How well are labour unions as workplaces supporting single parents?

Imagery of a giant soother being pulled by a tiny person on a lined track. In front of the person there are several other people ahead of the race with no weight to bear.

A personal narrative of balancing parenting and labour union work

The past year of my life has been one of significant loss and growth. I resigned from a system leadership role with my school board and was in the final stage of interviewing for a permanent position with the Ministry of Education, all while going through a divorce and part-time solo parenting my seven and eight-year-old children. When I got married 14 years ago, I would not have imagined that I would be going through a divorce and parenting my children alone while trying to juggle a demanding career. Never would I have imagined that I would be losing the home that I had been building for my family and struggling to find suitable housing on a single income. Going through this experience has opened my eyes to so many access needs that parents—especially solo parents—deal with while also trying to balance engaging at work, nurturing relationships with their children, and meeting their personal needs.

Twelve years ago, I left my career as a regulated primary health care practitioner to start teaching. While I enjoyed working in healthcare, I found myself burning out from years of taking on piecemeal work—ranging from treating patients in private practice to completing independent medical assessments and instructing a course at the post-­secondary level, which is where my interest in teaching began. Like many self-employed folks, I longed for a better work-life balance and made the transition into teaching secondary school. After a few years of teaching, my wife and I decided to have children. It took several years and many tears for that dream to become a reality, but eventually, we were parents to two beautiful rainbow babies.

I was a stay-at-home parent for the first three years of my children’s lives. I took a leave from working full-time as a physics and technological education teacher and spent my days breastfeeding, changing dirty diapers, managing nap cycles, and babywearing as I walked our dogs and completed domestic chores around the house. The days felt long and exhausting, and I sometimes found myself watching the clock in anticipation of my wife coming home from work to give me a reprieve. These years were hard, but also fulfilling. When COVID-19 hit in 2020 and we sheltered at home, I was grateful to have the time with my kids again. As schools reopened for in-person learning, my partner and I were back at work, and the kids were back in school. We settled into a routine despite the multiple challenges of teaching hybrid and pandemic learning. At this time, I started getting involved with Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation
(OSSTF/FEESO) provincially. I enjoyed the opportunities to learn about the union and everything that goes on behind the scenes to protect public education workers.

Through OSSTF/FEESO’s Equity Mentorship Program,* I had the honour of attending committee meetings and conferences that I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to access. I had the support of my partner in watching the kids during the evenings, overnights, and weekends when I was away. Activism and advocacy work have been a big part of my life for the past thirty years, and the Federation offered many opportunities to do work that combines my passion for human rights with education and labour work. At the time, I was in a system leadership role as an equity resource teacher for my board. However, in that role I didn’t feel like I had the resources and support to do the authentic work that I wanted to do. I was also in the final stages of interviewing for both an OSSTF/FEESO executive time release role in my District, as well as an Education Officer position at the Ontario Ministry of Education. In the end, I chose to work for my District office because that work aligned more with my personal values.

I am really happy with my choice to accept the equity role at my District office. My workplace is vibrant and collaborative, and I feel like I’m learning a lot from my colleagues and the members I represent. This role can be challenging sometimes, but it draws on my areas of strength and I feel supported by my office in many ways, as well as the network of mentors I have established. Work has been a place of grounding and stability for me during my divorce. It is a place where I find purpose, feel valued, and satisfy my need for human connection. My work is rewarding, and my colleagues have exemplified allyship in the ways that they advocate for the proper use of my pronouns and changes to make our bathrooms gender inclusive. However, in working at this high-­demand job, I have come to see how difficult it can be to be an activist and a parent at the same time. The demands of fully-engaged activism and union work don’t often mesh well with the demands of fully-engaged parenting. Our working conditions differ from the members we represent; hours of work, job parameters, and workload expectations are to put it mildly, dynamic—and to put it more bluntly, incredibly challenging.

Childcare needs, costs, and access fly in the face of the inconsistency of hours required by being a full-time union representative. Specifically, I need caregivers who can support my two neurodivergent children. Being originally from out of province, I don’t have any family or close friends here that can help support me. Like many other solo parents, I carry the weight of extra demands with fewer resources—scarcity of time and money, challenges with childcare and household responsibilities, and less mental health support (Schulte and Pabst). My experience isn’t unique; in 2020–2021, 32% of single parents (compared to 23% of coupled parents) found themselves unemployed due to the barriers that exist in workplaces (O’Reilly). These barriers are also compounded for racialized mothers, who suffer greater levels of burnout because the demands of home and work disproportionately fall on them (Clinic). So how do we make work, particularly union work, more accessible for equity-seeking and solo-parent members like me, with a desire and passion to do the work?

Awareness is a good place to start; we all have our own unique lived experiences that inform our understanding of the world and limit our perceptions of inequality in the workplace. For example, my office recently spent time creating an accommodations policy with all our input, and it was interesting hearing everyone weigh in on different aspects of it. Some folks were really focused on the potential for abuse or fraudulent use of the policy if it were too lenient, and others were vocal about the need for reduced barriers to accessing support and accommodations. As a person living with multiple disabilities, I know too well the challenge of having to “prove” that you need accommodation, the time and money spent on medical documentation, the stigma of needing to ask for support, and the resultant social repercussions. The reality is, that everyone has access needs, and workplaces as they presently exist provide varying levels of support for differing identities and abilities. Universal access to work should be our goal, especially as labour unions.

As a racialized, Queer, trans, non-binary person living with a disability, I have experienced exclusion and discrimination in multiple workplaces. Creating strategic plans, policies, procedures, and by-laws that are inclusive and anti-racist is another area where workplaces can support equity-seeking leaders in doing union work. Racialized women in the workforce experience compounding barriers to workplace advancement due to the intersection of gender discrimination, racism, and the fact that many of us take on extended caregiving responsibilities. Finding ways to flex hours or to balance out extended work responsibilities that stretch beyond normal work hours could go a long way toward helping all those in positions like mine to make being a single-parent and a labour activist doable.

Why does all of this matter? Why is it worth dismantling the systems that we already have in place to be more inclusive or equitable? Making these changes, both in response to individual worker needs and also to create a more universally inclusive work model has several benefits. Workers will be happier, and happier workers will be more productive (Preston). They are also more collaborative, creative, and effective at problem-solving along with being more likely to stay in the job. It also has the added effect of creating a better climate for working and is more inviting for people from a variety of lived experiences and expertise. Ijeoma Oluo, Nigerian-American author of So You Want to Talk About Race offers that “[w]hen we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.” As a labour union we have a responsibility to make room and reduce systemic barriers for the workers that we want at the table. While we understand that the knowledge and perspectives brought by equity-seeking leaders strengthen our capacity to advance workers’ rights, we must be willing to evolve and adapt if we want to see these leaders thrive, and not just survive in these positions.

*See the article on page 60 of this issue “Forging new paths for leadership” for more information on this OSSTF/FEESO program.

1. Clinic, Maven. “Parents at the Best WorkplacesTM.”,
2. O’Reilly, Luke. “Single Parents “Could Help Fill Labour Shortage If Barriers Were Removed.”” Evening Standard, 6 Feb. 2023, Accessed 22 Jan. 2024.
3. Preston, Camille, PhD, PCC. “Council Post: Promoting Employee Happiness Benefits Everyone.” Forbes, Accessed 22 Jan. 2024.
4. Schulte, Brigid, and Stavroula Pabst. “Combating Burnout as a Single Working Parent.” Harvard Business Review, 29 June 2021,

About Dorothy Melville
Dorothy Melville (they/them/theirs) Anti-Racism Intersectional Officer, District 19, Peel

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