Reflections On International Women’s Day: MOTHERHOOD, WORK-LIFE BALANCE IN A PANDEMIC WORLD

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.….It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would become a full-time employee and homeschool teacher at the same time. I am not going to deny it, but this was probably one of the most difficult things I ever had to endure. I was exhausted and anxious to say the least. It was definitely challenging trying to work and navigate online learning, but somehow, we survived it. As much as I was frustrated with the situation, I was fortunate in a sense where I had a very supportive spouse, employer and a network of friends online to talk to. The majority of people that I talked to regarding the school closure situation were actually women and I think everyone had the same feelings that I had. We all shared the same worries about our children’s future, we all vented to each other with how challenging it was to teach and work at the same time and how we were all worried about the mental health of our children and ourselves. At the time, I felt it was so important to advocate for the safe return to school and in doing so, I realized it was a very empowering and meaningful experience.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought out many inequalities within society, namely within racial, ethnic and indigenous communities, refugees and women. Women, who bare the burden of most household responsibilities, have been negatively impacted as a result of school and daycare closures. This in turn negatively impacts the workforce, creating an even greater gender divide on the economy. But the silver lining in all this is that women’s rights and equity have come to the spot light and change is happening: the conversation has started. In a post-pandemic world, we really need to ask ourselves how can we better support women? I believe the answer is simple.

Everything starts in the home:

I truly believe that any conversation must start within ourselves and within our homes. As parents, we need to start having conversations with our children regarding the value of women within society and provide them with the perspective of the world through the lens of a woman. Education is a key element in teaching our children about the values of gender equality as an important role within a democratic society.

Advocacy and support:

Continuing to advocate for things such as paid leave during an emergency for example or more equitable workplaces are important policies that would help women. Providing women with support, for example, during motherhood, could be extremely beneficial towards women who, for instance, want to further themselves in their careers. Today there is an array of online support groups and outreach services available within many communities to help serve women in such situations. I am also seeing more and more platforms on social media supporting women in various roles of society. It’s important that we continue to advocate for things such as parental leave, child care leave, flexible work schedules to help women move forward.

Supporting women through business:

Today, many women are taking on the roles of becoming business owners and entrepreneurs, however, only a small percentage of women are CEO’s throughout the world. According to Catalyst, although the number of women CEO’s have gone up in 2020, “there are still nearly 13 companies run by a man for every company run by a woman.” However, more and more women are stepping up to the challenge and starting their own business ventures. Today, I ask you to look around in your own communities and go out and support businesses owned by women. Even doing something small, such as tagging a female-owned business on Instagram or picking up a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop run by women, can go a long way in showing our support for women in business. Women supporting women is a very powerful thing!

Celebrating women:

Celebrating women’s empowerment doesn’t have to be only on one day, but rather should happen everyday and there are small things we can do to help celebrate women. Maybe its contributing towards a charity that is geared towards the empowerment of women or learning about an important historical figure within the women’s rights movement. We can also honour the women in our own lives, such as a parent, grandparent, a teacher or a friend.

In summary, given all the hardships that we have been through this past year, if anything, I have learned that as a woman and as a mother, I am strong, I am resilent and I am fearless. Not only will I continue to advocate for my children, but I will advocate for all women, to help create a more just society.

Why the kids need a village: thoughts on reopening schools in ontario

Schools throughout Southwestern Ontario have remained closed since the Christmas break. The original plan was for students to return to in-person instruction on January 11, 2021. However, statistics from the Ministry of Health released just days before the return to school indicated a spike in cases as a result of “holiday gatherings,” (which in my view was negligible because the amount of children being tested decreased during over the holidays and therefore the denominator was less). As a result of this, the provincial government made the agonizing decision to extend online learning for most parts of Southern Ontario until February 10th. Although I believe this was a difficult decision to make and as much as I appreciate efforts to curb the spread of the virus, this left many children and parents heartbroken, upset and confused.

I can see that heartbreak in my kids, everyday. My 4 year old son, cries almost every day and tells me “mama, I miss real school” and finds it very hard to stay engaged. My oldest son who is 6, sometimes gets frustrated because he feels as if he can’t keep up with the rest of the class. We are now into week three of virtual learning and my children are really starting to feel it. The stimulation from the screen time coupled with the frustration of navigating online learning is difficult for children in their primary years.

Don’t get me wrong: both of my children’s teachers have been phenomenal and very understanding of the situation. They have gone above and beyond to help my kids cope during this time, including one-on-one meetings, encouraging us to use meditation and breaks when needed. We really need to give our teachers a show of appreciation right now because they themselves are adapting to a new learning environment. Despite all of our efforts to make online learning a positive experience, I am worried about the impact of continued online learning in young children, specifically:

-The lack of interaction with their peers, especially during the formative years of development;
-The long-term effects of disruption in the school year and finally;
-That we are inadvertently creating a mental health crisis in all our youth.

I have been communicating with my MPP’s office on and off since the summer, writing letters and voicing my concern for my children’s well-being and quality of education. I understand that we are living in unprecedented times and I truly believe that they are trying their best to help protect a vulnerable health care system and the elderly. However, based on all the literature and data about schools, closing schools is the wrong policy choice. UNICEF recently came out with a statement and declared that children cannot afford to miss another year of school. The CEO of Sick Kids Hospital even stated that schools should be “the first to open and the last to close.” But even more disturbing are stories such as the New York Times report on the decision for schools in Las Vegas to reopen as result of increased suicides in youth.

This should frighten every parent.

I have come to the conclusion that despite all the academic evidence, children’s voices have not been heard at the decision-making table. This is where we as parents must come in and this is why I have been advocating for a safe return to school since the summertime.

Please don’t misunderstand me and I have to be explicit when I state this: I know first-hand how serious COVID-19 is and personally have friends and family on the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis, but something in my heart tells me that keeping children away from the classroom is also wrong. When every peer-reviewed journal has indicated that the spread of the virus is extremely low in school-aged children and that schools are in fact, the safest place for children to be in right now, why are the schools still closed, knowing that the risks greatly outweigh the benefits?

It’s just plain wrong.

I recently read a tweet from the the CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) which stated that Ottawa had the second-highest rate of distress calls to the Kids Help Line. That tweet really resonated something inside me. As an NICU parent, I have my own appreciation around mental health awareness and as such, I decided I could not stay silent no more. As an NICU parent and navigating our journey through prematurity, I learned early on, that a parent is a child’s greatest advocate. Considering too that we are also approaching Mental Health Day here in Canada, I believe this conversation is appropriate. So last week, I reached out to my friends on my private account on Instagram via my stories to see if any one else felt the way I did.

The response was overwhelming and the consensus was…..children need to be in schools.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

The conversations I had with many of my friends inspired me so much because every person I spoke with was in a different situation, or they had a different view of the pandemic. But despite all these differences, I was able to engage with each person in a meaningful and positive way. I believe that engaging in this manner is what should be the foundation towards positive change and sound policy-making.

In summary, the response was overwhelmingly positive but also revealed a lot of sadness, fear and frustration. I spoke with people from all walks of life: from health care providers, teachers, early childhood educators, business owners, parents and non-parents, stay at home parents and working parents. Overall, everyone agrees that children need to be in school. Many parents told me that they have noticed a negative change of behaviour in their children, others said they felt tremendous guilt for leaving them to watch television while they had to work and others were concerned about the amount of screen time as a result of remote learning. Some individuals reached out to me and told me that they kept their kids home for the year, not because they were afraid of coronavirus, but they were more concerned about the possible interuptions to their child’s learning.

It was interesting to note that in other places in the world, like Croatia for instance, kindergarten is not mandatory, rather there is vrtić (daycare,) which is optional and is more for young children to socialize. A close friend of mine who lives in Paris, France told me that children have been going to school the whole time, while another friend in Australia told me that the measures were just too much.

Many teachers disclosed to me that online learning, especially for children in their formative years is not ideal and rather this was created more as a response for the demand for live learning at home. As pointed out by one teacher, the amount of time for synchronous learning also has no bearing on pedagogy. Another close friend who works in occupational therapy told me that the amount of distress calls, specifically with families who have autistic children, went through the roof.

Although I am not disputing the severity of the virus and agree that there must be an effort to slow the spread of the virus as a means to protect our vulnerable and our health care system, there also needs to be a balance, in my view. I too was for lockdown back in March when we knew very little of the virus. Images of Wuhan, Iran and Northern Italy frightened us and we had to do something about it. However, 10 months in, countless studies and research, vaccines finally arriving, we still aren’t doing any better for our kids. This is leaving many parents afraid that schools will be closed until March.

We know already that the results of prolonged lockdown policies are disproportionately affecting low-income communities, ethnic minorities, women and children. My question is, despite all the research regarding children and schools, why aren’t we doing any better? How come no one else has proposed a more sustainable solution?

But there is hope!

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

Slowly, the ideas are starting to come in. One example of an innovative solution was on a podcast I listened to called “Solving Healthcare,” hosted by Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng. This particular episode that I listened to consisted of a panel of experts ranging from infectious disease, communications and public health. They discussed possible solutions to the pandemic and addressed areas of concern. I was particularly impressed by some of the ideas that they proposed such as:

-going back to the core values of public health;
-having a clear and consistent message;
-the need to address target areas that are greatly affected by COVID-19 such as workplaces and long-term care homes;
-making more use of available tools such as rapid testing and finally;
-paid sick leave for essential workers.

You can listen more to the podcast here and decide for yourself, but from my point of view, this was an excellent start for changing policy. Listening to a dialogue such as this one reminded me of the core values I learned as a graduate student in political science many years ago. Creating good public policy means coming up with sustainable solutions to handling a crisis, without harming other aspects of society. It’s about being efficient with the tools you have available for everyone to benefit from.

But going back to my main concern of keeping schools closed, please know, that I am not by any means undermining the severity of this virus. However, I am speaking as a concerned parent who wants what is best for her children. Its what we as parents, educators, health care providers alike want and should strive towards: a safe, loving, nurturing and warm environment for all children. Like the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. We need to support our children during this time and come up with ways to help them not just cope, but to thrive, for they are our future!

Let’s be that village and let’s support our children!

Some of the conclusions I came up with during my Instagram conversation to help navigate during this time (and for you too):

  1. Remember that we are ALL doing our best;
  2. Remind your kids that they are doing their best too and give them breaks when they need it (i.e. outdoor play, going for a walk or bike ride, puzzle time, colouring sheets or watching a movie;)
  3. Be kind to yourself and remember that you can only control how you feel;
  4. Know that support is available if you need it (i.e. call a friend or a family member for mental support; know that there is also support available in your community;)
  5. Talk to your child’s teacher and come up with a plan of action if your child is struggling with online learning;
  6. Stay healthy mentally, physically and emotionally and stay safe.


With much love and gratitude,

N.

How COVID-19 got to me: stress, fear, uncertainty and self-care during a global pandemic

Friday was the first day that I cried….a lot.

I felt exhausted from homeschooling the kids, trying to get some work done as well as regular chores and I just couldn’t handle it anymore.  I buried my head into a sea of tears and had to walk away into a different room in my home to be alone.  I felt guilty for doing this, because I did not want my boys to see me cry.  My husband told the kids that mommy needs a few minutes to herself.

Before the pandemic, if I was ever stressed, I would go to the gym or go out to a local coffee shop to diffuse, but due to the current lock-down there is no where to go, which adds an extra layer of stress.

I never in my life imagined that we would live through a global pandemic, yet here we are.

It is currently week 6 of the lock-down here in Ontario and everyone is starting to feel it in different ways.

Up until this point, I was making the most of this situation.  I embraced the idea of slowing down.  I even wrote a blog post about it.  I started to do things that I normally wouldn’t have time to do:  participating in the wave of baking bread and sharing it on Instagram; drinking fancy wines on the weekends, pinning arts and crafts ides for the kids on Pinterest and purged a lot of old clothes and toys for donation.  I started watching foreign dramas on Netflix for fun and even contemplated downloading TikTok and get in on the bandwagon, but changed my mind because I am too old for it.

For the first time in years,  I had a break from rushing home from work to soccer practice and I really enjoyed this idea and yet, time went on…..

There is still that fear of catching the virus itself.  As my oldest has asthma and was born with a heart condition, I am extra vigilant.   I barely leave the house and if I do, its just for necessities.  On top of all this, I still worry that my husband may bring it home from the hospital where he works at.

As the lock-down here in Ontario continues on, it started to hit close to home for me.  Knowing that it will be months until I see my parents, my friends and colleagues again started to weigh heavily on me.  2020 was supposed to be our year.  Our family has been through so much over the past 6 years- premature birth, high-risk pregnancy, my husband’s residency and a sudden family death to name a few.  I know, many of you had plans cancelled too, so we aren’t alone, but I just felt like this was a big and crewel joke.

Now, I am starting to worry about the financial implications of the pandemic too.  Like you, many questions are going through my mind:  will there be massive job loss?  Will our taxes increase to support these benefits?  Will we ever recover from this?  

This created a perfect storm which culminated in me breaking down on Friday night.  However, this in of itself brought a huge relief as I let all that fear, worry and guilt out.  I’ve been positive throughout this whole process and on Friday night, I was extremely overwhelmed.  Trying to balance everything at home just got to me and I reached my boiling point. I needed that release.

What I can tell you is that I am learning more about myself and how to cope with such situations.  This time has also given me time to self-reflect and I gained a new perspective. My grandfather lived through three wars, Spanish flu and communism, yet he lived a wonderful life and passed away at age 101.  He endured and saw a lot in his lifetime but he survived.  He had hope and appreciation for life.

What I have found helpful during these times is reflection and mindfulness.  I have been journaling since I was 8 years old and I have found journaling so helpful during this time.  Staying connected on social media has become a blessing and watching all those good memes (the guy toasting to himself in the washroom is my all time favourite).  Self-care and taking breaks from homeschooling and work is so important too, I’ve had a few nights where I just had a face mask on while reading a good book.  I also find exercise quite therapeutic.

My advice if you are feeling overwhelmed, upset or frustrated, take that energy and turn it into something positive.  Find your niche.  Find something that sparks you, that makes you feel like you, no matter how difficult the circumstances are.

If you feel overwhelmed like I do, I want you to know, it’s okay, because you are not alone.  It’s okay to cry and let your feelings out.  We are all feeling this and is even getting to the strongest of us……and it’s okay to feel vulnerable.  I keep reminding myself to count my blessings and that this will not last forever.

As I have learned with experience, the human spirit is resilient, but this is a choice:  you have to choose that path and firmly believe in it because your mindset is what will get you through this.

Getting in tune with our learning cues – my experience with home schooling my children thus far

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we in Canada are basically adjusting to a new way of life as we navigate through self-isolation.  Because of the pandemic, most non-essential services are closed, including schools and day cares.  In Ontario, school is currently postponed until April 5th (although this is subject to change) and now parents are left with the seemingly daunting task of home schooling their kids.  Last week was a bit of an experiment in terms of home schooling the boys as I tried out different methods to see what works best for them.  I was pretty relaxed considering I don’t believe in forcing kids to do something when they really don’t want to.  Furthermore, as it was technically their March break, I didn’t want to push them too much with home schooling.

What I learned from that first week is that my boys need structure and simply put, thrive under a structured day.  I also learned that I have to tailor their learning based on their age and needs:  T, my oldest, is in senior kindergarten and can start to recognize words , read books for his age and is really good at math.   Whereas, my youngest I, is 3 and a half; he knows his 123s and ABCs and loves to draw.

Here is a little glimpse of our homeschooling routine.

pencils in stainless steel bucket
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Please note, what works for my kids does not necessarily mean it will work for you as every child is different.  In addition, I am not an educator (although I did get into teacher’s college but rejected the offer because I got my first job in Toronto and went there instead) so I am basically putting together what works for my kids from the resources I have available to me.  My educational background is in Political Science (I have an MA and a BA) in case you are wondering (and no I won’t be teaching them public policy or the foundations of classical political thought yet!)  

The key is being in tune with

their needs and following their cues.

The first thing I did was create a schedule for the boys and placed in on the fridge directly across the island where we eat so its in plain view.  I figure the island is the best place to conduct our home school as they can enjoy a snack while learning plus we have a lot of space.   With that being said, the schedule is in no way strict, its more of a guideline for me and if they aren’t into it, we move on to the next activity or have some free play time instead.

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Play is so important for kids as it promotes their development and sense of imagination.

Based on my research, preschoolers and kindergarteners only require 1-2 hours of learning a day.  I also learned early on that you can’t force them to learn as you do not want to create a negative association with learning.  At this age learning just needs to be fun!

We typically start our day like we would on a normal school day:  we get dressed, we brush our teeth and we eat breakfast and get started with our day.    Usually I will start Kumon first as my oldest is in Kumon and his teacher gave him work sheets until the end of April.    For my youngest,  I found a Kumon workbook at Costco called Are You Ready for Kindergarten? so that he too can try out Kumon.

My biggest challenge is since I am at home  while M works, I have to home school them at different times.

This can be challenging homeschooling two kids who are at different levels.  What I started doing is that I’ll focus one activity with one child and then switch.  So far this method has been working for me, although some days it can be challenging as one may be more interested in his toys for instance.

I also found that there are a lot of great resources available online for children, such as the Scholastic Remote Learning and the School Age Program with TVO.   I really like the Scholastic Remote Learning because every day there is a new lesson theme (i.e. bears) and comes with free printable worksheets.  There is a quiz at the end of each lesson so it gives us time to recap what we learned for that day.  Both my boys seem to enjoy this program the most.  My cousin, who happens to be a teacher, set my kids up with a Raz-Kids account to get them ahead with reading.  She tailored the program to each of their levels.   I also downloaded the Math Story Time App and Go Noodle on the iPad.

With that being said, I try to stick to the guidelines surrounding screen time as set out by the Canadian Pediatric Society as much as possible.  I also find that if my kids have too much screen time, they become really wired (as do we when we spend too much time in front of a screen!)  This is where free play and going outside comes in handy.

Our kids need a break from all this stimulation (be it from technology and what not) and sometimes we just need to let kids be kids!

…so we go outside, be it in the backyard to run around and play soccer, or to take the scooters out for a scooter ride (since parks are off limits due to the pandemic).  Fresh air is good for everyone and getting my boys moving makes for a much happier day.  Going outside promotes both physical activity and wellness in children.

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I decided to create an arts & crafts board on Pinterest to get ideas on how to help the boys with their fine-motor skills. For instance, tomorrow we will make crocodiles out of green popsicle sticks.  Considering that Easter is around the corner, we’ll make some Easter-themed art such as paper plate bunny masks.  I also love to get my kids involved with baking.  It’s a good opportunity for them to learn basics such as measuring and counting.  Last week we baked muffins and earlier this week we made Croatian crepes (palačinke).  I happened to have a gingerbread cookie set left over from Christmas so we spent one morning decorating gingerbread men.  The kids are always so proud with how tasty their creations turn out!

Luckily, I stocked up on flash cards and workbooks from Costco last summer so we can work on different things such as basic math, counting, alphabets and sight words.  My oldest can read and is slowly starting to write words, but my youngest still knows only his 123s and ABCs, so I would sit specifically with him and go through each flash card together.

depth of field photography of p l a y wooden letter decors on top of beige wooden surface
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

My oldest son’s kindergarten teacher also posts different activities to do at home on the classroom Twitter account, so I get both my boys involved.   Today’s activity was to take out utensils and create patters and do some basic addition and subtraction.  Tomorrow we will have an alphabet scavenger hunt where we will look for letters and then put together to create words.

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By that point, it brings us to about noon (keep in mind I throw a snack or two in during the morning learning fun).  After lunch I basically just let them unwind or play.  My youngest still naps so I try to get him to sleep while the other will watch a show or play quietly.  The afternoon is also a good time to read a book or two.  Fortunately, my boys love being read to so every day we pick a different book to read.  Other than that, the afternoon is pretty open and I basically let them control what they want to do for that part of the day.

As each day passes, I find that I am learning more and more about them; what their likes and dislikes are; what their strengths are and what skills we need to work on.  I also have a new-found appreciation for teachers and early childhood educators.

Overall, I learned the key is to have fun otherwise it won’t work.  Home schooling, when done right, can be a great experience for everyone.