave in order to protect her position?  If her position was cut during maternity leave, why does she think that happened? Why do Stay at Home Mums prefer to be a stay at home parent?  As a SAHM, what are the rewards and challenges of her role?  What kind of support networks and resources do they have in their community for their children and for themselves?  What kind of services can she access that are free or affordable?  Does she feel isolated from or a part of an adult world where most people work outside of the home?   Does she feel that people respect her choice to be a  SAHM beyond maternity leave?  Do people still recognize her other academic and professional qualifications in conversations and interactions?  Would she be able to find part-time care should she take on a part-time job or work from home?

These are some of the many questions and topics that women can and do discuss privately, at work, online and in the media.  With the advancements in technology and new tools coming out monthly in the realm of Social Media, women in urban and rural British Columbia can use creative methods to get their message out.  Studies can help to raise further questions but the women who are directly involved need to be at the centre of the conversations and the related development of social policies by Federal and Provincial governments.

We’d love to hear from you so don’t be shy! You can comment about this posting using the comment function below or visit us at our Facebook page.


Readers comment on this topic over at the

What Happy Working Mothers Know:  How New Findings in Positive Psychology Can Lead to a Healthy and Happy Work/Life Balance* (See related review )

To the Mothers Who Work Outside of the Home

Stay-at-home moms have the hardest job –
Depression danger of the supermums who try and do everything themselves | Mail Online
No such thing as a supermom: Study | Life | Toronto Sun
Motherhood More Depressing Than Ever
Who Is Happier, The Working Mother or the Stay-At-Home Mom?
Women who want to be supermoms at higher depression risk – WDAF
Being A Stay At Home Mom Is The Toughest Job For Women | SmartAboutHealth.Net
‘Supermums’ more likely to be depressed – Telegraph
Supermums with high-flying careers at risk of depression, study says –
Supermom Myth Can Make You Miserable – Health News –
Working Women Who Try to Be ‘Supermom’ May Be More Depressed TIME Healthland

* is a member of the Amazon Associates Programme

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *