Photo: Courtesy of Emily Bozanich (left), Carmen Cheung (centre, right)
The pandemic has been a time of stress and upheaval for most families, but some have found a way to transform that chaos into a fresh start. While many of the changes parents have been making are temporary, like working from home and scheduling online playdates, living in lockdown is driving some parents to embrace lasting changes. All this time to reflect has led some to realize that maybe they don’t want the life they thought they wanted. Others are realizing that life is, well, unpredictable, and perhaps it’s best to pursue that dream now rather than wait for the perfect moment to present itself.
We look at three families who have made big changes in their lives—moving across the country, fast-tracking their own business and taking the leap to home-schooling. And while they’d certainly wish it didn’t take a global pandemic to set these plans in motion, they don’t plan on going back to their before-times lives when this is over.
On March 11, 2020, Amina Gilani received her final paycheque for her job at a financial services company. Her husband, Thusenth Dhavaloganathan, had wrapped up his last program-management contract. The couple had been quietly working on their start-up in their free time in the hopes of quitting their day jobs and turning their new venture in a full-time job for both of them. They were in Chicago attending an accelerator program for start-ups.
The next day, the NBA season was cancelled because of the pandemic. “That’s when it really hit,” says Gilani. They decided to immediately drive home to Guelph, Ont., along with their three kids, aged two to six, and Dhavaloganathan’s mom, who had come along to babysit. The excitement they’d been feeling about their small business slowly turned to dread. Now they’d have to depend solely on their own business for income, in a pandemic, with three young kids at home. “When I planned on quitting my corporate job, I was relying on having school and child care,” says Gilani.
Within days, however, they realized that COVID could be a golden opportunity for their start-up, Sociavore. It’s a platform that helps restaurant owners build websites, with online orders, bookings and more. With indoor dining banned and online take-out surging, there was no better time to prove themselves and advance their business. “We knew this would change the way that the restaurant industry operates,” says Gilani. “We sent emails, letting clients and potential clients know we could help them create revenue during lockdown.”
They began working constantly, sometimes until 3 a.m., and taking turns with the kids. Many days, Dhavaloganathan’s mom came over and helped with child care. “If a restaurant’s site went down for three minutes, we’d be getting 15 phone calls,” says Dhavaloganathan of the chaotic early days. “Our platform went from being a nice thing restaurants were using for booking reservations to being completely essential.”
Operating a skyrocketing business with a co-parent turned out to be a good move. “We both 100 percent know what’s happening in all realms, in the business and at home,” says Gilani. “That’s really helpful.” They plotted their calendars so that, for the most part, only one of them was ever on a business meeting, so the other could be there for the kids. When the kids were back in school this past fall, Gilani would readily pick them up if Dhavaloganathan was dealing with an urgent software glitch. Likewise, he would back her up with child-care duty when she was on a marketing call with a client. They also knew not to book meetings when the kids had something important. “If we had to take all three kids to the dentist, we’d block it out in our calendars,” says Dhavaloganathan.
It helped that many of their clients were family-run restaurant owners, many with their own kids at home. “There wasn’t a facade where you were trying to hide the kids. Everyone understood. It kind of humanized everything,” says Gilani. They loved that they were able to give mom-and-pop restaurants access to the same e-commerce tools as their big-name clients, like Gusto 54. “Anyone could create this amazing digital experience,” says Dhavaloganathan. It felt good.
Dhavaloganathan credits their shared philosophy that the kids always come first for their ability to keep their relationship strong in the face of school closures and building a bustling new business. If their kids need them—whether for help with school work or to resolve a conflict—they both understand the importance of a parent pausing work to step in to help. “We both get that they’re the first priority,” says Dhavaloganathan.
Since they launched Sociavore, they’ve also been able to spend a lot more time together as a family. Gilani used to have to travel for her former job, and she had a daily commute. Now they both drive their kids to school together when they can. “We all talk; it’s a nice way to start our day,” says Gilani. And just as the kids talk about school at the dinner table, Gilani and Dhavaloganathan talk about the family business. “I really wouldn’t talk about the things that I was dealing with at my last job, right? Because it was insurance. But the kids understand restaurants, so they have more of a connection with what we’re building,” says Gilani. Sometimes, six-year-old Zain offers his advice. “Maybe we’ll be talking about someone who wants to partner with us, and we don’t feel super comfortable. And then our son will be like, ‘If they’re sketchy, you need to fire them,’” Dhavaloganathan says, laughing.
Throughout the past year, their kids and help from family, like Dhavaloganathan’s mom, have kept them grounded and well-positioned to achieve success in their growing venture. “When you’re starting a business like this, you have really high highs and really low lows, so you need a support system that can help you just kind of level set,” says Gilani. The benefit of working from home with three little ones in the house, adds Dhavaloganathan, is that “cuddling the kids always makes you feel better.”
Driving across the country in an RV, and moving from greater Vancouver to small-town Nova Scotia, was a spur-of-the-moment decision for Emily and Stevan Bozanich. An associate faculty member and a PhD student, respectively, they knew they would be working from home for the foreseeable future and their one-bedroom condo in Coquitlam wasn’t ideal for pandemic life with two small children. “We were terrified of what would happen if we got exposed to the virus and had to quarantine for two weeks in the small space,” says Emily. And then in early September, BC got hit with wildfire smoke, “and that was it,” Emily recalls.
Emily and Stevan had mused in the past about buying property near an ocean. When the smoke hit, Emily started searching for house listings in Nova Scotia. She showed her husband the photos after work one day, and with minimal debate, they decided to go for it. The kids were still so young and already used to travelling—they’d recently spent four months in Europe—so they knew they wouldn’t need much to make anywhere feel like home.
When they woke up the next morning, they agreed they were both still on board. Emily reached out to their realtor to see if he could sell their condo remotely, and they bought a used RV. Over the next week, they sold or packed their belongings. “I was so amped with eight different things happening at once and people showing up at the door and me wondering, What did I sell them and for how much?” Emily recalls. After their first stop in Clearwater, BC, they “took an extra day to breathe and realize what we were doing.” While on the road, they discovered they had a lot to learn. Emily had to google how to disinfect their RV’s water tank so the water would be drinkable. They also had to figure out how to empty the RV’s sewage tank.
Although Emily and Stevan’s kids were well-travelled (they had been to eight countries over the course of their lives, including Serbia, France and Costa Rica), travelling in an RV during a pandemic was different. “Normally, we go to cities and we sit in coffee shops and even the kids love doing that. But because of the pandemic, we avoided all the cities,” says Emily. They took a detour up to Jasper, BC, and stayed at farms and wineries. Through an app called Harvest Hosts, they found farms where they could stay in exchange for buying produce, preserves and other farm-made items. “We got to pick vegetables and eat them for supper that night, which blew the kids’ minds. We stayed at a dairy and got fresh milk. It forced us to do the things that we wouldn’t normally do,” says Emily.
On several days, Emily and Stevan took turns making business calls while the other drove, or snuck in reading or editing work when they could. After the kids went to bed, they would sit at the RV’s table and work for an additional two hours. “There were days where it was, like, we just did 10 hours of driving, we juggled the kids, we stopped at parks on the way so that we can all stay sane. And now I have to mark 20 papers before I can sleep,” says Emily.
They felt safe to visit Stevan’s family in Ontario for two weeks, whom they hadn’t seen in a number of years. (In fact, Stevan’s parents and siblings hadn’t yet met Sophie.) Another highlight was trick-or-treating in Quebec, where Halloween had not been banned or cancelled. “We happened to be in a little town that night, and we got a recommendation from a local to go to this one neighbourhood where they go all out. They’d installed pipes down the railings, so you could keep your distance, and they were handing out candy on snow shovels,” says Emily. The kids quickly learned how to say “trick or treat” in French.
In between hiking mountains, swimming in lakes and doing a lot of driving, they were also house hunting from the road for a home in Nova Scotia and trying to sell their BC condo. They accepted an offer for their condo, but their Nova Scotia home search took a bit longer. After a few of their bids came in too late or too low—“The market out here is remarkably hot,” says Emily—they put in an offer for their house without even sending out their real estate agent to do a video tour over FaceTime. (They knew if they didn’t put an offer in right away, someone might beat them to it.) The price came within a thousand dollars of what they sold their condo for. Their four-bedroom house sits on an acre, a half-hour drive from downtown Halifax.
“It’s been very positive in terms of the slower life, the calmer life. It’s far less stressful, because COVID is managed so well here. The kids can just be kids and not worry about it,” says Emily. Isabel and Sophie can go to the backyard whenever they want and they don’t have to worry about parks being too busy, as they did in Vancouver. They kept Isabel in virtual school three days a week with a privately hired French immersion kindergarten teacher, so she doesn’t fall behind while they determine next steps.
With all the changes to their routine and location, Emily and Stevan realized they’re still city people at heart—they miss being able to walk everywhere, and the big house is so overwhelming that they’re only using one floor. They’d love to stay in the province, but will likely move to Halifax if Stevan is able to find a job after he finishes his PhD. “Nova Scotia lives up to all the clichés and is as ridiculously friendly and community-oriented as it’s reputed to be,” says Emily. While the couple had always thought they’d end up in BC, they’re feeling settled in Nova Scotia.
When Toronto schools closed down in March of 2020, Tara Ritchie, like every parent, waited in limbo. After a few weeks passed, she learned that virtual school for her kids wouldn’t include any screen time with the teacher and the assignments that were posted were confusing and difficult for her kids to follow. She decided to take her kids’ learning into her own hands. She looked up the Ontario curriculum for her then grade-six daughter, Dylan, and her grade-three daughter, Cameron. She found activities and worksheets that aligned with the curriculum on websites like Khan Academy and Time4Learning. Her husband, Steve, works full time and she works for herself as a business consultant, so she has the luxury of being able to pare down work, as needed. Within the first few months of the pandemic, Ritchie went from business consultant to full-time teacher.
At first, it didn’t go well. In math, “there were questions where the kids would flat-out say, ‘I have zero idea what the assignment is talking about here.’” They also weren’t meeting the curriculum expectations for grammar and comprehension, which surprised Ritchie, as her daughters were avid readers. When she would try to explain something, they would express their frustration physically—a reaction familiar to many a parent who tried to take on teaching their kids last year. Ritchie would wait until they calmed down. “We’d break it down afterwards, and I’d say, ‘Your feelings are acceptable, but how you spoke to me was not acceptable.’”
As Ritchie and her daughters talked it out, the girls opened up about the struggles they’d been facing in school pre-pandemic. They weren’t getting the help they needed. Like a lot of kids, her daughters were in classes with 25 or more kids, and each class had kids who needed extra attention because of developmental differences. When her more introverted daughters asked for help, the teachers would say something like, “I have to move on with my lessons right now, and we’ll try later,” says Ritchie. “But later would never come.”
Ritchie is adamant that none of this was the fault of the teacher. “The teachers are amazing,” she says. But the way Ritchie sees it, the teachers are too often in survival mode because the system is underfunded. And standardized testing means they have to teach to test, not to learn.
What floored her is that she didn’t realize her kids were having issues until the pandemic. Over time it became clear that they had not learned basic skills, like how to spell or sound out words. They couldn’t form sentences and didn’t understand basic grammar. Prior to schooling them herself, the only sign something had been amiss was that her kids were sometimes calling home and saying they were sick when they weren’t. Ritchie realizes, looking back, they often felt overwhelmed. “My biggest question at the time was ‘How did I not know?’”
Determined to build her daughters’ confidence and curiosity, Ritchie went all in. She watched home-schooling videos and read up on different teaching methods, pulling techniques from various approaches, including “fun schooling” and unschooling, where kids choose what they want to learn about. Within a couple of months, they’d fallen into a routine, and over the summer, Ritchie’s kids told her they wanted to continue with home-schooling in September, instead of going back.
Each day, Dylan spends three to four hours on lessons and independent assignments while Cameron spends around two to three hours. Because they get one-on-one attention, they don’t need as many “in school” hours. They work on most subjects together and Ritchie adapts the assignments. For example, with history, Ritchie will teach both her daughters about the Trojan War. Then Cameron—who loves building—will read about how the Trojan horse was built and write sentences about it. And Dylan might be asked to answer comprehension questions or rewrite the ending of the story.
The shorter days means both kids get time for hobbies—Cameron is learning guitar and Dylan is writing fiction. And they still have lots of time to socialize, too. They live on a cul-de-sac and play outside with the neighbourhood kids. When rules have allowed, friends from their old school have come inside for masked visits. “They can socialize without the negative things that often happen when you put kids together for an entire year, whether or not they like each other.”
The girls are also learning basic life skills. They’re taking an online finance course for kids. And each day, they’re responsible for household chores. They have a rotating daily list of duties they have to complete before they’re allowed to socialize, watch TV or play video games. Some days, for example, Dylan has to make lunch and keep the kitchen tidy; other days it’s Cameron’s turn. “I couldn’t possibly do this if they weren’t on board with that,” says Ritchie.
As for Ritchie, she schedules one- or two-hour blocks in the day to work on her part-time consulting business—maybe over a lunch hour or when the girls are having free time or playing outside. Knowing that she has only an hour forces her to be strategic and focused about how she spends that time, she says. She also catches up on work in the evening.
It’s not always perfect. “There will be days where it’s absolutely a shit show,” says Ritchie. When it’s clear that the girls need some down time, they’ll take the afternoon off to watch a movie or go for a walk. Ritchie also tries to build flexibility and choice into their days. If they don’t want to do a subject one day, they’re allowed to move it to one of two free periods on Friday, a lighter day.
Ritchie doesn’t think the girls will want to go back to traditional school, even post-pandemic. And she’s happy with that. “I love this time with them,” she says. “It’s amazing to watch a child get something. You sit there and go, ‘Oh my god, I remember that feeling of finally understanding.’”