National Post

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Monday, October 18, 1999

Minister's motherhood shaped new leave policy
Stewart found juggling babies and career difficult
Elena Cherney
National Post

Fourteen years ago, after the birth of her second child, Jane Stewart, who is now the human resources minister, quit her job to work from home because she found it too hard to juggle an infant, a toddler and a full-time job.

Her experience as a mother torn between her career and her children prompted her in her ministerial job to double the length of maternity leave to one year -- a program that Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, last week committed the government to introducing by Jan. 1, 2000.

"The juggling act is extraordinarily difficult," said Ms. Stewart, recalling the personal experience that helped shape the new national policy. "You're basically doing two full-time jobs."

Ms. Stewart knows the sacrifices mothers make in the workplace to be with their families. She remembers returning to her job in Human Resources after the birth of her first son. A few months later, "I found myself pregnant again. It was just that feeling -- who takes you seriously when you're in and out?"

That, however, is not the argument Mr. Chretien made in the House of Commons to explain why his government decided to spend an extra $1.25-billion a year -- a tenth of the expected budget surplus for the fiscal year 2000-2001 -- on parental leave.

He declared that the need for longer leave was established by "overwhelming scientific evidence" that showed a child's first years are crucial to long-term health, and that "nothing is more important than for parents to be able to spend the maximum amount of time with newborn children in the critical early months."

Actually, "scientific evidence" is scant at best, many researchers say. They are divided, often along ideological lines, about the effect on children of being cared for in infancy by nannies or at day-care centres. Studies comparing children of stay-at-home mothers with those of working mothers have reached conflicting conclusions.

By funding parental leave at the same time as giving tax credits for child care, Ottawa is paying parents with one hand to stay at home with their children, and with the other to go to work and leave their offspring with someone else. The apparent contradiction is resolved more by politics than by science -- subsidized parental leave and subsidized child care are both liberal causes.

Science fails to resolve the child-care dilemma because, when closely examined, the research on neurological development in a child's first year is less than air-tight, and is embroiled in debate between academics, according to Martha Friendly, a senior researcher on social policy and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto.

Ms. Friendly, an advocate of high-quality child care, objects to the use of neurological studies -- many of which are carried out on primates and rodents -- to advocate for stay-at-home parenting.

"You know all that neuroscience? It's really been taken beyond its implications," she said. "There's nothing developmentally to suggest that children are better off with parents until the age of one."

At least two large-scale, widely respected studies, one in the United States and one in Sweden, showed little or no difference in IQ or social skills between children cared for by their parents in infancy and those placed with sitters or in day care.

Human Resources officials were influenced most, though, by the Early Years Study on Learning by Dr. Fraser Mustard, a medical researcher and activist, which was commissioned by the Ontario government and released last April. Extending parental leave -- maternity leave in more than 90% of Canadian families -- was among Dr. Mustard's 11 family policy recommendations.

"When we see the research saying those early years are important, we want to provide parents with the choice," said Ms. Stewart in an interview with the National Post.

Ms. Stewart and officials in her ministry pointed to the Mustard study as part of the "body of knowledge" emerging on child development.

Dr. Mustard, who also advocates high-quality child care and early childhood education programs, is firm in his conviction that caring for babies at home "is a very wise idea for the first year. The evidence is there. The mother is still ideal for the first year."

He accepts the research that Ms. Friendly rejects, and says a baby's brain development in the first year depends on the quality of the stimuli received through "eight critical sensory pathways -- sight, hearing -- and the biggest driver of the sensory pathways in the first year is the mother. The quality of the stimulus the child receives affects development."

Studies, Dr. Mustard says, show that young rats kept with their mothers and given stimulating toys grow bigger brains with more brain cells than do rats alone in a standard cage.

The rats cared for by their mothers perform better "on all the tests you give to rats." The results with monkeys are much the same, said Dr. Mustard. He also cites experience with Romanian orphans: Those adopted before the age of four months thrived, while those who languished in the orphanages beyond four months developed attachment problems and failed to handle stress normally. "The bloody evidence sits there," said Dr. Mustard: "You don't need any more."

Not everyone is convinced. John Brewer, author of The Myth of the First Three Years, argues that rat and monkey research does not apply to humans.

"Babies aren't rats," he said. "Rat mothers lick their pups. What's the human analog of licking your pup? It's really hard to make those inferences." About the relative merits of parental and nonparental child care, he said: "The data's pretty thin on the ground."

Steven Pinker, an MIT psychologist and author of How the Mind Works, criticizes the neurological research for prompting parents to be excessive in stimulating their babies in the hope of producing superior children. "There's a fad of neural-development Jeremiahs saying if you don't read your child a story 13 times a day you'll stunt the children's neurons."

Some of those who criticize existing research on child development argue that the strongest support for longer parental leave has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with the tug-of-war that most parents, including Ms. Stewart, know all too well.

The 65% of working women who have children under six are in a guilt-ridden bind, noted Ms. Friendly. More than four out of five women who take maternity leave return to work as soon as their benefits run out, at around 27 weeks after giving birth, yet "it's pretty clear six months doesn't work for a lot of people."

Ms. Friendly believes the parents' needs and comfort level, which affect the baby's happiness, should factor into public policy. The goal, she argues, should not be reduced to turning out the "best" children as though they are manufactured products.

"If the parents want [extended parental leave], I shouldn't have to demonstrate the child is going to be a better widget," she said.

Ms. Stewart said that while most employers across the country are not obliged to protect a woman's job for a full year of maternity leave, she hopes that the new federal program will set an example for both provincial governments, which legislate the length of maternity leave, and the private sector.

"We are leading by example," she said. "What we are saying is that this is important. It takes everybody working together. We can't force that to happen."

Copyright Southam Inc.