25 years after Judi Tyabji case, some advances for politicians balancing motherhood and work
Family lawyer Leena Yousefi says custody is about the best interest of the children, not gender
Former B.C. MLA Judi Tyabji still remembers the blow she felt 25 years ago when she found out she had lost custody of her three young children.
"It's hard to overstate the shock and the horror," Tyabji said over the phone from her home in Powell River, B.C.
"I was at my office in the legislature when the decision came out and I just had a breakdown."
It was 1994. Tyabji, a Liberal MLA and the House Leader, had just turned 29. She was in the midst of an acrimonious and public divorce from her husband, Kasimir Sandana, which followed a widely reported affair she had with then-B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Wilson.
Looking back, Tyabji says it's clear the decision discriminated against her as a woman working in a non-traditional, predominantly male role.
Luckily, she says, much has changed since then and being a politician isn't perceived as incongruous to motherhood.
"There's lots [of female politicians] now, and nobody says they're too busy to be good moms or good parents," she said.
Here's a short news item about the decision at the time:
In his decision, Judge Justice Spencer said he gave Sandana full custody of the children because Tyabji's busy political career would interfere with her role as a parent.
"I find that although the mother spent whatever time she could with the children in the midst of her busy political career, her time with them was, and will continue to be, limited because of her career agenda," Spencer wrote at the time.
Family lawyer Leena Yousefi says she's not surprised the judge didn't grant her custody at the time.
"This is not a gender issue, it's an issue I think that has to do with the best interests of the child," Yousefi said.
Work life balance
When the custody decision came down, Tyabji had been the primary custodian of her three children for the previous year.
Tyabji says she was one of very few mothers in a sea of middle-aged men at the B.C. Legislature. But being a politician gave her leeway to schedule around her children's needs, she says.
For example, when her youngest was still a baby she timed her debates in the legislature between naps and breastfeeding. She scheduled media interviews while she was attending children's birthday parties.
"Could you show me a working mom who's not super busy?" she said.
Tyabji even went on Oprah to talk about her case:
But family lawyer Leena Yousefi says she sides with Justice Spence's 1994 decision.
"Our highest court has consistently maintained that [custody] is a very fact-specific inquiry," Yousefi said. "You basically have to look at the entire situation and see what's the best interests of the child."
Judges today are now more likely to split custody between the two parents, Yousefi says, even if one parent works and the other one stays home to care for the kids.
But Yousefi says if one parent works long hours and has to travel a lot, as Tyabji did in 1994, then a judge would likely grant full custody to the parent with a less strenuous work life.
"She didn't have a balance — she wanted to devote her life to politics, and at the same time she wanted primary custody," she said.
Tyabji decries this reasoning, pointing out that Pierre Trudeau raised his sons as a single parent while he was prime minister, and no one questioned his parenting abilities.
At the time it was rare for female politicians to bring young children to work, but Tyabji says it's more accepted now.
Jenny Kwan, NDP MP for Vancouver East, agrees female politicians with young children are increasingly common. Kwan balances being a single mom to two kids with her career.
"My daughter grew up in my office in Victoria," Kwan said of the time she worked at the B.C. Legislature.
"The general view that somehow it is not possible for women to do their work and still be a mom — it's absurd to me, frankly."
- A previous version of this story provided an incorrect spelling for Leena Yousefi.Mar 03, 2019 3:37 PM PT