By Kate Miller
I am an Associate Manager at YWCA Toronto, and one of the almost 2 million parents in the Greater Toronto Area who have children living with them. I had to double check that number to make sure it was correct. Was one third of our city’s population really at home with their children during this pandemic? Apparently so. 1.3 million children who would normally be in school or child care programs were suddenly at home, all the time.
Throughout most of the pandemic, I have had a fiery feeling in my stomach. I was working long hours, taking care of my child, trying not to worry too much about family living in long-term care or sick friends. I felt lucky to be employed and lucky to be healthy, but I was still up at all hours with this burning stomach.
This is the first time in our lifetimes that we’ve experienced a pandemic, so it took time to figure out many supports and accommodations, but parents and children paid the price for these delays. We already know what doesn’t work for women and gender diverse people at work: leaving things at the discretion of individual employers. We have protected parental leave, mandatory sexual harassment procedures, and protection from discrimination based on family status precisely because some employers fail to ensure decent work practices. Strong labour laws matter. What were the mandatory, government-protected accommodations that were available to parents during the pandemic? It took me many months, research, and some luck to find out that a protected emergency leave for child care existed.
Women make up the majority of parents in the GTA, with lone-parent households led by women accounting for a quarter million GTA families. However, it seemed that lone-parent households had ceased to exist in the public imagination. From the expectation that one parent be available to oversee remote learning, to the absurd suggestion that families only send one member of the household to shop.
A woman in San Diego was fired for not being able to appropriately “control” her children on work calls, it confirmed the fears of many working parents. In my apartment building, people suddenly working from home lodged noise complaints against their neighbours, simply for the sound of children playing during the day. So many divides were highlighted and deepened by the pandemic, the divide between staff members who had children and other dependents, and staff members who didn’t became pronounced in every workplace.
A few months into the pandemic a parent friend of mine talked about the number of times her child has hurt himself while she was on video calls, and another mom shared looking up from her laptop to see her toddler holding a steak knife. I was ashamed to admit my daughter had slipped on the toys that covered our floor, fallen off the couch, fallen off the coffee table, and fallen off the stool in the bathroom while I was in webinars or zoom calls.
There is the pressure to continue to work while parenting, and there is the pressure to seem unbothered by it. In meetings I joked about how much TV my daughter was watching, shared how much joy she brought me during this dark time, and actually did at times feel grateful to get to be with her all day, but I was also completely worn out.
Eventually I started to see some great articles shared about the unequal impact of the pandemic on parents, including the unsurprising fact that millennial moms were three times more likely than dads to have left their jobs for child care. This is worse for racialized mothers and mothers in lone parent households. This information wasn’t as visible at the beginning of the pandemic because, as one New York times article pointed out, parents were too exhausted and overwhelmed to communicate.
For myself, I am doing what I can to discharge the fire in my stomach by advocating for better supports for parents and families. Sometimes this means writing emails to school boards and city councillors, and sometimes it’s delivering supplies to encampments, and a lot of the time it’s working with friends and neighbours to support one another.
With this pandemic likely to stretch on for years, and climate disasters on the horizon, this won’t be the last emergency we face. Let’s start to make plans that include the unique needs of women and gender diverse parents, lone parent households, and children. If we wait to address gaps and inequities after disaster has struck, it will be too late for families.
Kate Miller is a Child and Youth Worker and is the Associate Manager of YWCA 1st Stop Woodlawn shelter and the Choices for Living program. She has published writing about creating inclusive spaces for youth workers and was the director of Ontario's first LGBTQ2S+ youth housing program.
(Image by Charles Deluvio)