Illustration of parents and their children using computers and tablets

The unexpected upside of parenting under lockdown

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on family life, but it’s also bestowed an unexpected gift on the busiest parents
The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on family life, but it’s also bestowed an unexpected gift on the busiest parents

Once the coronavirus pandemic triggered a sweeping lockdown, lawyers across the city had to abandon the office and work entirely at home. That was, on its own, an onerous task. But lawyers with children had to contend with an additional challenge: the closure of schools. This forced parents, who were already adapting to a new work environment, to take on an expanded set of domestic responsibilities. They now doubled as playmates (since children could no longer hang out with friends) and provided constant tech support (since online learning was, at the best of times, a source of confusion). The demands of the moment turned lawyer households into a bit of a gong show.

Nathaniel Lipkus learned this lesson first-hand. This spring, the partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP was at home, working diligently on behalf of his clients. His wife, a rheumatologist at Mount Sinai, had her own action-packed schedule. That included full days of appointments via web platforms at home and, over time, occasional in-person work at the hospital. (There were also periods when she was the attending rheumatologist on call, forcing her to be at the hospital full-time for a few weeks.) Meanwhile, their three children — ages two, six and eight — needed constant help throughout each weekday. For the older kids, one major complication was online school. If a child was struggling with, say, a faulty Zoom link, one parent would have to pause work to solve the problem.

Looking back on that period, Lipkus recalls his most mortifying moment. His eight-year-old son was carrying his iPad, which he used to log in to online school. “He came into the bathroom with his iPad for IT help during class while I was showering,” says Lipkus. For what he hopes was only a brief moment, Lipkus saw a bunch of small faces on the screen. And they could probably see him. Naked.

Around that same time, Anne Feehely, associate general counsel at BMO Financial Group, was also trying to parent in the age of COVID-19. Her daughters, ages 13 and 15, made the e-learning transition without much trouble. (Today’s TikTok–versed teens, after all, have the skills to work, create and socialize in the digital world.) Her 11-year-old son had a hard time at school, but Feehely and her husband, who works at National Bank, didn’t catch the problem right away. There is a good explanation for this oversight: at the outset of the pandemic, Feehely’s mother had moved out of her long-term-care facility and into Feehely’s home. “I was so preoccupied with my mom,” says Feehely. “About a month in, we realized that my son wasn’t really doing schoolwork at all. He is generally a very good student, so we were shocked. My husband and I sat down and talked to him about the importance of staying motivated. But he was very honest. He missed his friends and wanted to be back in school.”

Feehely was able to ease her son’s social isolation. To start, she let him play more video games. Among boys, she has learned, this is where most online socializing takes place. As soon as summer break arrived, she signed him up for a golf camp in Milton, Ont., which he attended with a friend. “That worked out perfectly,” she says. “It was a bit of a drive but so worth it.”

This is not the only time that she clinched a pandemic-parenting win. In fact, behind the day-to-day chaos of COVID-19, Lipkus and Feehely enjoyed the same surprising bright side. Both lawyers spent more time with their children than at any other point in their working life.

The pandemic has decimated the economy, eliminated thousands of jobs and cost many people their lives. The toll on humanity is astonishing. But the drastic changes to the workplace have, in some cases, been positive.

Before the pandemic, the busiest Bay Street lawyers worked long hours at the office. Today, these professionals are home all the time, which has, in many cases, enriched family life. “The pandemic has given busy parents the permission to slow down and spend time with their family,” says Toula Kourgiantakis, a social worker and family therapist who’s also an assistant professor of social work at the University of Toronto. “Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people were saying that they’re now having dinner with their kids every night. They were able to actually sit down and watch a movie with them.”

Parents can only enjoy these benefits, of course, if they have other forms of privilege. Both Feehely and Lipkus maintained their jobs throughout the lockdown, which they could productively do at home. And they’re aware that their socioeconomic advantages have kept the worst consequences of the pandemic at bay. Lipkus employs a nanny, who helps with all the children but does most of the hands-on caregiving with the two-year-old. And Lipkus lives in an upscale midtown neighbourhood near a sprawling ravine park. “We also put in a play structure in the backyard,” he adds. Feehely, for her part, lives on Toronto’s leafy western edge. Her spacious home has four levels. “One for each generation,” she says, “so we’re spread out.” And she was fortunate to be assigned a support worker by the government to help with her mom, for one hour a day, throughout the week.

These advantages have allowed each lawyer-parent to enjoy the unexpected upside of the pandemic. Lipkus is able to see much more of his kids than he ever has before. He often takes small breaks during business hours to engage with his kids, an impossibility in the pre-COVID era. “If my two-year-old says she wants to meet to read her a story, I can stop and read her a story,” he says. “If I take 10 minutes here and there, it’s not a big chunk of the day.”

Feehely, too, has enjoyed the newfound family time. Before the pandemic, her weeknight routine was to chaotically zip her kids around to volleyball and hockey. Once those activities were cancelled, Netflix nights became a new routine. (After putting it off, they eventually got around to watching the movie Contagion, which has become the horror flick of the pandemic.) “We also got bikes for every member of the family and went out cycling together every weekend,” says Feehely. “We’d often stop in at Ontario Place and walk around there. All five of us. It became a nice family tradition. We wouldn’t have ever done that with our previous schedule.”

This is a story from our Winter 2020 Issue.

Illustration by Kelsey Heinrichs