Parenting in the Public Eye with the Hon. Karina Gould

Gould, Karina.Headshot

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Sep 30, 2023

by Katherine Martinko

In 2018, the Honourable Karina Gould became the first Canadian politician holding office at the federal level to have a baby. The experience of juggling a newborn with a high-profile career challenged her in new ways—and led to some significant changes in the House of Commons, that now makes parenting easier for members of parliament (MPs).

Gould, now expecting her second child, spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, from her home in Burlington, ON, about what she has learned.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a Canadian politician and a federal Member of Parliament. The Honorable Karina Gould has previously served as Minister of families, children and social development, Minister of International Development and Minister of democratic institutions. She currently serves as government House leader, and is also a mother of one. Minister Gould joins us today from her writing of Burlington, thank you so much for being here.

Thanks for having me.

I wanted to dive right in and ask you, what came first for you? Was it your desire to pursue a career in politics? Or was it an intention to eventually become a mom and a parent?

Um, well, I think I wanted to do both. I don’t think it was like one or the other. I mean, I, I guess I always wanted to have a family. And I didn’t always think I was gonna go into politics. But you know, I always wanted to have a career and have a family.

So and in your mind, as you kind of got closer to those, at least one of those things happening. And then eventually, the second one, what kind of preparation or any preparation Did you undertake to to be prepared really, for those dual roles?

Well, I’m not sure that anyone can properly prepare to become a parent, because it’s nothing of what anyone expects, I’m sure. But, you know, my husband and I were, were very clear that we wanted to have a family and that was kind of like a, you know, I really want to support you, I want you to do well and pursue your career. And I’ll always do that. But, you know, starting a family is, is really important. And so for me, getting into politics at a rather young age, I didn’t want to be in a place where I had had this great career and kind of missed my opportunity to have children. So I always knew that was part of the plan. But I didn’t have a lot of role models to look to there weren’t that many people who, who came before me. So in terms of preparation, I mean, there weren’t that many people to, to ask for advice in terms of how to do it. But you know, I relied heavily on Sheila Copps, who was the first member of parliament to have a baby back in 1988. And so I talked to her quite a bit, I talked to Laurel Broten, who was a cabinet minister in Ontario, about her experience. But that all kind of happened after I was already pregnant, right? Like, I’m not sure that there was much like, preparation that I could have done to prepare for both because I didn’t know exactly when it was going to happen, or if it was going to happen, right. So I waited until I was already, you know, expecting to have those conversations,
which makes perfect sense. And the fact that you said that you and your husband had the conversation is, is is sometimes more than a lot of other people have as well. Right. So it’s an interesting journey that you took from that regard. Now, in 2018, you became the first politician holding office at the federal level in Canada, to have a baby. And I’m curious as to what that experience taught you both as a politician, and as a mother that you continue to apply today?

Oh, well, I mean, it taught me a lot. It taught me to be more judicious and the choices that I make with my time. You know, as a politician, you are stretched in every direction as yours. There’s never a moment that you can’t fill with either an event or meeting someone or being briefed or whatever the case may be. And it made me learn to say no to a lot more things because I, you know, had to take care of this small human that was completely dependent on me. So that’s something that I’ve I’ve carried forward. And I think the other thing that I found for me is it actually, like gave me more balance, because it gave me more perspective in terms of what were things that were truly important to do, what were things that were nice to do, and what were things that, you know, were maybe time fillers and not necessary to do and to make sure that, you know, as much as I could I, you know, I prioritized my family. And when you have an infant, they make it pretty clear who the priority is, right? So that’s something that I definitely learned and have carried through. And then the other thing that I learned because I put a lot of pressure on myself to return to work pretty quickly the first time and I realized that I I’m like, nobody is irreplaceable, right? So even if you think I’m the only person in the world who can do this and get this done, actually, that’s, that’s not the case, right? Like, there’s always someone who can fill in for you. And, and that was also a good lesson, I think and humility, and also trusting my colleagues and the team, right to carry things forward. Even if I wasn’t there. I mean, I was kind of in the background on the phone on email and stuff. But, you know, even if I wasn’t the one, you know, shepherding legislation through the house for a couple of months, there were other people who were doing it and who I could trust and work with.
Now, you were just a few months away from you’re having your second baby. And I wonder, Is your approach going to change at all? It sounds like you learned a lot before, during and after your first. But is there anything that you’re going to tweak that you’re going to adapt in any way?
Yeah, I’m going to change a lot. You know, the first time when I had my son, I came back to work after 10 weeks. And really, when I say that, I came back to Ottawa, like I, I was working in the constant in the constituency in Burlington for weeks after I delivered going to events and working in the office and all of that stuff. And I’m, I’m not going to do it the same way. Again, it was it was too much, it was really, really hard. And it wasn’t necessary, but I thought it was I thought that’s what I had to do, because nobody had done it before. So I didn’t feel like I had the permission to take more time and to take the time that I needed. So now that it’s the second time, and we’ve been through that first experience. And I was very clear with the prime minister and he was completely supportive that I was going to take six months away from my ministerial role. Because we now have a virtual hybrid option for parliament, I can actually vote from home. So I’m gonna, I’m still able to participate as a parliamentarian, which I wasn’t able to do the first time. So it actually may means that I can still fulfill my duties as a member of parliament, even if I’m not physically in Ottawa with voting. So it’s going to be a very different experience. And one that I think will be a lot more manageable for, for my family.
Now, in 2015, at the age of 27, you became the youngest, or 2017, sorry, at the age of 27, became the youngest cabinet minister in Canadian history. How would you describe your overall approach to navigating and you talked about it a little bit there? You know, it’s, it’s hard, right. But like, give us a sense of, you know, what that looks like, on the day to day in terms of your schedule and and how you’ve had to adapt to to both, you know, managing your relationship with your husband, and in particular your son?
Well, yeah, I mean, politics is hard on families, right, it’s really is, you know, it’s, it’s hard to explain just how demanding it is, and how much time you spend away from your family. Because it’s different than kind of any other job out there. And, you know, it’s really about serving the public. Like, I mean, if I, if I go back to what the days were, like, in 2018, and 2019, when I had, like an infant and, and, you know, I have a toddler. You know, my, my husband and son came to Ottawa with me. You know, I went back when Oliver was just about three months old, my husband and Oliver came to Parliament Hill with me every day. And my husband kind of waited in the wings, while I was either in the House of Commons or in a cabinet meeting, and would send pages in with notes to say, like, Oh, time to feed your side. And so I see their dash out and grab him and nurse him or number of occasions, bring him into the House of Commons, a nurse and there because at the time to when we were voting, we weren’t allowed to leave our seats. So if you got up and left, then your vote didn’t count, or you wouldn’t be able to vote in the next one. And so it took, you know, usually between eight and 12 minutes per votes, and sometimes we’d have hours of voting. So I would like run out, grab my son, bring him in, and have him in there for vote so that I could nurse him while I was voting. So it was a pretty intense time. And then as you know, he got a little bit older, they didn’t have to come to parliament with me. And so you know, I would wake up in the morning pump before I left, right pump throughout the day, and, you know, make sure that you know, he was getting what he needed, but it was it was pretty challenging to manage that. And then, of course, you’re not in Ottawa all the time, you have to go home to your constituency as well when the house isn’t sitting. And so we were traveling a lot like we were like this little traveling circus, my husband, and I became really efficient at putting everything I needed on a stroller and packing everything that I needed. But it was it was, it was a lot. And it was a lot to ask of my husband as well. And he was amazing, right? Like, he was totally like super dad, super husband. But we recognize that we can’t do that again. Now my wife and my, my son now is five years old. And so we can’t really ask him to do that right now, either. So we need to do things differently.

So that’s really an interesting story that they they moved to Ottawa with you for that period of time, at what point in your pregnancy or after the baby was born, did you and your husband make that decision that you know what we’re going to move, and this is how it’s going to work for all of us to survive this very early on, right?

Like we did that very early on recognizing that. That was the only way that it was it was going to work. And as I said, back in 2018, I didn’t, I didn’t have any other option, really, because there was no parental leave. For members of parliament. There was no way to participate as an MP if you weren’t physically present in the House of Commons. And now both of those things have changed. So one of the things that I worked on with then government House leader Bardis chegar, as well as the House Leader of the official opposition, Candice Bergen, was bringing in parental leave for members of parliament. And so MPs could now if they wanted to take up to a year parental leave, there aren’t many MPs that are probably going to take that much time. But the fact is, it exists now. It didn’t exist before. And so again, that’s like another way to give people permission to actually do this. Because if it doesn’t exist, you think like, I can’t, right, like this institution isn’t built for someone who, who wants to be a new parent, right. And then the other thing is about voting, right, I wouldn’t be able to vote, if I wasn’t physically seated in my seat. In the House of Commons, the pandemic changed that, because none of us could be there. And so the House of Commons actually developed a voting app and a way to do that. And this past June, the House of Commons actually made that permanent. And so we’ve seen and this is really cool for me, a number of other MPs who have been able to have babies, and vote remotely, right. And for some of them who are coming from really far away, like, you’re not allowed to travel after 36 weeks, right. And so I’m from the Toronto area from Burlington. So when I wasn’t allowed to fly anymore, I took the train to Ottawa until I was 39 weeks pregnant. And then just so happened that my 40th week was not a sitting weak, so I was home. But you know, there’s, there’s so many things that have changed that now make it easier. And you know, there’s two Conservative MPs, I think, a block MP and an NDP MP, just in the last two years who’ve all had babies, and they’ve all been able to participate, because we’ve changed how we operate. So that’s pretty neat.

Is there anything else that you would like to see implemented either in the short or the long term to further support other mothers who are politicians? And perhaps fathers? Who are politicians as well?

Well, I think we’ve made some really good progress. So that’s, that’s a positive. What I would say is that it hasn’t trickled down to other levels of government necessarily. So I think at the federal level, we’ve really demonstrated that you can make these changes and like, the institution isn’t going to fall apart. In fact, you’re actually going to get better representation in the chamber, because you’re going to have more diversity, people with different lived experiences. I think it’s really good to have young moms in politics, because guess what, there’s lots of young moms out there, and they need to have a voice in that space. But we haven’t really seen that at the provincial or municipal level. And so I think it’s something for other levels of government to really think about how they can adapt as well. And there’s probably a few other things, but honestly, having parental leave, and having a virtual option for voting, because that was the big stumbling block is how do you make sure that someone can continue to vote if they’re not physically there. So these are huge changes that I think is going to have a really positive impact.
Now in terms of sort of painting a picture of of what a typical day is like for you, and I’m sure there’s no such thing as typical, but in terms of the number of hours a day that you spend at work, I mean, I’ve spoken to other politicians about this, both male and female, and everybody’s got their own sort of secret sauce. It makes it survivable on some level. So what what does that include for you in terms of like, what is your day look like? And then how do you go about
different days, right?

So, I’m in Ottawa versus when I’m at home in my constituency. And so now, I traveled to Ottawa Monday morning, and I come home Thursday night. So what I tried to do is when I’m in Ottawa, I’m working right, like, from dawn, until I won’t even say dusk, like until whenever, you know, Midnight balls, you know, I’m working, I’m on I am totally, you know, into parliament and whatever responsibilities I have at the time, and I tried to be really focused there. So that when I’m home, I can be much more present. You know, for my family, I still have obligations in the community when I’m here. But I tried to really carve out time to make sure that, you know, I’m spending time with my son and my husband, and probably my son than my husband. But, you know, I try to make sure that, you know, my son has activities on the weekend, I’m the one that takes him, right, that we’re having that special time and really making sure as much as I possibly can, that he gets the time that he needs with me, and that it’s really meaningful. And then when I’m in Ottawa, like I call home every day, right, and it’s a bit easier now that my son is five, it was a lot harder when he was little and couldn’t engage in FaceTime or WhatsApp or whatever. But I think that’s really important is to stay connected to home as well.

As a mother and a politician, you talked about the various challenges that that you face on a daily basis. Is there?

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s important to have a strong support network. Because there are so many times where you have to kind of drop everything, and you’re called to travel or to go to Ottawa, or whatever the case may be. And so that’s one of the more challenging things when you have a child and, you know, my husband also like needs his own time, like he’s doing the primary caregiving while I’m away. So either when I’m in Ottawa, or when I’m on the road for ministerial duties. So it’s making sure that like he has the space and the time that he needs, as well. And I think for me, it’s like having that network of support. So for example, last week, you know, my husband was out of the country, and I was called to Ottawa for the cabinet shuffle. And so it’s like, okay, I figure out, you know, how I’m gonna bring my son, what’s he going to do? Who’s going to be there? Fortunately, you know, I have family that lives in Ottawa, that can help as well. But it’s really drawing on that village of people because I’m not in a position where I can just drop everything and leave and go somewhere, because I, you know, I have to care for, for my family, right? So. So it’s really kind of navigating through that. That’s, that’s tricky. I mean, time is the big one. Because it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s finite. And, you know, there’s never enough of it to do everything that you want to do. But I think it’s, it’s, it’s managing that kind of, you know, that time, but also the spontaneity of the job as well, because it’s hard to plan. It’s really hard to plan because things change all the time. And so that’s tricky. But, you know, really having that strong support network in that village of people is really important.

Minister Gould, what would you say that you have learned about yourself as you continue to navigate both these roles?
So I’ve learned that I’m capable of a lot, but not everything. And that, you know, I have to, you know, be like, I have to be mindful of how thin I stretch myself. Like, I’m someone who is definitely a workaholic, like, we’ll give 1,900% of myself to whatever it is that I’m doing. But I also need to recognize, like, you know, where and something that I’ve, you know, gotten better at over the years, is making sure that I’m, you know, seeing where those signs are of saying, Okay, I need to take a break. I need to take a moment you because I’m not going to be good for either myself, my family or my constituents. And so that’s, that’s an important learning. And then I would say, you know, a couple of the other things are that it’s okay to say when something is hard or when you need help. That was one thing that I really learned after having a baby. The Well, the first time, the only time that I’ve won so far, is that, you know, we have to ask for help when you need it. Because otherwise, you’re, you’re, you’re just gonna burn out. And so, and that’s something that I don’t think I did as much before. But now I’m, you know, much better to say, Okay, this is where I need help. This is where, you know, I need extra support, if I’m going to be successful in these roles.

Now, one of the challenges that I think, you know, nationally, we saw you grappling with, you know, for many days certainly was the whole passport challenge in terms of the delivery, the execution, the lineups, etc, etc. During the pandemic, I’m curious as to, you know, what was the impact of that period on your life and your family life?

Well, my husband took on a lot of the care responsibilities during that time, because I was, you know, I was working 24/7, to solve that crisis and to, and we did solve that crisis. So that’s, you know, I’m sorry, we went through it, but glad that we got through it. But, you know, really, I mean, that was me relying heavily, you know, on my husband, as the person who, you know, made sure everything was working at home and that our son was well cared for. So yeah, I mean, in that time, it was I was really fortunate to have such a strong supportive partner.

Was there ever or has there ever been a point in your career so far as a mom, and as a politician, where you’ve said to yourself, you know, what, this is way too much for me, I think I, I have to step back or, you know, do something different or less time consuming and taxing? Has that thought ever crossed your mind?

Not really. I, you know, I? Like, there have been hard moments, for sure, right? Like, there have been really, really hard moments. And there have been moments where, you know, it’s it’s been very heavy and challenging and difficult. But, you know, I’m someone who is, you know, persistent and likes to persevere and to solve challenges. And so, no, I haven’t really thought like, this is too much, and I can’t do it. But what I will say is, when I thought about what my next maternity leave will be, it was there’s no way I can do what I did the first time, right. And I can really say that. Now with clear hindsight. If you had asked me in the moment, I would have told you I was fine. Right? And even though I really wasn’t, and I can see that now. But I needed the clarity of hindsight, to see that and to understand it, and to understand the impact that it had, you know, on on my family as a whole. And so, so no, I don’t think I’ve been in a place where I’ve said, this is too much, and I can’t do it. But I’ve now I’ve been able to recognize what I what I don’t want to do and what I shouldn’t do.

Now, you mentioned earlier that you didn’t have any sort of direct role models to sort of learn from you did have colleagues that preceded you, that you, you know, you asked for advice. But I wonder, you know, how much did your childhood and how you were parented? How much is that influencing how you’re raising your son?

Well, that’s a great question. So my mom was like Superwoman, and she had four kids, she was a small business owner. And she literally did it all. And so I think I just assumed that I would follow in her footsteps, and that she would be there guiding me through the process. Unfortunately, my mom passed away of cancer two months before my son was born, so and very, very suddenly, like she was diagnosed very quickly with stage four cancer and passed away very unexpectedly, in a very short period of time. And so, you know, I think, I think my image of what I was going to be like as a mom was very much influenced by my own mother who I have total admiration and respect for and assumed that she would just be telling me what to do and how to do it. But unfortunately, I lost her before I could ask a lot of those questions. So Well, I, I still draw on that. But I marvel at how she did it all.

Any advice that you’d like to share with other women, mothers who are contemplating a career move beaten, or beaten politics or something else that, you know, the wisdom of your, of your lived experience that you can share?

Sure. So, I mean, you can do it, but it will be hard, right? Like, I don’t want anyone to think that this is that this is easy, and that it doesn’t come with a lot of challenges, and a lot of sacrifice. And you need to you mentioned at the beginning that my husband and I talked about it, you have to talk to your partner about it. Because it’s such a demanding career. It’s such a demanding position. Shin that it requires so much of your spouse, whether you’re male or female, right? You’re away from home a lot. There’s conversations about whether you move your family to Ottawa, what impact that has on you and on your community. And so, I don’t want anyone to think they can’t do it, you absolutely can. But it will be hard, right? And so that’s a decision that you have to take. And like, you know, anyone who is a parent knows that Parenting is hard, even in the best of circumstances, right? Having a baby completely changes your life in ways you can never imagine before you have a baby. And then if you add on a very demanding high profile career, it’s hard, right? But it is possible, and it is doable. And I really think because of the changes that have been made since I had my first child, and it’s more doable than it ever has been before. And I would say that, like societal expectations are, are, are very supportive of it, right? Like, I was really worried that people were going to be like, Oh, well, you know, she’s had a baby like, That’s it, her career is over. And actually people have been so supportive. And I would say that, like, particularly women in our community have been just absolute champions for me, because they’re really proud to see, you know, a woman in a leadership position. So publicly go through this. And you know, and I think it gives them like pride and hope. And you know, that our job is to blow the doors open, right? Keep them open and pull people through. And I’m, I’m really excited about those changes. And so I don’t want anyone to think it’s easy. It’s not, but it is doable.

Along those lines, is there anything that you wished you knew about parenting, and being a politician prior to entering both roles that you now know?

Oh, my gosh, there’s so much I wish I knew about parenting, in general. I mean, people can people can tell you, you’re not going to sleep. And people can tell you that it’s going to be challenging, but until you go through it, you can’t really you can’t really understand it. But I think, you know, one of the things that I’ve been reflecting on and when you talk about, you know, is there anything that influenced you in terms of your own upbringing? You know, I’m a pretty hands on parent. But actually, my mom wasn’t, right. Like my mom was, I mean, she was wonderful, and super supportive. And, you know, again, as I said, I admired her so much, but like, I don’t remember her being as like, like, helicopter, he is, maybe I am right. And so, I sometimes think about that, like, you know, am I am I trying to do too much? I don’t know the answer. I’m just doing what I’m doing. But you know, is is that necessary? Like, am I in our generation? Like, do we put too much pressure on ourselves sometimes as what our expectations are, of being a good parent, when, you know, we had wonderful parents who maybe weren’t as, you know, hands on, and yet, you know, we turned out, okay. And I think it’s trying to figure out that balance, and, you know, sometimes I feel guilty when I have to bring my son to work with me. But like, I went to work with my mom all the time. Right. Like, there was no other option because she was a business owner. And, you know, if we had to go in on a Sunday, she was a veterinarian, so there was nobody else to feed the cats and change the litter box. It was us. Right, so. So like, and, and I think that only made me like, appreciate the work that she did and appreciate what it is to, you know, run your own business and what work ethic is. So, you know, I often reflect on kind of the guilt that’s associated. I haven’t been able to shed it by any means, but I think it’s something worth reflecting on,

is there anything that you would like to say to families who are finding themselves in particularly challenging times these days? You represent Burlington, lots of young families in that part of the world. Certainly, it’s been a particularly tough time for families. What would you say to moms and dads out there who listen and watch or watch this interview? In terms of giving them hope?

Yeah, look, I mean, I go to the grocery store, like everybody else, right? You know, have seen mortgage rates like everybody else, and recognize that there’s incredible pressures on people’s household income right now. And, you know, a couple of things. So first of all, in my previous role, I was Minister of families and children. And the good news on the Canada child benefit is that it’s tied to inflation. And so it went up by more than 6%. This year. So for some families, that might mean almost an additional $1,000 a year per child under the age of six or over, depending on their household income. To support with that, you know, the government is really seized right now, with questions of affordability. And so we’re really thinking through, you know, how, how do we help Canadian families in the best way possible? You know, one of the things that I’m really proud of is the childcare agreements that I signed, with all provinces and territories that have seen childcare fees reduced by 50%, across the country, and in six jurisdictions are already at $10 a day. And you know, I can share that. Here in Burlington, I was talking to a childcare provider who told me a story of a family who was actually thinking that they might have to give up their house because of the mortgage increase. But then with the reduction in childcare fees, it actually made up the difference for them. And so they no longer had to worry about that. So the government is making real investments to try and make life more affordable for Canadians. The government can’t do everything, you know, we’re in a moment of global inflation. We have this horrific war in Ukraine that’s driving up food prices around the world. But I want people to know that we’re seized with it. And that it’s something that is so important to the prime minister, and so important to our government, to really continue to try and make life more affordable for Canadians. And if I can offer one piece of hope, in many ways it’s working. So in 2015, when we came into office, and there were almost a million children living in poverty, there are 450,000 fewer children living in poverty today than there were in 2015. And that’s a direct result of the Canada child benefit. So the needle is moving, and the needle is moving in like an astounding way. Right? And so those are things that are making a difference. Do we need to do more? Yes. Do we need to, you know, be listening to Canadians and what their concerns are? Absolutely. But that’s something that you know, we’re all committed to and I’m committed to in particular

the honorable Karina Gould, government House leader, thank you so much for taking the time to share your lived experience and perspective with us today.

My pleasure. Thank you, Lianne.

“I didn’t have a lot of role models to look to. There weren’t that many people who came before me… to ask for advice in terms of how to do it,” Gould shared during the video and podcast interview. She describes taking her son to Ottawa after 10 weeks and nursing him while sitting in the House of Commons because, at the time, MPs were not allowed to leave their seats, or else their votes would not count.

That protocol has now changed. Thanks to a virtual hybrid option for parliament, Gould (and other pregnant or new-parent MPs) can vote from home when necessary: “It means that I can still fulfill my duties as a member of parliament, even if I’m not physically in Ottawa. So, it’s going to be a very different experience—and one that I think will be a lot more manageable for my family.”

Gould emphasizes the importance of having a strong support network. “There are so many times where you have to drop everything, and you’re called to travel.” She relies heavily on her husband to do the primary caregiving, which is why she says it is crucial to communicate with a spouse and be sure they support your career.

Parenting has taught Gould to be judicious with her time. It has given her perspective on what is truly important and made her realize that she need not put so much pressure on herself to return to work, that other team members can fill in while she’s doing the important work of raising a baby. This was “a good lesson in humility and trusting my colleagues.”

As for setting an example for others, Gould says that women in particular have been “absolute champions” for her. “I think it gives them pride and hope. And, you know, our job [as female leaders] is to blow the doors open, right? Keep them open and pull people through. And I’m really excited about those changes.”

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Gould also discusses:

  • What a typical work week looks like
  • Her efforts to implement parental leave for MPs
  • How her own childhood has shaped her approach to parenting
  • How the national passport crisis affected her family life

Related links:

Related stories:

Parenting as a Politician: Hon. Marci Ien


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