Sociologists couldn’t have conceived a better natural experiment to test the mettle of Canadian families. Lock parents up with their kids. Cancel school but send lots of projects home. Ban playgrounds and play dates. Assign the adults to work remotely while also providing around-the-clock child care. Surround everyone with a deadly virus and a crashing economy.
How have we fared? Self-reported anxiety is rising across the country. Sleep is restless. Showers are optional. Teenagers have gone nocturnal; toddlers verge on feral.
And the nerves of the country’s parents are fraying.
“I don’t know what day it is any more,” Mandi Freeman, mother of five, says over the phone from Cranbrook, B.C. Weeks of refereeing screen time, supervising homework and producing meals when you can’t run to the store for tacos, have blurred together. Her kids, who range in age from 3 to 11, have watched all the Disney movies, played with all the backyard toys.
She’s adjudicated (repeatedly) all the big fights over pilfered socks and who trespassed into whose square on the couch – fights they weren’t having before because they all had own space, their own routines. The morning start, once clocked with precision, has evaporated. “Time is a foreign concept in our house,” she says.
These days, Ms. Freeman adds, “I’m afraid to look at my phone,” because of the daily e-mails piling up from teachers; the passwords and website log-ins literally fill a notebook.
The pressure of parenting through a pandemic – especially trying to stay on top of schoolwork – brought reality “crashing down for me,” Ms. Freeman says. She recently reduced the hours of her job as a home support worker. That was hard – she started the job in December and loved it. But her partner, Bear Smith, still works outside the home at a metal fabrication plant that’s been deemed essential.
Before the coronavirus crisis, modern parents – and especially moms – were already giving a lot. Time-use diaries and surveys suggest that North American parents were spending more time with their kids than previous generations. While fathers had stepped up significantly, a disproportionate burden of chores and child care was still falling to women, whether or not they work outside the home. And that was all before the COVID-19 lockdowns began.
“This is a once-in-a-century kind of impact on parents,” says Kim Moran, chief executive of Children’s Mental Health Ontario. "Many parents will be resilient, work through these issues and even come out stronger. But there will always be a subset who will really struggle long term.”
The stress the pandemic is putting on families may be widely shared, but it’s not equally experienced. Parents grieving the death of a loved one or struggling with a job layoff will have a higher risk of chronic mental-health issues than Canadians spared these kinds of stressors, Ms. Moran says.
Families whose quarantines come stocked with computers and backyard space will have an advantage over those in cramped basement apartments. Not every child – nor every parent – feels safe isolated at home; custody issues may add to the tension.
Going it alone may be hardest of all. “My strategy to maintain sanity is to take it one day at a time,” says Emily Draper, a single mom and special education teacher in Halifax, who is caring for her three-year-old son, Joseph, while also trying to keep up with parent videos, participate in Zoom chats and co-ordinate individual curriculum plans for her high-needs students. “I feel like I am failing both my work and my child. That is my biggest struggle with my conscience. I can’t give either what they deserve.”
On good days, she says, Joseph will play outside on their deck while she watches through the window, giving her the chance to work for a whole 15 minutes uninterrupted. On bad days, he wants her constant attention and ends up on the Zoom chat with her colleagues, usually naked because he refused to get dressed that morning. She feels guilty that he is watching too much television. She worries that he’s missing a developmental window for important social skills by being penned up with his weary mother 24-7.
“We need a break from each other, we really do,” she says. “If I think about how much longer this is going to last, then I get really anxious and I can’t manage my life."
In the Freeman-Smith home, the question – when will this be over? – also hangs more heavily with each passing day. Lately, “there have been some big emotions in the family," Ms. Freeman says. The worry seeps out differently in every person. Taeo, 7, has become vigilant about order and fairness, including the precisely equal division of minutes on the kid phone. Jade, 11, is terrified that someone will die and often ends up in tears.
Seeing how the pandemic may be affecting their children – and unable to change those circumstances – only adds to the stress that parents feel. “I can definitely see a sadness starting in [Jade] that I didn’t see before," Ms. Freeman says. "And I just hope that it’s temporary.”
Adjusting to how abruptly life was flipped upside down has been tough for Blaine Betts, a B.C. father isolating with his four-year-old son, Carter, and his girlfriend. The year, he says, started out so promising – he had a good job as a sale manager at a bustling car dealership; his partner was planning a practicum for her master’s psychology degree.
“Then all of a sudden it all stopped dead in its tracks," he says. He was temporarily laid off from his job, the first time he hasn’t worked since he was 14. The loss of routine, the crumbling of expectations and no space for themselves has ratcheted up frustration levels. “It’s not been all sunshine and roses,” he admits, especially as the weeks have dragged on. “You start to think too much. You kind of get inside your head a little bit.”
But loss in one part of his life has also meant gains in another – particularly more undistracted time with Carter, since he has full custody during the quarantine. “I can totally see where I’ve taken it for granted in the past,” he says.
Living in slower motion is a benefit many parents cited in interviews; there’s no more rushing out the door in the morning or shoving down dinner to get to sports and music lessons. The expectations on parents and kids have fallen. Parents working at home have no choice but to leave kids to their own devices – even if that means more than the recommended hours playing Fortnite.
When Jennifer Kaddatz, a policy analyst in Ottawa, cut back on homework for her two sons, teachers called her house – not to schedule a parent-teacher meeting, just to check that her family was okay. Success is relative: “Our internet went out for three hours, and my kids got clean.”
In the midst of chaos, Ms. Freeman tries to remember her priorities. Some mornings, listening to her three youngest play sweetly together, she can forget that by midafternoon they will “want to rip each other’s throats out.” She’s mostly “tossed in the towel” on traditional schoolwork to focus instead on life skills and learning that’s driven by her kids’ interests.
In the evenings, the parents sew face masks that they donate, and enlist the help of the kids with cutting fabric. Ms. Freeman ditches the laundry to lie on the grass and gaze at the clouds – seizing the chance to be the kind of mom she always wanted to be before life got so rushed and complicated.
That’s one perk of physical distancing, she points out: no visitors to judge your messy house, or its unwashed residents.
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