Working at Samara has taught me a huge amount about our Members of Parliament. Since I am a mom of two young kids, certain facts about the life of an MP have stuck with me more than they might have with my colleagues.
When we were writing “Lost in Translation or Just Lost?” I realized with horror that the House sat until 6:30 or 7 pm. Like many parents, I’m obsessed with making sure I have enough quality time with my kids every day—before they go to bed at 7:30. My first thought on seeing the daily schedule was: “What about the family dinner? What about story hour?” (For those not parenting in recent years, the “family dinner” has recently been touted as the cure-all to any problems with your children from asthma to drug-addiction.)
Another fact that really hit home for me: MPs are only in Ottawa half the year, so they have to decide whether to leave their family at home in the riding for half the year, or drag them to Ottawa and leave them alone in Ottawa half the year while they visit the riding. And since there are limits to how much MPs can bring their families back and forth—either formal limits or limits based on Canadians’ perceptions of the supposed “perks” of being an MP—most MPs opt to leave their partners and kids at home. All I could think about was the poor partner at home, enduring the “witching hour” alone—135 days of the year. Not to mention the guilt the MP mom or dad would have about being away so much.
Some former MPs have even suggested that the job is not right for families with young kids, but if we don’t have representatives from that demographic in Ottawa, we can’t be surprised if government doesn’t make family friendly choices. We need representative of all ages and demographics.
Our country is vast and the job is demanding, so this is a problem with no easy solutions.
Executive Director Alison Loat, along with Assistant Professors Royce Koop (University of Manitoba) and James Farney (University of Regina) recently published an article based on Samara’s MP Exit Interviews called “Balancing Family and Work: Challenges Facing Canadian MPs” that outlines all the sacrifices MPs face when they are elected. They also offer a few solutions:
- Move to shorter, more intense parliamentary sessions. This would lessen the travel demands and allow MPs to go home for longer weekends.
- Alternatively, change regular sitting hours from 9 to 5, and eliminate evening sitting hours except in emergencies. This would allow them to go home for dinner—or connect with their families and friends online, or even interact with a fellow MP outside the pressures of the House.
- Offer reliable childcare. Nearby and inexpensive childcare would help encourage younger MPs to run for office, especially women. Since we’re only at 23% women in the House, we are grossly underrepresenting our population.
- Adjust constituent expectations. We constituents need to realize that MPs are spread pretty thin. An MP’s staff should be seen as a representative of the MP, not the MP shirking his/her responsibilities. Seeing an MP in the flesh—though it’ll help them come election time—should not be the all-important goal. The authors advise that MPs need more staff support, and we all need a smoother running bureaucracy to “allow the MP to spend more time focused on substantive representation rather than acting as a guide through our bureaucracy.”
MPs make huge sacrifices for their job—more than they probably realized when they decided to run. Their families also pay the price—whether through solo parenting, missed family events or even divorce.
We won’t be able to attract the best people to this important job if we can’t offer some semblance of work-life balance. We especially won’t be able to get to 50% women in the House. It’s time to implement some changes to make the House more family friendly—and more human. In the meantime, the next time I see my MP in my neighbourhood, I’m going to ask him to pass on my thanks to his wife for all the solo parenting, travel and constituent time she’s done—unpaid—for our country.