Perhaps it's become a bit cliché to search for silver linings to the events of this past year—there’s a lot that most of us are in no rush to look back on. But finding those unexpectedly positive developments is also a coping mechanism, especially as the months drag on.
I’ll never forget this particular pandemic memory: It was a midsummer night, and long past bedtime. Exhausted and over it, my husband and I had totally given up on herding our son and daughter inside. Out of boredom, our loosely supervised kids sprawled out in the backyard on their still-damp swimming towels and turned to the sky to stargaze. Soon enough, studying the night sky became their new favourite thing.
Now they’ve memorized the constellations and can spout random facts about Mars, which would never have happened in our previous, over-scheduled lives. As it turns out, moon cycles and meteor showers remain topics of discussion in many other households. When I went to buy a kid-friendly telescope for Christmas, I found out that they’ve been selling out for months.
On top of becoming newbie astronomers, Canadians celebrated plenty of cultural shifts, medical wins and innovations. Of course, you’d be forgiven for missing them if you were entertaining a toddler while helping another kid log on to Zoom, or making the millionth meal of the day. Let’s recap some of the highlights you might have overlooked.
Early on in the pandemic, parents of young kids everywhere rose to a series of supreme and often self-appointed challenges. They conducted home science experiments while participating in work conference calls, they did grade two French (again) and enforced time-consuming kindergarten assignments no reasonable five-year-old could possibly complete in the time allotted on the colour-coded daily schedule that the teacher e-mailed home. They made breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner and snack. They did this again and again until they were run ragged. And then parents the world over realized they could not parent so hard for the whole pandemic. Intensive parenting was downgraded to bare-minimum parenting, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. By January 2021, when school shuttered again in many parts of Canada, parents knew to keep their expectations low and just make it through day by day.
If four or five months of unintentional home-schooling weren’t enough to make us long for even a smidge of the energy our primary school teachers manage to pump out each day, there was also Washington teacher Mackenzie Adams, who went viral last fall and generated headlines like “Meet the most energetic TikTok teacher ever.” The kindergarten educator posted a video of her technique for remotely teaching five- and six-year-olds, including emphatic arm movements, endless patience and over-animated facial expressions that will make you tired just watching her in action. “Online, you really have to amp it up,” Adams told Buzzfeed News. “I do think that teachers are actors and we have to put on a show to keep [kids] engaged when they’re in their homes. I was just trying to make sure they were looking at me and not their doggies.”
By April 2020, most of the world was hunkered down at home. The forced shift in manufacturing, travel, commuting and consumption seemed to make a big difference outdoors. In places notorious for smog—China, Los Angeles, New York—the air seemed suddenly clear. Social media was rife with sparkling, aquamarine pictures of the Grand Canal in Venice, a startling change from its usual murkiness. Buzz around whether or not the changes would have a measurable impact on climate-change markers was quickly substantiated by researchers. Global greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants dropped by as much as 30 percent last April, according to a report in the journal Nature Climate Change. That reduction hasn’t held throughout the whole year, but it is proof that broad, sweeping change can make a big difference to the health of our environment if we alter our behaviours.
Most of us don’t need a research study to affirm that we ate (and perhaps drank) a bit more during the pandemic. If you got on the bread-baking bandwagon, too, there are a few reasons to feel good about it, particularly if your children started helping in the kitchen more, in general.
FoodShare, a Toronto food-justice charity, saw a 200 percent increase in the number of paid subscribers receiving its weekly Good Food Box of fruit, vegetables and other healthy staples to their doorsteps. That suggests people not only preferred delivery to going to the grocery store, but that they wanted to make sure their dollars went to a good cause, while making more nutritious meals at home.
Data released in July from the Guelph Family Health Study, a long-term study of more than 250 families with children under five, showed the pandemic was having a positive impact in the kitchen: It caused 70 percent of families to spend more time cooking and 60 percent to try more from-scratch recipes. Half of the parents surveyed said they were cooking with their kids more often and 55 percent were eating more meals with their children. Research from dietitians at the University of Guelph shows that children who are involved in making meals have more positive attitudes toward foods and are generally more interested in trying new ones. Eating meals together also boosts literacy by helping expand the vocabulary of young children and improving their storytelling skills, which increases comprehension and even reading.
This meant that parents who work in hospitals and other high-risk, close-contact settings were no longer terrified of getting sick and bringing the virus home to their kids. Pictured: Rayna Lerner, a mom of three kids and an occupational therapist in Toronto, got her COVID vaccination in March 2021.
Figuring out how to be helpful in our communities while also obeying the limits of social distancing was tough in 2020 and 2021. Some made signs for lawns and windows to thank first responders and essential workers; others stood on doorsteps nightly to bang pots and pans, tipping their hats to those who went off to work each day; and others did their part by simply staying home.
When winter arrived. families delivered sleeping bags, coats, mitts and hand warmers to residents of urban tent cities who felt safer living in city parks than in crowded homeless shelters. Others made dozens and dozens of sandwiches for food banks. Last spring, a grassroots movement aimed at reducing food insecurity sprang up across a series of Ontario cities and towns. Organizers urged families to leave food donations on their doorstep for one day only; volunteer families, including kids learning about food insecurity, stepped up to safely collect donations, which went on to food banks. Chatham-Kent had the May 16th Miracle, while Windsor-Essex had theirs in June. In December, volunteers with Toronto Miracle collected 210,000 pounds of food from 140 neighbourhoods in one day.
Anyone who thought they were being creative by taking their stir-crazy family to an underused trail system for a nature walk this year likely had a reckoning: No outdoor destination was underused this year. Parks and trails that many of us haven’t thought of since the days of our own school field trips were perpetually rammed with people clamouring to get outside safely with their families. Hiking had a total “it” moment, with trail associations across Canada and the US reporting more than 100 percent increases in usage in spring 2020.
A group of doctors in British Columbia who now prescribe nature walks to stressed-out or anxious patients (including parents) would agree. Canada’s first nature-prescribing program was launched in BC in December 2020, and is now available in Ontario, too. Known as PaRx, the program was spearheaded by the BC Parks Foundation and family physician Melissa Lem, who has for years recommended her patients spend time in nature to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety and other ailments. The recommendation is based on mounting clinical evidence of the health benefits derived from spending as little as 20 to 30 minutes per day outdoors, including better moods, decreased anxiety, increased heart health, pain management and more.
Not only did we hike, sled, skate and hit up playgrounds (endlessly) with our kids, we started to spend more time outdoors during the school-day, too—no matter the weather. Getting some fresh air was a much-needed break for kids doing virtual school on devices all day, and learning outside is safer than in poorly ventilated indoor classrooms.
At public schools in Toronto, parents helped teachers set up outdoor classroom spaces with donated tree stumps, wagons, yoga mats and collapsible tents; outside the city, private alternative forest schools saw an explosion of interest from parents desperate to ensure their kids were in line for some form of COVID-safe education.
“We launched our fall programs in the summer and we essentially sold out in a day. We have never sold out,” says Chris Green, director of the non-profit Guelph Outdoor School, which was founded in 2012. The demand for what Green calls “nature immersion” programs is “directly because of COVID and people wanting an outdoor option.” The school added 95 new spots and tripled the number of kids attending, with three class sessions per day, six days per week.
In prior years, most of the school’s students had been those who struggled with the sedentary, traditional classroom format, but “this year brought out a whole new demographic,” says Green, with learners of all types. Parents now understand the importance of outdoor time for vitamin D, mental health, proper sleep patterns and a healthy lifestyle.
The jury is still out on whether the pandemic will lead to a baby boom, but data is clearly showing pregnant people felt more empowered to choose where—and with whom—they gave birth in 2020 and 2021.
Interest in midwifery care, which tends to include multiple postnatal home visits, began increasing as the pandemic took hold. Fears of encountering the virus at doctors’ offices and on maternity wards increased, and many hospitals, in an effort to tamp down the virus’s spread, temporarily banned pregnant women from having partners or doulas attend their labours. Needless to say, expectant couples began to re-evaluate their options.
By the end of 2020, 89 percent of midwives in BC who responded to a survey reported their clients were showing increased interest in giving birth at home. In Ontario, preliminary data on the number of out-of-hospital births (meaning those in homes or at birth centres) was roughly double pre-pandemic rates, says Jasmin Tecson, president of the Association of Ontario Midwives. “Being able to facilitate these choices, and make them as safe as possible, is deeply rewarding for midwives,” says Tescon.
There is no question that being laid off from your job sucks. It is a scary, destabilizing prospect—one that many of us endured as lockdowns shuttered or shrunk workplaces and paycheques disappeared. For some parents, though, there was an unexpected bonus to being sent home from work.
In a survey of 572 low-income parents with young children, researchers at the University of Chicago found that 75 percent of parents spent “much more” pandemic-induced time on child care. Parents who lost their jobs but not their incomes (due to government aid subsidies or increased income from an essential worker at home) were more likely to engage in positive interaction with their kids (they had more time for reading, snuggling, playing games or doing something “for fun”) than in pre-pandemic times. Parents who spent more time on child care also reported increases in their kids’ enjoyment of time with them.
Throughout the early weeks of spring 2020, with most of the world in various states of lockdown, those who deliver babies began to notice an unusual trend: There were fewer preterm babies. Last fall, Danish researchers set out to substantiate what doctors thought they were seeing. Their study measured the births during spring’s lockdown against a decade’s worth of data and officially proved the point (for Denmark, at least). Premature births were reduced by between 15 and 23 percent when schools, business and travel was shut down. Exactly why this happened, though, remains unclear.
In his Throne Speech last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to create a national, affordable child-care system. The pledge came amid an exodus of women from the workforce as many struggled to balance child care, online schooling and paid work under the constraints of the pandemic. Universal child care was first recommended more than 50 years ago in Canada by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, and several governments have tried—and failed—to make good on the recommendation. Trudeau is expected to outline the details of his proposed system in the 2021 budget. Fingers crossed he follows through on these promises.
Last spring and summer, anti-racism protests around the world, including in Canada, demanded that many of us address topics like systemic racism, white privilege, police brutality and injustice with our children. In the days and weeks following the death of George Floyd, there was no shortage of resources to fall back on—even Sesame Street and CNN aired a special town hall in which Elmo learned about racism and what protests are for.
And while some of the well-intentioned resolutions and hastily formed book clubs have long since been forgotten, there are now some more concrete, less abstract ways for families to keep conversations about racial consciousness going with kids.
“Research shows that the best way to address unconscious bias is through exposure to people of all races, genders, sexualities and abilities,” says Nicole Stamp, a co-founder of The ByUs Box. The Toronto-based company, which launched in 2020, sells tool kits of learning guides and conversation prompts, with books and activities for families who want to raise anti-racist, inclusive kids. (Boxes are themed; you can also buy boxes focused on gender identity or Indigenous rights and awareness.) “We know families want to do the work and raise good people, but sometimes equity conversations can feel intimidating,” Stamp says. As of press time, the start-up was exploring opportunities for a major expansion.
Free online mental health resources designed to help people manage stress, anxiety and depression were quietly increased during the pandemic, as more and more people realized they needed mental health support. The convenience and sudden popularity of at-home, 24-hour telehealth therapy is especially useful to parents and caregivers making do without childcare or family support.“These resources may be useful to parents who are struggling with the stressors that come with caring for children and themselves during a pandemic,” says Emily Jenkins, a professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia.
On the one hand, it’s been fortifying to see mental health struggles normalized and talked about openly this year. On the other hand, therapists, counsellors and psychologists saw an unprecedented increase in demand for their services, with long wait-lists for new patients. “It’s important for people to know that there are options freely available to everyone, with no wait times,” says Jenkins. She recommends checking out BounceBack, which offers free access to cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, over the phone for all Canadians over the age of 15. In Ontario, you can access services through Togetherall (formerly Big White Wall), with free online peer support and self-guided help for depression and anxiety. There’s also AbilitiCBT, another at-your-own-pace, online program designed to reduce feelings of uncertainty and stress. If you’re a new parent looking for prenatal mood support or postpartum depression resources, Postpartum Support International has a helpful directory and free online support meetings, including dedicated groups for queer parents, Black moms, NICU parents, South Asian moms, and dads-only.
Imagine if convincing your child to take medicine was as easy as getting them to play a video game. For some parents of young children with ADHD, now it actually is. Last June, the US Food and Drug Administration approved what is essentially the world’s first video game designed to help treat symptoms of inattention linked to ADHD. Called EndeavorRX, the game is aimed at children ages eight through 12 and activates specific neural systems in the brain that play key roles in attention function. In clinical trials, kids played the game 25 minutes per day, five days per week, for four weeks, and attention deficit was reduced substantially in one-third of the participants. Half of parents reported changes in their child’s day-to-day symptoms after one month of treatment, and two-thirds of parents saw changes after two months.
While EndeavourRX is only available in the US right now, an international expansion is in the works. It can be downloaded from the app store in the US with a prescription from a family doctor.
If your kid’s addiction to playing “Animal Crossing” or “Gardenscapes” was something you planned to tackle in 2021, toss that resolution aside and consider dialling up the gaming time instead. Oxford University researchers published a first-of-its-kind study last November that showed playing video games may actually improve our mental health and well-being. The study surveyed more than 3,200 players of two games—Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville—and found that the more people played, the happier they felt. Researchers can’t say exactly how much play might be required to improve mental health, but they did warn that limiting video game time might also limit the benefits that gaming may confer (remember this when you feel guilty about all that screen time).
For young students hoping for a banger of a frosh year, the shift to taking university and college classes solely online was a bummer. But for the mid-career set—parents who can’t exactly unplug from family life to attend university in another city—online classes have opened up new options for upskilling. Suddenly, upgrading with a few courses or pursuing a whole new degree is something that can (and must) be done online from home. Part-time enrolment grew in 71 percent of universities, says Brenna Baggs, spokesperson for Univcan, which represents Canadian universities. If you look at Coursera, which provides open online courses for free as well as paid degrees, more than 21 million learners have signed up since mid-March 2020, a 353 percent increase from last year. Lucia Cheng, an Oakville, Ont., mom of three with a finance background, realized during the pandemic that she wanted to become a teacher. But with young kids at home, attending teachers’ college seemed impractical. That changed when the pandemic shifted classes online. “Had it been any other time, I probably would not have enrolled,” says Cheng, who started school (remotely) in January 2021. “I’m very fortunate to be able to continue my education online while still being available at home.”
Some of our tiniest and most vulnerable Canadians are benefiting from stay-at-home orders in an unusual way. Jannette Festival, co-founder of NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank in Calgary, says the amount of donated milk her organization received last year is unprecedented.
Although official stats won’t be in until mid-2021, Festival estimates there are currently about 125,000 ounces stored in its freezer, on top of the 175,000 ounces it has already dispensed across Canada to provinces that don’t have their own milk banks. The average donation was between 15 and 17 litres (more than 500 ounces per donor), compared to 13 litres per donor last year.
Canada’s three milk banks (the other two are located in Toronto and Vancouver) have all experienced an uptick in donations, Festival says, likely because moms have less time away from home. If they’ve got the time to pump, it’s all being donated. What’s more, typically 40 percent of moms who sign up to donate drop out each year, but “that’s not happening this year,” she says. The breastmilk is pasteurized by the milk banks and then sent to sick babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) across Canada, as well as to babies who’ve already gone home. On average, the use of donor breast milk decreases the length of NICU stays by about two weeks.
While this is happy news, it does create additional challenges for storing and processing the milk, Festival says. She also says the trend likely won’t continue long-term, so new donors are always welcome. —DELANEY SEIFERLING