They days parents are also teachers and stay at home workers balancing it all. NICK STANLEY PHOTO

The WFH Family Balancing Act

As a social worker, Heather MacNeill’s job is considered essential. She is also the co-owner of Play-A-Latte Cafe along with her partner Ronak Patel. Play-A-Latte Cafe opened in 2019, offering a play space for kids and a specialty café for their caregivers. 

The couple shares three children — including their oldest child who Patel is currently homeschooling due to the provincial lockdown and extended online learning.

“It’s been very challenging,” MacNeill said. 

“We’ve kind of built our business around having the kids around so we’re used to juggling them and Play-A-Latte at the same time, but this has definitely been an added challenge that we didn’t necessarily prepare for.”

It’s a story that is all too relatable for local families who continue to cope with the mounting pressures imposed by COVID-19.

“We’re not supposed to be parents, teachers, [and] stay at home workers and succeed at [a] 100 per cent level across all three fronts all the time,” Patel said.

Balancing work, school and home life can quickly become overwhelming for families who still need to fulfill their daily responsibilities, despite the challenging circumstances.

Lisa Marie Fletcher is the voice of The Canadian Homeschooler, which provides Canadian resources and support for homeschooling families. 

While every family will have different needs, Fletcher said caregivers should avoid set schedules. Instead, she recommends building a routine through time blocking — eat breakfast, then plan to do some schoolwork, followed by chores before lunch and free time in the afternoon.

“You don’t have to fill up every minute of the day with an activity or quality family time. Kids need free time to do their own thing too,” Fletcher said. 

For young children, that free time can be structured around play. 

“It’s important for [children] to have activities that can help stimulate them, allow them to learn — tire them out at the end of the day, so they can get a good rest at night,” MacNeill said. 

Play-A-Latte Cafe has shifted from their usual operations to create at-home experiences. In addition to offering weekly food and coffee deals, and bringing in popular toy brands, the cafe has been selling activity baskets and sensory bins through curbside pickup. According to MacNeill and Patel, arts and craft kits are among their most popular items.

“I think there’s just a sense of pride for the kids to produce something,” Patel said.

But those aren’t the only items families are looking for. Toys that promote activity have been a hit as well.

“Anything to basically burn kids’ energy has flown off the shelves,” MacNeill laughed.

Mapping out the day isn’t the only challenge families are facing in isolation. Caregivers are also trying to explain what’s happening in the news in an age-appropriate manner their children can understand.

“Kids are very concrete, so sometimes they will take things and they’ll have a different view on it, and you don’t even realize it because the words that you used meant something else to you,” MacNeill said, adding that it’s important to check in with your children regularly.

Kristen Anderson, Parenting Now website and content editor, said it’s important to limit the amount of access children have to news and other things that are frightening. 

“When [children] ask questions, just to be sure to answer them … honestly, but age-appropriately without making kids fearful because that constant fear can turn into anxiety,” Anderson said.

Caregivers of teenagers have been looking to strengthen communication with their children as well. Anderson said caregivers have been struggling to navigate mental health matters their teens are coping with as a result of isolation. They are also having trouble motivating their teens to do online classes, preventing them from socializing, and in some cases struggling to encourage their teens to practice basic hygiene. 

“It’s so peer-led … and then without that, they’re struggling,” Anderson said.

“However, some of these things are just part of being a teenager too.”

Anderson said the best way for caregivers to stay connected to their teens, is to keep the lines of communication open. She recommends taking teens for a drive to try to encourage them to open up.

“Just that informal, kind of hanging out, can really facilitate connection and some deeper conversation.”

Parenting Now offers a variety of resources to caregivers including referrals to programs in the region, as well parenting classes. Caregivers are also able to email parenting questions and concerns confidentially.

But isolation isn’t just impacting children — it’s impacting all of us. 

To help keep the community connected, Play-A-Latte Cafe has organized virtual programming, including a music class and a class for tots. They are also hosting online events exclusively for adults. They have scheduled an upcoming paint night and are planning to host a trivia night and Valentine’s Day event.

On Jan 28. Play-A-Latte will be donating $2.50 from every six-pack of donuts sold to Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo-Wellington CMHA for Bell Let’s Talk Day. 

“People at home are struggling right now, understandably,” MacNeill said.

Anderson urged caregivers to abandon perfection at this time. Instead, families should take breaks and prioritize moments of joy and connection.

Fletcher emphasized the relationship caregivers have with their children is more important than academic goals, adding that kids can always learn something, but if you damage your relationship — that is much harder to repair.

“I would just keep encouraging people to understand that [these are] extreme circumstances and we’re all doing the best that we can.”