Working while parenting isn’t new, most of us are just out of practice

By Krista Cooke

A black-and-white photograph of two women seated on benches in a log cabin. They are working at a large weaving frame while a small child rocks a baby in a cradle nearby.

Two women work at a weaving frame while a nearby child amuses the baby, Cap à l’Aigle, Quebec, ca. 1910 (a040744)

“Pandemic parenting” has been causing stress for families around the globe, above and beyond the strain of living in a global health crisis. This period has been tough, even for those lucky enough to be able to take a leave of absence or access emergency funding sources. For emergency workers, single parents, those living in tight spaces, those in poverty, or families dealing with domestic violence or mental health issues, the stress of pandemic parenting is acute. For others, like me, having both parents working at home with young children to care for, home-school, clean up after, feed and entertain, the past few months have not been easy either.

By turns hilarious and tragic, the blogosphere is filled to bursting with home videos and personal reflections about parenting during COVID-19. As a mother, I have been learning from other parents: creating new routines, being grateful for our family’s good fortune, and taking one day at a time. As a historian, I have been looking to the past for insights, studying the women captured in photographs from Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collections. How did families do this in the past? How did we get here? What will happen next? Employment numbers early in the pandemic showed Canadian women losing jobs twice as fast as men, and more recently Statistics Canada recorded job numbers bouncing back much more quickly for men than for women. Online speculation is running rampant about how this epidemic will impact women in the workplaces of the future. How can we “Lean In” (as influential American author Sheryl Sandberg advocated) without child care, when many of us are spending our days with a laptop in one hand and a handful of colouring sheets in the other?

Generations of Canadian women have been intimately acquainted with the work/child care balancing act. Before the age of industrialization, most women juggled child-rearing responsibilities with home-based work (both paid and unpaid), contributing as they could to the family economy. Indigenous communities cared for children collectively while young mothers worked at clothing or food production. Early settler women earned money from home by taking farm products or handicrafts to market, sewing for pay, or taking in laundry. Fathers worked long hours on the land, in growing urban centres, or away from home in seasonal jobs while mothers managed as best they could with children at their heels. Early marriage and large families were the norm (according to Statistics Canada surveys, in the mid-1800s, the average Canadian family had six children). Children were expected to contribute early by helping with farm and housework, by taking care of younger siblings, and often by leaving school at a young age to help pay the bills.

A black-and-white photograph of a factory interior with four women working in a production line on a fish-canning machine. Two of the women have babies strapped to their back with wraps. There is a young child in a stroller behind the women.

Japanese women work in a fish cannery with their Japanese-Canadian babies strapped to their backs, Steveston, B.C., 1913 (Vancouver Public Library 2071)

Industrialization brought mass manufacturing and new opportunities for women to earn wages. Urban working-class women joined the male factory workforce, mainly in jobs related to textiles and food processing. The number of women workers grew through the 1800s; by 1901, they accounted for 13 percent of the Canadian workforce. Some women, whose families could afford it, worked only before they married or after their children had grown, reverting to home-based work like needlework to earn money while their children were young. For women who needed to keep their factory jobs, child care fell to the extended family. Many mothers left small children behind while they worked, in the care of elderly family members or older siblings. Some women brought their children with them when they did not have other options. The Japanese women shown above, part of the first generation of immigrants from Japan, would not have had grandmothers or elderly aunts in Canada to provide child care.

A black-and-white photograph of a mother waving goodbye to her two small children. The children are holding the hands of a daycare worker. The day nursery appears to be in a fenced yard in a residential neighbourhood. There is a swing set in the background.

Mrs. Jack Wright, a munitions worker, waves goodbye to her children at a day nursery, Toronto, 1943 (e000761764)

The two world wars (1914–1918 and 1939–1945) ensured new visibility for women in the workforce, as middle-class women joined working-class women in previously male-dominated fields. The fight for women’s right to vote and the opening of Canadian universities to women in the early part of the century had gradually increased the presence of women in the workforce, a trend that accelerated during the war years. Teaching, nursing and secretarial jobs were soon staffed mainly by young or unmarried women, and small numbers of women broke into other fields such as journalism, medicine and science. The Second World War created a massive need for labour, as men joined the military and the economy geared up for wartime. Women were urgently needed to fill jobs, so employers and governments were forced to address the issue of child care, in order to free mothers to join the wartime workforce in large numbers. Between 1939 and 1942, the number of women in the workforce doubled, with women accounting for one third of Canadian workers. The Canadian government responded by establishing a wartime day nursery program to help working mothers, in eight industrial cities across the country. A 1943 film, Before They Are Six, held in the collections at LAC and available online through the National Film Board’s website, promoted the day nursery program. Historian Lisa Pasolli found that these nurseries cared for just over 4,000 children between 1942 and 1946, mainly in Ontario and Quebec where most heavy industry was located. Another 2,500 children were part of the hot lunch and after-school care programs. Mrs. Jack Wright, pictured above, has become Canada’s most famous wartime working mother, featured in a series of Wartime Information Board images held at LAC. In the photos, Wright balances her war work with the responsibilities of feeding her family and raising her children with the help of the day nursery program. Most Canadian women, however, did not have access to day nurseries, and they continued to juggle informal child-care arrangements or paid work from home.

The end of the Second World War brought an end to the day nursery program. Newspaper and magazine articles urged middle-class working mothers back into their homes to make way for men returning from military service. The unusual wartime circumstances that had made child care a federal priority had ended, and widespread availability of government-sponsored daycares would not come again for decades. Throughout the 1950s, child care split regionally, often along class lines. Historian Larry Prochner’s research on child care found that professionally educated nursery school teachers cared for the children of wealthier households, while many child-care centres followed older patterns, providing crèche services as a stopgap solution for lower-income families. The 1966 Canada Assistance Plan again brought some federal attention and consistency to daycares, with government recognition of the rapidly growing number of working women.

A father spoons food into the mouth of his child, who is seated in a high chair in the kitchen. The father’s mouth is open, as he mimics his baby.

Magazine photo featuring a father overseeing a baby’s mealtime, Star Weekly, 1960 (e010692838)

The women’s movements of the 1960s (what some have dubbed the “Second Wave” of feminism) saw women increasingly taking their place in the workforce, with numbers of working women growing to match wartime levels. As the number of working mothers has grown, household duties and child care have become a shared responsibility. Fathers, once expected to “man” the barbecue and lawnmower on weekends, are increasingly involved in child rearing, cooking and cleaning. The man in the Star Weekly magazine spread above may have been newsworthy in 1960, but most modern fathers are fully versed in the joys of baby mush. Although Canadian men spend less time on housework than women (according to Statistics Canada, 1.5 hours less per day on average), today’s fathers are much more likely than Baby Boomer dads to take charge of parenting. The 1950s-style nuclear family with a working husband and stay-at-home mother is in the minority. According to the same Statistics Canada report, almost 60 percent of Canadian families have two income earners, up from under 40 percent in 1976, and single-parent households have almost doubled during the same period. Double-income households, single parenting, co-parenting and other family models hinge on reliable child care. With most Canadian families consisting of two full-time wage earners, daycares, schools, summer camps and after-school programs have become essential to the smooth running of most households. Department of Manpower and Immigration photographs at LAC include dozens of images of daycares and nursery schools and show the increasing importance of early childhood education. The conversation about their importance to the Canadian economy is also likely to increase in the eventual wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A colour photograph of the backs of two small children seated at a table in a cluttered room. The children are pretending to work on handmade cardboard computers while talking on plastic telephones.

Two small children “work from home,” Gatineau, Quebec, March 2020

Families facing a long summer without day camps and worrying about a new school year filled with uncertainty are asking questions about how long “pandemic parenting” is sustainable. Only time will tell if the gap between female and male employment will continue grow as the pandemic wears on and families are forced to choose which wage earner will stay home with children. A recent survey by Statistics Canada looks at how families are coping during the pandemic, in order to identify how to help those most in need. As with so many things during COVID-19, child-care solutions seem to be as individual as a family’s circumstances. I myself have no answers, except to reflect that this constant juggling of family and work responsibilities is not new. Communal child rearing, the rapid mobilization of wartime day nurseries to meet the needs of a nation in crisis, increasing parenting responsibilities for fathers, employers’ openness to flextime, and the availability of new technologies like telework are all possible models to take with us into this summer and beyond.


Krista Cooke is a curator in the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

1918 Spanish flu epidemic

By Marcelle Cinq-Mars

Toward the end of the First World War, as Canadian troops were involved in Canada’s Hundred Days, a new enemy—even tougher than the Kaiser’s Germany—attacked soldiers and civilians alike, ignoring borders.

In just a few months, the 1918 influenza epidemic spread around most of the world, reaching pandemic proportions. It became known as the “Spanish flu” because Spanish journalists, not subject to wartime censorship, were the first to report publicly on the epidemic in Europe.

Historians are divided on the precise origin of the 1918 influenza outbreak. However, they do agree that the rapid spread of the disease was hastened by the presence of large numbers of soldiers in military camps, which became excellent incubators for the virus. Soldiers returning to their home countries intensified the spread of the disease.

The first serious flu cases in Canada occurred toward the end of summer 1918, while the First World War was still raging. Port authorities in Halifax and Québec, where ships docked bringing home the wounded and the ill, noted the first cases and warned federal health officials about the situation.

Federal authorities quickly carried out medical examinations of passengers on ships travelling from Europe. They quarantined people who showed signs of influenza. Essentially, the officials tried the same measures that were used in the 19th century to deal with cholera epidemics. However, sailing ships had given way to ocean liners carrying thousands of soldiers to the war and back. Canada’s four quarantine stations could not halt the progress of the epidemic, despite the best efforts of the doctors trying to contain it.

By autumn 1918, influenza was racing through the population like wildfire. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded and were hard pressed to receive more patients. Many people were therefore cared for at home or in temporary facilities, such as mobile military field hospitals. Overworked medical personnel were also hit by the flu themselves. This meant that relatives or friends were often called on to care for the sick, which contributed to the spread of the disease.

Sketch showing the various components of a mobile hospital.

Plan of a mobile hospital proposed by the firm I.H. Bogart & Son of Boston in the United States, RG29 vol. 300 (e011165378-045)

However, the number of deaths was soon growing so rapidly that there was even a waiting list for… cemetery burials. Across the country, health officials put regulations in place to try to stop the spread of the devastating outbreak. Schools, theatres, libraries and, in short, almost all public places—sometimes even churches—closed their doors. Many people wore masks to try to protect themselves, and anyone who dared to spit was strongly reprimanded. This was because, despite the fact that the epidemic could not be stopped, people knew it was influenza and the virus spread from person to person through the air.

Black-and-white photo of three men wearing hygienic masks.

Men wearing masks during the Spanish flu epidemic (a025025)

Soldiers returning to Canada at the end of the war found their families decimated. This was the case for soldier Arthur-Joseph Lapointe, father of Jean Lapointe, a retired senator. In his memoirs, Souvenirs et impressions de ma vie de soldat, 1916-1919, he recounts that on his return home, his father, looking deeply sombre, delivered very sad news:

“We did not want to tell you the extent of the misfortune that has befallen us, because we did not know when you might be coming back, and it would have made your life unbearable. A terrible flu epidemic took three of your brothers and two sisters in the space of nine days.” [translation]

Over several tragic months, the Spanish flu claimed the lives of more than 20 million people around the world, including some 50,000 in Canada—almost as many as died in the four years of fighting during the First World War.

Federal health officials were heavily criticized for implementing outdated and inadequate quarantine measures, and for their lack of vision and leadership. After taking stock of its ineffectual actions during the influenza pandemic, the federal government created the Department of Health in 1919.

Records related to this tragedy can be found at Library and Archives Canada. More information is available in our thematic guide on the Spanish flu epidemic.


Marcelle Cinq-Mars is a senior archivist in Military Affairs, Government Archives Division, at Library and Archives Canada.