Family life

I left my kids and husband to find myself

In 2011, Jennifer Venner chose to completely upend her life at home to end a toxic codependant relationship. Now at the age of 47, she is finally living the life she has always wanted to live.

When my two kids were little, I felt I had to inhale every moment with them. Every time they tasted something new, every time they fell off a swing—you don’t get those moments back, which meant everything else had to wait so I could be present for them. I resisted pursuing a career and having children at the same time. To me, it was an either-or thing—or maybe it was a now and then. Now I would be with my children, and then I could think about a career.

But I gave up a lot of myself. I quit my admin job and stopped writing fiction. Soon life outside the home didn’t really exist. My husband was adamant we do things as a family, so I never went anywhere by myself—not to see friends, not to see a movie. There was this expectation: If you’re the mother who stays home, then you stay home.

I had been with this man since I was 16 years old, and he’d always been very paternal. Because I came from a troubled family—there was a lot of addiction and neglect over the years—my husband wanted to care for me, and I wanted to be cared for. But I grew reliant on him to make decisions. I’d ask to go to the store or go for a coffee—things any self-determining adult would do on their own.

Once my children were in school full-time, I started writing more, and I wanted to apply for an MFA. My husband flatly refused. He said writers can’t make a living; it’s not practical. My mother offered to take me on a vacation for my 40th birthday, and my husband told me I wasn’t allowed to go. I felt myself disappearing—who was I in this marriage? When my kids were born, I had promised myself I’d be a role model for them; I couldn’t let them keep witnessing me capitulate to their father.To end our toxic codependency, I had to get out of the house. It felt really weird to flip the script. All of my friends who were getting divorced had told their husbands to leave. I disagreed with doing that; my spouse shouldn’t give up his life because I didn’t want to be in the marriage anymore. So he got the house, and he got the kids—I fought for joint but got shared custody, at 40 percent—and I went out on my own.

I found a contract job and a rental down the street. My kids were 11 and eight when I left, and I suffered massively from separation anxiety. Every evening I wasn’t with them was bizarre and empty, so I used to walk to their house and stand on the sidewalk and watch them through the window, sitting and eating and talking. I felt like a ghost haunting my old life. It felt like desertion. And there was a kind of emotional desertion, too: I needed to find myself, and I couldn’t do it in the world I was living in.

Jennifer Venner.

My daughter became quiet and withdrawn, and my son had a lot of meltdowns. He kept asking when I was coming home. I wrote a novel in about eight months and then had a nervous breakdown. Every time I saw my kids, I saw reproach in their eyes: “You chose this over us.” I wasn’t reliable; my moods were up and down. I did a lot of reckless things; I drank too much. But at least I could own these mistakes. They belonged to me.

I found living alone difficult, so I stayed with my brother for a while and then with a roommate, who was a friend from high school. She helped me find a new, more moderate way to parent my kids, so that we could rebuild our trust and companionship. And my kids forgave me. I feel like we grew up together.

I’m finally living the life I’ve always wanted to live, doing the work I want to do. And I had to go through all of this to determine whether I had the resolve to manage my life on my own. My kids are 18 and almost 16 now, and they have respect for me. They know I’ll never give up on them.

I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know the best way to do everything, but I do know I’ll always be there for them.

This story was originally published in 2019. 

Family health

Halloween is on! Just follow these 6 rules to keep kids safe

Here's the best way to have a fun night trick-or-treating with your tiny goblins and ghouls (plus one safety measure you can definitely drop!)

Get your little skeletons and witches ready because this year’s Halloween is going to be much closer to normal. “Vaccination has made things much more safe,” says Sumontra Chakrabarti, head of infectious diseases at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, has already said trick-or-treating is a go, with certain caveats. While other provinces have yet to weigh in, the truth is, trick-or-treating is actually an inherently safe activity as it’s outdoors and the interactions are short, says Chakrabarti.

Here are the ways to make Halloween as COVID-safe as possible for all involved:

Wait your turn

Even though you’re outdoors, there’s no need for doorsteps to be crowded with multiple groups of witches and superheroes. Encourage your kids to wait their turn and only go up once the other group has left. And while in the past we might have told kids they couldn’t get candy without calling out “Trick or Treat!” this year we should aim for a short, quiet interaction—a quick “Thank you”, will do—then clear the doorway for the next group.

Don’t give out—or go out—if you’re sick

If you have any symptoms of illness, you should sit this Halloween out. That means your kids should stay home if they’re feeling unwell and you shouldn’t hand out candy, either. While this will undoubtedly disappoint your kid, it’s necessary to reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19.

Don’t bother washing candy

COVID-19 isn’t spread on surfaces, so there’s no need to wash candy or let it sit for 48 hours before letting your kids eat it, says Chakrabarti. That said, good hand hygiene still applies—make sure your kids wait until you get home before they dive into their treats and have them wash their hands well before digging in.

Wear a COVID mask

Halloween and masks naturally go together—just make sure your kid is wearing a proper two or three-layer cloth or medical mask and not relying on the costume mask for protection. That said, there are plenty of Halloween-themed masks out there and you can even incorporate some right into the costume.

Adults handing out candy should wear a mask if they can’t keep a good distance from others, recommends Moore.

Stay outdoors as much as possible

When it comes to outdoor and indoor Halloween parties, you should follow your area’s rules on number of people allowed at gatherings and also use your own personal-risk assessment when it comes to getting together with people who aren’t vaccinated, says Chakrabarti. Remember though, that with COVID-19, outdoors is always safer and, of course, you should stay home (or don’t host a party) if you’re sick.

If possible, trick-or-treating outdoors, rather than in buildings, will also reduce your risk of getting or spreading COVID-19.

Don’t feel pressure

Just because trick-or-treating is on the table, it doesn’t mean you need to participate if you’re not comfortable. There are plenty of ways to have a fun-filled evening that doesn’t involve going door-to-door. You can have a video call with extended family or a group of friends to show off your kid’s costume, make a list of common Halloween decorations and go on a neighbourhood scavenger hunt to find them or stay indoors and enjoy a Halloween-themed movie and some festive snacks.

Toys

22 top toys for babies and toddlers

Kids under two are going to love these awesome toys picked just for them.

Toys

34 top toys for preschoolers

From Paw Patrol and Barbie to a galactic snacking Grogu, your preschooler will love these toys.

Toys

28 top toys for little kids

From a vintage Volkswagen Beetle to camera for budding directors, real families tested and approved these hot toys for five to seven-year-olds.

Toys

18 top toys for big kids

Your holiday shopping is made easy this year with toys that have been tested and approved by real families and kids.

Toys

8 top toys for the playroom

These toys are playroom essentials for a reason—the classics never go out of style.

Toys

10 new books for your kid's library

Give the gift of a cool new book for the little fiction lover in your life.

Activities

Celebrate Halloween safely with these face masks that work with your kids’ costumes

For those celebrating Halloween this year, these spooky face coverings keep with the spirit of the season without compromising safety.

Halloween trick or treating should be a go this year, but when lots of kids are out and about it’s still wise for your child to wear a mask. Whether you take your mini monsters for a spooky walk around the block Halloween night or you have little ghouls attending school where masks are mandatory, these protective face coverings do double-duty as Halloween makeup to go with their costume.

1. Lilo and Stitch Fabric Masks

Four child's face masks of different colours

Photo: Courtesy of Disney

If your Lilo and Stitch-loving kid plans on dressing up as their favourite movie character, look no further than these reusable cloth masks. 4 for $19.99 shopdisney.com

2. Trick or Treat Adjustable Mask

a face mask with pumpkin and black cat decals

Photo: Courtesy of Etsy/oJackArt

These masks feature super-cute designs and a drawstring ear loop for easy adjustments. $7.77 each, etsy.com

3. Pumpkins

two young kids wearing pumpkin-style face masks

Photo: Courtesy of Etsy/MorKuzu

These cute pumpkins masks are double layered with a nose wire, pocket for a filter (not included) and  come in kid and adult sizes. From $11, etsy.com

4. Dinosaur smile

young man wearing green dinosaur smile

Photo: Courtesy of Zazzle

Rawr! This frightful mask mimics the roar of a dinosaur while keeping kids faces covered. Pair with some claws and a tail and you’ve got an easy yet impressive costume. $20, zazzle.ca

5. Kids Star Wars Face Mask

Three star wars themed face masks on a white background

Photo: Courtesy of Gap

This soft and stretchy mask comes in a three-pack so your little Star Wars fan has costume options this Halloween. 3 for $24, gapcanada.ca

7. Zombie Face Mask

a blue face mask with teeth to look like a zombie

Photo: Courtesy of Wild Republic

Keep it extra spooky this Halloween with the ultimate reusable zombie face mask. $3, sportinglife.ca

8. Cat Face Mask

Three face masks designed to look like a cat's mouth

Photo: Courtesy of H&M

These non-medical, triple-layer masks are perfect for your tiny teddy bear, cute kitty cat or little leopard. 3 for $14.99 From hm.com

9. Bob mask

kids face mask with sponge bob squarepants mouth

Photo: Courtesy of Redbubble/Indestructibbo

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Your little monster! All you need is a yellow shirt and some “square” pants, and this costume is as good as done. $17, redbubble.com

10. Kevin McCallister Shocked Face

kids face mask with Home Alone iconic screaming face

Photo: courtesy of Redbubble/fandemonium

Your little can recreate this iconic movie moment over and over again while wearing this realistic looking mask. $17, redbubble.com

Women's health

How to navigate breast cancer screening guidelines

Mammograms can spot cancer two to three years before physical symptoms develop, but screening guidelines vary between provinces. Here's what you need to know.

Paper art of three single breasts

Photo: Courtesy of Ali Harrison of Light + Paper

In 2018, 47-year-old Adriana Ermter found a lump in her armpit. Her doctor referred her for a mammogram, but the clinic said it was likely just a calcification in her breast tissue. After months of requests for additional screening, the Toronto resident received a second mammogram, an ultrasound, an MRI and a biopsy. The biopsy confirmed the lump was cancer. “If I hadn’t advocated for myself, under the guidelines I wouldn’t have had regular mammograms until I was 50,” Ermter says. “Who knows what stage of breast cancer I would have progressed to?”

Although Ermter caught her cancer early enough, her story is familiar to Jennie Dale, executive director of Dense Breasts Canada, a non-profit that advocates for breast density awareness and better screening. She’s spoken with countless women who were diagnosed with later-stage cancer because they weren’t screened earlier.

Mammograms can spot cancer two to three years before physical symptoms develop, but the guidelines for referrals vary between provinces—which is why Dense Breasts Canada just launched mybreastscreening.ca, a website that helps navigate those guidelines. Women who are 40 or older in British Columbia, P.E.I., Nova Scotia and the Yukon, for example, can refer themselves for a mammogram. But, in provinces that require physician referrals, patients might not know how to self-advocate if their doctor doesn’t recognize a need for screening. And only six provinces inform all women of their breast density—a crucial piece of info, as women with dense breasts are at higher risk of breast cancer and have extra tissue that can make it harder to spot cancer on a mammogram. Finding cancer early, says Dale, shouldn’t depend on your postal code.

The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care recommends that women start regular mammograms at 50, a guideline that’s been called outdated and dangerous. Many experts, like Dr. Anat Kornecki, head of the breast imaging division at Western University, say women should have annual mammograms in their 40s because that’s when the chances of finding breast cancer increase. The task force also doesn’t advise women with dense breasts to get additional screening, nor does it recommend doing self-exams—practices that 130 Canadian breast cancer experts recommended in a 2019 letter criticizing the guidelines. The task force’s recommendations also don’t address racial disparities: Black women, for example, are more likely to develop aggressive forms of breast cancer than white women, and at younger ages. The new site suggests raising these disparities with your doctor if you’re refused a referral.

With some MDs following guidelines that don’t reflect widely established expert advice, women are finding cancer later—which can be deadly. Ermter, who has been cancer-free for three years, is an advocate of early testing. Kornecki agrees: “I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to see cancer diagnosed at advanced stages, usually as a result of no screening.”

Four things you might not know about screening

1. Family history isn’t everything.

Women with a family history are at higher risk of developing breast cancer, but 75 percent of patients have no family history of the disease.

2. Age increases risk. 

Yes, women in their 20s and 30s get breast cancer, but risk increases with age—which is why women in their 40s should have annual mammograms.

3. There isn’t always a lump. 

In the early stages of breast cancer, you may experience other symptoms—such as changes to the size and shape of your breast—or none at all.

4. Patients have the final say.

If you’re in your 40s, your doctor can’t deny you a mammogram referral. You can also ask to know your breast density if this information isn’t disclosed to you.