Amil Niazi is a writer and producer whose work has appeared on the BBC, The New York Times, The Cut and Maclean’s.
There’s a moment from the beginning of this year, in all its prepandemic haziness, where I can distinctly recall when my old life stopped and a new one started. My husband and I and our two-year-old son were in a taxi making our way to Gatwick airport in the blue-black twilight of early morning. I was four months pregnant with my daughter and we were heading back to Canada after two years of living and working in London. The silence of the car ride was punctured by a news report featuring the audio diaries of Wuhan residents speaking about the lockdown they were facing, describing in halting detail the strange new virus that had taken hold of their city. I was listening with a kind of detached curiosity that feels so ludicrously privileged now, imagining that somehow we wouldn’t be affected by what was happening in China. But at the time my mind was on something else, something that in the moment, felt more pressing and personal.
We’d had trouble leasing an apartment in Toronto before leaving Britain. So for the first time in 20 years, I’d be sharing a household with my mom and sisters in what I assumed would be a very temporary situation. I was stewing over this arrangement on that cab ride in late January with a mixture of trepidation and anxiety, having no idea at the time how much the news on the radio that morning and my new living arrangement would change my life.
I moved into my own place right after high school in a desperate bid for autonomy. Culturally, it wasn’t normal for someone in my family to leave home that young, but at the time I really believed in the importance of being on my own and so I focused on the specific, linear path of most individual myth-making, concentrating on myself, my education and my career. It was an entirely me-focused path that included the hope that eventually I’d meet someone and we’d hive off and start our own family, redrawing the lines on what we think our parents got wrong.
When I did have my first baby three years ago, my mom and sisters actually lived very close by. But even though we were all living in Toronto, I kept them at arm’s length. I still clung to the idea that motherhood was something I was supposed to figure out on my own, that it was necessary to take on the challenges of parenting as a nuclear unit to prove that you’re capable. Three years and another baby later, it took a global pandemic to finally show me how broken this approach is.
COVID-19 has forced a reckoning on a lot of our systems and prodded at structural fault lines. Racial and economic disparities are at the heart of who was hardest-hit by the virus in Canada. Frontline and essential workers have been woefully underprotected and underpaid. And CERB payments exposed a gaping hole for freelancers and gig workers who were left out of a confusing support system.
As parents, we’ve seen our small family units stretched to their breaking point, laying bare our utter reliance on the school system as care and the gaps in between. Women overwhelmingly bore the burden of this upheaval, with employment for mothers of very young and school-aged children falling 7 per cent between February and May, according to an RBC study.
Governments will have to address these fissures. Universal child care, an updated parental leave system that includes freelancers and gig workers, and greater support for working mothers is necessary and urgent. But in the interim, what can close the loop for parents, particularly women? The pods so many of us formed this summer and fall are a great example of a way forward. Whether it’s with our own parents or with other young families, we need to shift our reliance on the traditional nuclear family and embrace intergenerational living or co-living. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine family – to bridge the divides within our own larger units, but also to choose our own extended families, whether with other parents or our close networks.
I had my daughter at the end of May. It could have been a lonely, isolating time had we not been living in the same house as my family. Confusing COVID-related questions, like who would watch our toddler while we were in the hospital, were easily addressed. Friends and family dropped off food, and my sisters made our son feel completely secure amid this huge transition.
COVID-19 has taken so much from us, but it’s also given us an opportunity to reshape how we live and how we care for each other. For the first time in two decades, I was under my mother’s care and it felt like a chance to meet her again as a person, to redress the distance that time and adulthood had created. I thought about the notion of family I had been clinging to – me, my husband and our children on a tiny raft, unsure of where we were going. And then I looked at the family that had sprung up around us, the relationships that were being repaired and the ones being forged for the first time – suddenly, motherhood felt entirely less daunting.
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