Your Mama Wears CSA-Approved Safety Boots

Illustration by Megan Kinch. The image was drawn using a black permanent marker, a carpenter pencil, and a highlighter, all materials that electricians use at work.

I wake up at 5:30 AM, and my little one wakes up too. In her tiny baby voice, she says, “Don’t you wuv me? Why you go to work Mama? Pwese come back to me.” Sometimes she cries, and it’s heartbreaking to have to leave her. Sometimes she says, resigned, “Ok Mama, go to work,” and pushes me away, and that’s almost sadder. She’s just turning three, and I hate being away from her.

Perhaps this is an unexpected thing to say, for a woman in her first year of a non-traditional career in trades, but my work is the easiest part of my life – and the job of a first year apprentice is by no means easy. The main stress in my life is being the parent of a small child in a world where it’s impossible for a low-income mother to work, but also impossible not to work.

All those who take on parenting roles – mothers, but also fathers, queer parents, and grandparents who are primary caregivers – can struggle with this squeeze. My co-worker, an electrician who is a father, sometimes jokes that he’ll put on his tombstone, “I’m glad I worked all those Saturdays instead of watching my boy grow up.”

Parenting is a squeeze even in two-parent families. Families are often isolated from extended family and from non-parent friends in a culture that segregates people by age and parenting status. Liberal feminist theory will have you believe that women are liberated through work – an idea that often positions children as oppressive – but I work only because I’m paid for it, and I need money to feed my child. I don’t see work as liberation. Mainstream liberal white feminist struggles have long neglected the realities of women of colour and working mothers, as well as mothers who can’t work because they have no childcare or want to raise their own children.

I’ve been on the other side too: completely broke but unable to work because it was impossible to find childcare. It was hard to deal with the social stigma of unemployment while taking care of a small child. My aunt, the richest person in my family, drank too much wine then screamed at me on Christmas to “lean in,” put my four-month-old in daycare, and get a job as a telemarketer, which I knew would pay less than daycare would cost – if I could even find a space. That’s the last time I saw my aunt. I lost half my family at a time when I needed them the most.

In Toronto, where I live, daycare is incredibly unaffordable. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) found in 2015 that the monthly rate for child care for a toddler (aged 3 – 5) in Toronto is $1,033 – the highest rate in the country. But as the CCPA report states, “High costs are just part of the challenge. Even where families can afford to pay this much for child care they will often face long waiting lists due to significant shortfalls in available regulated spaces.”

Working-class and poor families get caught in a subsidy system that requires parents to be in school or employed full time in order to be considered for a spot on a waiting list. In a recent Torontoist article, Avneet Dhillon delves into Toronto’s broken subsidy system, which has over 17,000 children on a waiting list for 25,116 subsidies.

Because I had no other options (and I needed to spend time with her), at first I stayed home with my baby, even though I didn’t qualify for maternity leave. But a year later, my partner was injured at work and was denied WSIB claim. He couldn’t work while he recovered. I had to find a career that could support all of us. Fortunately, I got a part-time job (with Briarpatch), and discovered that the YWCA was running a program for women interested in the electrical trade. I learned about electrical work and how to navigate a union’s application process; ultimately, I was hired as a pre-apprentice electrician.

Every time someone bemoans the lack of women in skilled trades, I consider the obvious structural problems: workers in construction trades who are parents have to navigate a work day that starts at 6:30 or 7 AM and has changing worksites and commutes. Daycare might start as early as 7 AM, but more often, it starts at 8 or 8:30. What’s more, many daycares charge parents $1 per minute for late pickups, which is a huge cost when working unpredictable construction jobs; we are often running late or working overtime to complete a task. Sometimes, as my partner experienced, an employer can, on a whim, change your schedule to evening shifts or schedule you to work overtime evening shifts. This scheduling problem also applies to parents who work in the restaurant industry and, ironically, in childcare.

My partner and I relied on a grandparent for a while, but he suddenly passed away. We would wake up not knowing if we had childcare, simultaneously navigating the overhanging possibility that my partner would lose his job if he missed a single day of work. At least we were never forced to leave our daughter anywhere sketchy or over-crowded. Finally, though, our childcare situation appears to have stabilized, and I know she is being cared for in the best and most loving way possible (including trips to drop-in centres, tobogganing, and spending time with her close baby-friends).

But if I didn’t have a small child to support, I might not have re-evaluated my career choices and entered this profession. I would probably still be making a living on about $10,000 – $15,000 a year, trying to scrape by on marker/grader positions, TAships, scholarships, part-time media gigs, and research contracts. The kind of work my expensive education qualifies me for is also the kind of work that is precarious, featuring unpaid internships and part-time contracts and stipends. Having a kid opened my eyes to the fact that for me this path wasn’t going anywhere.

As I evaluated my skills with the intention of going into a new profession, I considered what’s considered traditionally as women’s occupations – nursing, midwifery, or social work. But those professions required another degree and paying for a practicum, whereas trade apprenticeships offered waged apprenticeship programs. As an electrical apprentice, my salary will increase every year until I write the test for my journeyperson licence in five years. I will go to trade school for a few months here and there, but compared with the years I’ve already spent in school, it hardly registers. Plus, attending trade school qualifies me for E.I and some money from the union. Because trades were historically organized to ensure that men could be sole earners in their families, the structure of trade education and work today continues to support parents, including women.

Between the extreme weather conditions and the hard physical labour, work takes up a lot of my energy in the day – but then I go home to an energetic toddler. Sometimes my partner (who also works in construction now) and I argue about who worked harder that day: “I was working slab today in the sun up the deck” versus “I was digging ditches.”

I’m glad that my work, while stressful, is career advancing and that I get to work with amazing men (and two women). My crew prioritizes a pleasant work environment, and they are teaching me not only the basics of the trade, but also how to be a flexible electrician who can think and solve problems. Meanwhile, my kid is growing older, and she’s happy and she’s well cared for. But in a culture that makes life seemingly impossible for parents – and especially mothers – it’s a struggle every day to raise my child in the city in which I myself grew up.

Megan Kinch grew up in the post-industrial wastelands of Scarborough and Oshawa, ON. She has contributed to and edited for several publications including Basics Community News, Briarpatch Magazine, and the Toronto Media Co-op.