In 2021, is child-rearing still a woman’s job? Well yes, according to the federal government, which considers the female parent to be primarily responsible for the care and upbringing of a child, for the purposes of distributing the Canada Child Benefit (CCB). It’s a policy which admittedly sounds sexist, but some experts say it might also save lives.
“When both a female and male parent live in the same home as the child, the female parent is usually considered to be primarily responsible for the care and upbringing of the child,” the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) website reads. Thus, in heterosexual couples, only the mother can apply for CCB, regardless of how responsibilities are shared in any particular family.
Sarah Bull, an associate professor at Ryerson University, found this out the hard way last year, when she moved back to Canada with her husband and their U.K.-born son.
“I was working full time and my husband was at the time home full-time with our toddler,” she recently told HuffPost Québec. “I discovered that, basically, I was the one who was presumed to be the principal caretaker.”
According to the CRA, it’s the female parent who is generally responsible for things such as “supervising the child’s daily activities and needs, making sure the child’s medical needs are met, [and] arranging for child care when necessary.”
Bull says she had to reach out to the CRA multiple times to address issues with her son’s CCB payments. “I was just frustrated that I was the one who was expected to be dealing with this even given our domestic arrangement,” she said, calling the policy an example of “everyday sexism.”
To allow her husband to deal with CCB-related questions, the working mom could have written a letter attesting that her partner was the primary caretaker for their three-year-old. Her husband would then have to apply by mail, which “ultimately seemed like even more work than my applying online,” Bull said.
While the policy might startle some young parents who try to share the load, its origins are a far-cry from sexist, says Katherine Scott, senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a progressive think tank which focuses on issues of social justice.
“This money is a desperately needed source of incomes for many, many women.”
“It goes back to family allowances that were developed immediately after the Second World War,” she told HuffPost. At the time, child poverty was rampant as many fathers had lost their lives on the battlefield, leaving their family without a source of income.
Even for women with a living husband, the allowance was, up until a few decades ago, often their only independent source of income. Sending the money directly to the mother represented a huge leap for women’s rights and financial independence at the time, Scott said.
And while today’s families “come in all shapes and sizes,” the policy remains crucial for some women, by allowing those experiencing financial abuse to have a source of income that their partner cannot access.
“I hear people that work in women’s shelters telling me this is the only money these women may have in their own hands,” Scott said. “It saves lives.”
The federal government mentions “efficacy” as the main reason to send CCB to mothers. “In the majority of families, women are the primary caregivers,” a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada told HuffPost in an email.
She added that, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, “women with young children experienced one of the biggest withdrawals from the workforce,” since it is mainly mothers who left the workforce or reduced their hours to care for their children when schools and daycares closed during the various lockdowns.
Ministers Carla Qualtrough and Mary Ng talk about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women with children. Story continues below.
It’s with that in mind, she said, that the federal government announced in November that CCB payments would be temporarily boosted in 2021. Parents will receive up to $1,200 more for each child under the age of 6.
A heavy mental load
While she understands the reasons behind the policy, Bull believes that the language used on the CRA website perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes.
“That language is very powerful, in that it suggests that women are always the primary caretakers and should be the primary caretakers of their children,” she said.
She thinks those kinds of policies add to the mental charge of women who have children.
“Women who are in the workforce already have to deal with the assumption that they are the primary caregiver in an informal way,” she said. “Daycares often will call the female parent first in a heterosexual relationship, even if that’s not the first parent who’s listed.”
Those policies are especially frustrating for couples who are trying to make things a little more equal, she adds.
But the reality is that women still disproportionately shoulder unpaid care and domestic labour, noted Scott.
In 2015, women spent an average of 3.9 hours per day on unpaid work, namely caring for the home and dependents, according to Statistics Canada. This is 1.5 hours more than men. This discrepancy even pushed Quebec’s legislature to recognize the importance of women’s “invisible labour” in society’s proper functioning, through a motion unanimously adopted by the National Assembly last spring.
“That benefit is basically recognizing that reality,” Scott said. “But it absolutely sends a message and reinforces the perception [that child-rearing is a woman’s responsibility].”
If the policy aims to protect vulnerable women without access to independent income, why not send the CCB to the parent with the lowest income, as is already the case for other benefits? As long as Canada’s gender wage gap remains, the money would continue to go to women in most families, and it would allow the federal government to get rid of the sexist stereotypes.
Without shutting down the idea completely, Scott noted that, according to studies, directing benefits to mothers ensures a higher likelihood that those funds will be spent on the welfare of the child, which is the main goal of child benefits.
“In an ideal world, you would hope that you wouldn’t need a provision like that, but this is not an ideal world,” Scott sighed.
“I’m being ambivalent about this because in many ways the needs and autonomy of women have been so absent from recent policy,” she added. “I mean, this federal government claims to be feminist notwithstanding the particular economic needs of women are increasingly invisible.”
“We’re all understood to be autonomous workers without caring responsibilities and the like. The reality, of course, is that women do shoulder this disproportionate responsibility.”