COMMENTARY: Working from home with kids — is that sustainable for the long term?

As the weeks stretch to months, more and more parents across Canada are losing steam trying to keep up with their children’s virtual education.

The barrage of emails, video links, assignments and app instructions sent by teachers can feel overwhelming at times. And while I’m certainly appreciative of tools that allow children to stay connected to some shred of their former education, a lot of work falls on the shoulders of parents, especially those with younger children.

Seven weeks ago, my eight-year-old and four-year-old had no idea how to turn on a laptop, let alone scroll to the search bar and navigate their way around a Google Classroom. So it took us some time, with tears and frustration along the way, to get into a groove. And while we’ve surprisingly now got into a rhythm and flow that works-ish, I still don’t know much longer I can sustain our new normal.

I am already letting things slide with allowing the kids far more screen time than I’d like and far more Kraft Dinner than is healthy, and the list goes on. Even so, I’m still finding myself waking up extra early before the children so I can get in a couple of hours of work while the house is still silent, and then I often work late into the night after they have gone to bed as well.

Like many parents, the stress and exhaustion are starting to take a toll, both mentally and physically, and I wonder what the long-term plan is, if any, for working parents.

The Ontario government has started talking to us about plans for opening up the economy in slow and gradual phases, yet schooling and child care are not yet part of that conversation. It’s quite likely kids won’t be back in school before fall. As more parents feel like they are losing steam, how do we keep up with this new reality long-term?

Women, in particular, are bearing the brunt of this work in many instances. While the division of household tasks has become more equitable since the ’90s, a recent study by Gallup showed that women in heterosexual relationships still carry more of the child-care responsibilities than their partners on a daily basis.

Hanisha Sharma, a hotelier who was in the midst of two new large-scale construction projects pre-pandemic, is now overseeing operations as her hotels pivot to offer shelter to abused women. She’s working from home with her three children, ages two, three and seven, in tow. Her husband owns a food wholesale company that supplies grocers. He leaves the house early in the morning and is not back until late at night, so she’s left to care for the children on her own.

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“I was completely overwhelmed by the transition to online learning in the first week,” she says. “I had to spend my whole day sitting next to my seven-year-old son on the computer during the early days just to help him navigate through the sessions as both of us were learning the new technology. The schedule and homework seemed impossible to manage with my other two kids at home, while I was trying to also work from home in this new environment.”

Six weeks into the sessions, she says things have become a lot smoother, as she was able to share her concerns and compromise with her son’s teachers on the number of Zoom sessions required per day. While she’s still concerned about too much screen time, she’s also come to appreciate the structure it’s brought to her son’s day and to the rest of the family.

The truth is, some aren’t. Others are just hanging on by a thread. I’m fortunate to have a partner who shares the child care and household workload with me. But so many other parents have spouses who are essential workers who are not at home during the day. Then there are the single parents who are flying solo without any support system to lean on right now.

My kultur’D co-host and writer, Bee Quammie, is one such woman. Working full time with her two-year-old and five-year-old girls at home, she says she feels guilty when she’s unable to fit her kindergartener’s online lessons into the day because she has to contend with work deadlines.

Thankfully, she has found her saving grace with the remote control.

“In order to spare my sanity and still feel like they’re being educated, I let them choose from a few educational shows on Netflix or Disney+ while I’m working, like Super Why for literacy, Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood for emotional intelligence and others along those lines,” she says.

But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, she says.

“Balancing so many different aspects of life without having much help or outlets to give yourself a break makes this all really tough. Some days, I’m set off by the smallest thing but have to remember that my kids are struggling with the loss of school and friends and family, too,” she says. “And other days, I think I’ve just settled into some kind of complacency, where I throw my hands up in the air and just say, ‘This is as good as it’s gonna get today.’”

Our kids’ emotional well-being is being fractured in all this, along with ours.

“As a mom, my biggest concern is the well-being and the mental health of my child,” says Ashima Suri, wellness strategist and mother of a six-year-old.

She says her daughter thrives in social settings and independent learning is not really her thing.

“The current school curriculum doesn’t meet the needs of our current situation. We are in a pandemic. And health has to be a top priority in these circumstances,” Suri says.

Parenting in this time period can go unnoticed, but the stress is very much real, with real impacts for both parents and kids.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

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