When Joe Cressy’s son Jude was born in November, the city councillor suddenly faced a tough decision: take parental leave and miss key council votes, or keep working and miss time with his newborn.
After consulting with his family, and reviewing council’s recently-adopted — and never-before-used — parental leave policy, the first-time father eventually decided to take 16 weeks of leave starting next September.
“I don’t want to have to choose between my job and being a parent,” he said.
But with that decision, Cressy said, came questions about the city’s policy. Adopted in 2018, it allows council members to take up to 20 paid weeks off, but stipulates that if they don’t come back for council and committee votes, they’re marked as absent — meaning they either show up, or don’t get to vote on key city matters.
In a letter of recommendations to Mayor John Tory’s executive committee, which has its next meeting on Jan. 23, Cressy is calling for city staff to explore the possibility of a proxy vote or parental leave replacement for any councillor taking time off for their pregnancy or newborn child.
“That’s a key area we need to look at,” he said.
It’s also just the latest example of politicians pushing for more parental support in a growing trend in countries around the world.
Politicians around world pushing for parental leave
“In times of social change … we need marquee actors in our society to be taking the lead,” noted Sarah Kaplan, director of the institute for gender and the economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
“That, of course, means our governments should be part of taking the lead on assuring we have equitable parental leave, and people have access to it.”
In Canada, Minister of International Development Karina Gould made headlines in 2018 for being the first federal cabinet minister to have a baby while holding office, and for going on maternity leave for several months despite no formal policy being in place at the time.
A year later, the House of Commons unanimously agreed to new rules allowing MPs who are new parents to take up to 12 months of leave.
Policy makers in Britain are exploring taking things one step further by introducing proxy voting for MPs on parental leave through a one-year pilot project — a move following the outcry over one MP delaying the birth of her son to vote on a Brexit deal, The Guardian reported last year.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took a six-week leave, covered by the deputy prime minister, after becoming the first woman in the top job to give birth while in office.
And in Japan just this Wednesday, the country’s environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi — a new dad — shocked the country’s “workaholic” fathers by announcing he’d be taking a couple weeks of paternity leave, noted The New York Times.
“Child-care leave will not be prevalent,” wrote the rising star politician in a Japanese blog post, “unless we change not only the system, but the atmosphere as well.”
Cressy hopes being the first to take parental leave on Toronto’s council, and potentially beefing up the city’s policy for it, has a similar ripple effect.
“That’s what we want for everybody,” he said. “There’s no question this is an emerging discourse for politicians.”
But there’s also a unique pressure on democratically elected officials who are living in the public eye.
“You’re watched and judged and under far more scrutiny and surveillance than the average person going to their job,” said Andrea O’Reilly, professor in the school of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at York University.
Kristyn Wong-Tam, another new parent on Toronto city council, is not taking parental leave given the demands of her role in a busy downtown ward, and the expectations from residents that she’s “never off,” she said.
“It is not easy. It’s a lot of juggling,” Wong-Tam said, adding she does value having the option to change her mind.
O’Reilly questioned if politicians can “ever completely disappear,” given the public pressure. “In so many professions,” she added, “to leave completely is career suicide.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Mayor Tory’s office said Cressy’s letter, which makes similar recommendations for Toronto’s council, “raises some issues that haven’t been explored before.”
“The Mayor looks forward to seeing how City staff address the issues raised,” Don Peat continued in the statement.
According to Kaplan, of the Rotman School of Management, it’s helpful to have male politicians leading this kind of change. “We’re never going to solve problems of inequality for women if we don’t also solve problems of inequality for men,” she said.
Many men are pressured not to take leave, and are told it will be career-limiting, Kaplan added. But skipping it can have long-term repercussions.
“If they don’t get involved when children are young, they tend to be less involved over time,” she said.
In Cressy’s case, he said taking parental leave is about being an active, engaged parent from the get-go.
“I want to do that for our family and be there for my son,” he said.
“If doing so helps spur the conversation around more dads and parents taking leave — that’s a good thing.”