Travel and time away from kids tough on MP moms

Most MPs with young kids are faced with the choice of uprooting their families to Ottawa or leaving their spouse and kids behind and counting on frequent visits. Second of a two-part series.

Parliament needs more women, MPs say

Every week that she's working in Ottawa, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt leaves her home in Milton, Ont., on Monday morning and drives five and a half hours to the capital.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt poses with her sons John Colin, centre, and Billy at their home in Milton, Ont., in a photo on the Halton MP's 2012 Christmas card. (Lisa Raitt photo)

On Thursday, she drives the five and a half hours back to her Halton riding, which borders on the Greater Toronto Area.

Raitt, who is divorced, chose to keep her two sons in school in Milton. She drives rather than taking the train or flying because then she can control when she leaves. And she's one of the luckier MPs who doesn't have to travel across the country to get home.

Dealing with the distance, she says, is the hardest part. And she misses not being there to volunteer with her sons' school, coach basketball or help out at Cub Scouts.

"It's the one thing you give up," Raitt said. "We're stretching it when we commit to getting these kids to their events."

MPs have a few options for their families once they're elected. Some move their spouse and kids to Ottawa full-time, enrolling the children in a school in the capital. Others leave their families in the riding, but have them visit frequently.

But with the new crop of young MPs — 20 per cent of the NDP caucus, for example, is under 35 — some members are starting families while they're in office. At least two, New Democrat MPs Rosane Doré Lefebvre and Sana Hassainia, are pregnant. For Hassainia, it will be her second child born during this session of Parliament.

Women still do most child-rearing

Of course, there are a number of male MPs who have young children or newborns, including Heritage Minister James Moore, whose wife works in the Prime Minister's Office.

A couple of NDP MPs are new dads, points out Doré Lefebvre, who is expecting a baby in April with partner George Soule, a party staffer.

"We don't talk about the men because…," she said and then paused.

"I don't know if it's easier for them. It's hard for them to leave the wife and the baby in the riding for the whole week," Doré Lefebvre said.

Raitt says while there are a lot of "hands-on" dads around, but "at the end of the day, women still do two-thirds of the work associated with the home and associated with child-rearing even though you do have a full-time career. There's no question about that. And the burden is there."

Raitt says she gave her kids a cellphone at a younger age than most parents so that they could keep in touch. She thought they'd use for texting, but she's thrilled that they use it to call her every night, no matter where she is.

"It's a ritual. I’ve got to hear about their day," she said.

Parliamentary work matters

In some ways, babies are easier for MPs because they can bring them to Ottawa during the week. But that only lasts as long as they're infants.

NDP MP Sana Hassainia walks out of the House of Commons with son Skander-Jack last February. Hassainia was at the centre of controversy over a rule that does not allow babies in the House Chamber, just one of the issues an MP with young children must juggle. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Hassainia says she's been looking at daycares for 13-month-old Skander-Jack, but it's difficult to find one because she works in both Ottawa and her Verchères-Les Patriotes riding, near Montreal.

The Children on the Hill daycare on Parliament Hill doesn't take kids until they are 18 months old. And like many daycares, there's a waiting list to get in.

The House usually sits for three to five weeks at a time, followed by a week break for MPs to return home and work in their ridings. There's also a five-week break starting around mid-December and about 12 weeks for the summer.

Hassainia says her constituents have gotten used to seeing her with her son and now ask where he is if he isn't with her at events.

"My baby likes everyone and goes into everyone's arms," she said. "Everyone loves him and he loves everyone."

Raitt says her office sometimes gets correspondence from constituents saying that a mother shouldn't be leaving her kids in the riding, but her staff try to shield her from it.

Raitt, who has handled hot-potato files like the Canada Post and Air Canada labour disputes, says she struggles with guilt, but has "come to a good space" and encourages other MP moms to feel good about it.

"I'm there when they need me, I'm in contact with them constantly, I’m providing for them, which are all really important things… At the end of the day, what you're doing in Ottawa, representing your voice for other families in your constituency to make life easier for them, that's a good public service too," Raitt said.

"That matters."