Maternity and Parental Leave: What's the Difference?

Exploring the difference between maternal and parental leave, their value, how to apply for maternal and parental leave, and how benefits vary cross-provincially.

Bringing a baby into this world is a full-time job. Instead of responding to work emails, you need to respond to the basic needs of your newborn. Changing diapers, feeding, bonding, and more become your daily tasks, and while you wish your child came with a baby manual, you quickly realize you’re the one who has to write it. Baby rearing also doesn’t come with a paycheck, so it’s important to consider financial support options in advance. 

We spoke with Sophie Bonneau, MA, PCC, founder  of Queen Bee Coaching, who says, “the baby becomes your entire universe, so it’s important to do your research and understand the difference between maternal and parental leave before the baby comes.”

In this article, we explore the difference between maternal and parental leave, their value, when to have the financial talk, how to apply for maternal and parental leave, and how benefits vary across provinces. We will also bring special attention to the term matrescence.  

What is the difference between maternity and parental leave? 

While maternity and parental leave are both paid benefits, they have different qualifications for eligibility. Maternity leave is specific to pregnant women and/or women who have given birth, and you must take at least six weeks' leave immediately following the delivery date. It entitles you to 16 weeks and begins at any time within 13 weeks of the estimated delivery date. Alternatively, both parents can share parental leave, and each leave varies by province and is not always federally mandated. 

In Ontario, parental leave is available to “biological fathers, adoptive parents, and folks who are not the biological parents but who are invested in the child and couple.” Bonneau describes parental leave as an unpaid leave that a parent can take, and is also something the biological mother can take in addition to maternity leave benefits.” 

Bonneau shared a few rules around who can get parental leave and when: 

  • Parental leave is 62 consecutive weeks following the pregnancy
  • Women are entitled to 16 weeks of maternity leave plus 62 weeks of parental leave. i.e., the pregnant employee can take a leave of up to 78 weeks (1.5 years)
  • The pregnant employee must have worked for their employer for at least 90 days before starting the leave.
  • If the other partner wants to take part of the parental leave after the maternal leave period, they can split 62 weeks and, in some cases, take it simultaneously, often depending on the employers. 
  • You can bank some of your parental leave time if you want to be able to use it at a later date. 
  • Adoptive parents can take parental leave of up to 62 consecutive weeks within 78 weeks after the child is placed with the adoptive parents. An adoptive parent must have worked for their employer for at least 90 days before starting the leave.

Why do maternity and parental leave matter?

Maternity and parental leave have major significance and value. According to Bonneau, “this time is essential for you, your baby, and your family, and it takes time to transition through matrescence. Matrescence refers to the experience of becoming a mother. A huge physiological, psychological, cognitive, emotional and hormonal change happens over and above the joyful (though challenging) arrival of a new baby, and it’s not just something that happens overnight.” Bonneau says, “practitioners in the emerging field of matrescence, suggest that it can take up to two to three years, underscoring that women need the time to become mothers.” Luckily, maternal and parental leave benefits afford that time when it’s most needed.  

Bonneau shares a few reasons why maternity and parental leave are so valuable: 

  • Nurture your new bonds. Bonneau says, "this time honours the essential connection between mother and baby, which is so integral within those first twelve weeks, sometimes called the fourth trimester.” 
  • Becoming a new parent is a big adjustment. Bonneau says, “adjusting isn’t always easy, and one of the biggest psychological and emotional changes is the realization that you can no longer be as self-centered.”
  • Make space for healing. Bonneau passionately expressed that “there is so much healing to be done for a new mom after labour, not to mention the many physical and hormonal changes after birth and the possibility of postpartum depression. On top of that, you now have a new human being for which you’re fully responsible.” 
  • Steep learning curve. Maternity and parental leave are essential, "especially as you learn to care for a human being and must figure out their eating and sleeping cycles. It may sound like a small thing, but it becomes your entire universe." She said, "it can feel quite rigorous and challenging to get proper rest. The younger they are, the shorter the duration between feeding and sleeping time." 
  • Partner needs time to attach. “Partners or non-biological partners need time to bond and develop strong attachments to the baby too, which is why parental leave is so beneficial. Creating an environment where you can bond and build an attachment with the baby is critical for all parties,” says Bonneau.

When should you consider parental leave, and when should your partner start?

When the biological mother finishes their maternity leave, they can begin parental leave immediately. A non-biological partner must start their parental leave within 78 weeks after the birth, and both parents are not entitled to 62 weeks of parental leave each. Instead, one parent can take the total amount, or you can share it. Note that you can also take less than the total amount (one person or shared). For example, the birth mother may take 52 weeks of parental leave, and the other parent may take ten weeks at either the same time or later. However, if you and the other parent work for the same employer, the employer can refuse to give you time off together.

"Deciding when to take parental leave varies for each situation. The conversations must occur throughout the pregnancy between partners and can involve many considerations, including financial ones. Collaborating on a shared vision of what the leave will look like is important." states Bonneau. She also suggested that parental leave supports everyone—the mother, father, and the baby. Sometimes the most supportive thing is for one partner not to take parental leave and continue working or for one partner to take the bulk of it so the other partner can return to work, especially if they are the higher income earner. 

Understanding how to begin your maternity leave 

When asked about how maternity leave works and when to apply, Bonneau shared some helpful tips. 

  • Do your research early and choose your benefits.
  • Gather your required information (personal info, DOB, employment records).
  • Find out when it’s appropriate to apply in your province. Note that you are not eligible to take maternity leave until 13 weeks (three months) before your due date. 
  • Complete the online application on the Government of Canada website.
  • Collect and provide all required documents.
  • Once complete, the benefit statement will arrive in the mail.

Alternative benefit options:

  • Request a mental health and wellness leave. Note that you require a medical note supporting your leave of absence. If not referred to as maternity leave, it could be called bereavement leave or depression and/or anxiety-related leave (as applicable). 
  • You may need to plan on having or using your savings.
  • Some organizations will supplement the support that is received by the government for a certain number of weeks or offer a paid maternity leave.

In cases where paid leave is not an option, Bonneau says to plan by saving money in advance or looking into additional ways to supplement your income. Non-paid leave scenarios may require adjusting your lifestyle to accommodate the desired time off. 

If you suffered a miscarriage, you might still be able to access maternity leave. “If the pregnancy ends without a live birth within 16 weeks of the estimated due date, you can still take maternity leave. However, you won't qualify for leave if you suffer a miscarriage within the first five months. A distinction is made, and the language in the policy literature changes from miscarriage to stillbirth after the five-month mark.” explains Bonneau.  

How does maternity leave vary across provinces? 

Each province and territory has its own human rights and employment standards. The Canada Labour Code mandates unpaid leave and protects your right to time off after the baby arrives in all provinces, with some variations across provinces. For example, Alberta and Nova Scotia residents receive 16 weeks of unpaid leave, while other provincial residents receive 17 weeks, except for Quebec and Saskatchewan, where residents receive 18 and 19 weeks, respectively. On top of that, Quebec offers five days for birth or adoption and five weeks for new dads at birth (paternity leave). 

Furthermore, Quebec offers benefits through the Ministry of Employment and Social Solidarity of Quebec (MESSQ), which provides the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP). The QPIP is responsible for providing maternity, paternity, parental and adoption benefits to Quebec residents. Quebec residents can also have an 18-week period to use their benefits and have an opportunity to earn higher income while receiving parental insurance benefits. 

Tips for leaders and organizations supporting maternity leave in the workplace 

Bonneau lent her thoughts on how leaders can create a safe space for employees seeking maternity or parental leave. “Organizations need to be aware and lead with compassion and care. This is already an overwhelming time for new parents, and anything leaders and organizations can do to support their employees through this process, providing support and helping to provide clear information makes all the difference.” Every household has different considerations, and employees may need time and space to figure out dynamics, especially with  the pandemic adding a new layer of complexity.” 

Quick tips for organizations:

  • Growing a family is a joyful occasion and cause to celebrate but also one of the most intense transitions in our lives, which can cause stress and anxiety. 
  • Dedicate a subject matter expert or go-to resource in your company that can help parents when they need information and support of this nature. 
  • Offer flexibility and work-from-home options (which may not fall within traditional work hours) for expectant mothers.
  • Consider flex packages that include support for parents (i.e., financing to support daycare or nannies)
  • Explore health spending accounts, wellness accounts, and flex benefit programs where employees can allot or budget their credits based on their needs. 

Get the right mental health support with Inkblot Therapy 

While it may seem you're in a whirlwind between changing diapers, meeting your baby's needs and balancing family life, Inkblot Therapy makes it easy for you to get the support you need when you need it. Bonneau clarifies, "Some new mothers go stir-crazy and are eager to get back into their professional identities. Others aren't ready to go back after a year but may not have a choice financially. It helps to have someone to talk to at this stage, and thankfully there are more practitioners now, like myself, who are focused on supporting and empowering mothers reentering the workforce.”