Parenting in a pandemic: Manitobans share struggle of working and teaching from home

From strained patience to internet bandwidth, Manitoba parents are discovering the pressures and pitfalls of working and home-schooling kids during the pandemic.

After weeks at home, parents' patience, internet bandwidth and multitasking skills put to the test

Lauren Johnson and her husband, Reid, are balancing careers and schooling their three children from home, Ellie, 6, Sadie, 12, and Asher, 10, since schools closed in March. (Submitted by Lauren Johnson)

Lauren Johnson is used to juggling a lot: three young kids, extracurricular activities and a career as a neonatal intensive care nurse.

But the pressures of parenting in a pandemic reached new heights this week when her kids ran inside to inform her of the latest problem.

Her six-year-old daughter, Ellie, was stuck on the garage roof.

"I tried to be as calm as I could," she said, as she made her way up the makeshift wooden ladder the kids had rigged together while she was inside trying to catch a quick break. 

Like thousands of families across Manitoba, Johnson's household is still adjusting to a new normal during a coronavirus pandemic that's closed schools and daycares.

Quebec, the province hardest hit by COVID-19, is making the controversial leap to reopen elementary schools in mid-May. 

Manitoba is blazing a trail to reopen some non-essential businesses this month, such as retail stores, salons and summer camps, but there is no plan to reopen schools to students before September. 

Johnson's children, age six, 10 and 12, have been home from school since mid-March, when the health orders aimed at stopping COVID-19 slammed old routines to a halt.

It's going on eight weeks without play dates or birthday parties, and no rushing between school, hockey and gymnastics.

These days, it's Nutella sandwiches and video games for breakfast before the onslaught of online learning begins.

"It's just been overwhelming," Johnson said.

"Because there's three of them, three different grades, and it's French, I can't really sit down with all of them at the same time, or it's 'Mom, mom, mom,' yelling at me the entire time."

Lauren Johnson's three children, age six, 10 and 12, work on school assignments at home. (Submitted by Lauren Johnson)

When she works nights, she devotes her days to helping her children with their online assignments.

On her day shifts at the hospital, her husband guides their kids through lessons between conference calls from his makeshift office in the basement — next to the kids' play kitchen.

I don't know how sustainable this is- Lauren Johnson, nurse and mom of three

Some days, he gets help from Google translating apps, she said. Other days, they are lucky to get any schoolwork in at all.

"I don't know how sustainable this is," she said.

"Obviously we will keep it up … but I think a lot of people will feel in the same boat in terms of maybe not feeling as confident with what they've been able to do at home."

'I'm tired'

Darcie Hanson is feeling the pressure too.

The front-line nurse works nights in a medicine unit for suspected COVID-19 patients.

When she gets home in the morning, it's straight to the shower before the scramble of login codes, apps and assignments begin.

"I'm tired," she said, and you can hear it in her voice. "I don't feel like I'm as helpful."

The mother of three spends each morning guiding her daughter and two sons through grades 1, 2 and 5.

Darcie Hanson helps her children, Talon, 10, Arian, 7, and Emery, 8, with their school assignments from home following her night shifts as a nurse in a Winnipeg hospital. (Submitted by Darcie Hanson)

As soon as one is engaged with an assignment, another is finished and the third needs help, she said, adding her oldest likes to remind her "That's not the way my teacher does it."

Hanson then uploads photos, videos and voice recordings — proof of the assignments — to beam back to the school.

Her young children are getting the hang of it, but the online programs are not quite as intuitive as teachers might think, she said.

She counts down the minutes until her husband can take over at noon: her chance to finally sleep.

'Not an easy pace'

Even Olympic rower Janine Stephens says "it's not an easy pace to keep."

The mother of two and head coach of the Manitoba Rowing Association is balancing online assignments for her six-year-old twins and working full-time from home training elite athletes over the phone, webinars and Zoom. 

"I've definitely had some good days and some less good days," she said.

"You're sort of 'on' all day long.… Instead of having a few minutes of quiet time or a 15-minute coffee break or, you know, giving yourself a chance to even drive from one place to the other and just zone out, that's sort of taken away."

Her mornings begin at the dining room table, trying to convince her girls it's time for another round of home-school. Then it's time to divide and conquer.

"They're in separate classes so they're often doing similar things but different things on either side of the tables," she said. Sometimes one has more work than the other, so she's working to keep them both busy.

Her husband, who also works full-time from home, takes the girls over at lunch while the national rowing coach hops on calls and does webinars — often working into the evening after her daughters go to bed.

"I think we're definitely managing as best we can," she said.

Darcie Hanson helps her son Talon with his Grade 5 online math assignment. (Submitted by Darcie Hanson)

In Winnipeg Beach, Robyn Boucher, a mother of five who works full-time as a counsellor at a domestic violence shelter, is counting down the days to summer. 

"I was trying to do a Zoom meeting today, actually, and I've been kicked out about five times," she said with a laugh. "There is not enough Internet."

While minding her one-year-old son, she helps her daughters, age seven and nine, and two older boys, age 11 and 13, with their classes.

They're working on four different devices, all in French, even though she can't speak it. 

"It's stressful but it's not optional," she said.

They're trying to keep a routine, but Boucher said some of the best learning has been around the house with each other, whether it's cooking, doing laundry or an egg-drop experiment her daughter's teacher assigned that all four kids got in on. 

Zachary, 11, Jayden, 13, Hailey, 7, and Kadence, 9, left to right, work on school assignments at the family's kitchen table in Winnipeg Beach. (Submitted by Robyn Boucher)

"We've got them a little bit more involved with kind of the household operations, day-to-day," she said.

"We've started letter writing, so little life skills that, you know, aren't necessarily taught in the classroom."

Despite the exhaustion, uncertainty and a little extra screen time, Boucher, Johnson, Hanson and Stephens all say having more family time is the silver lining.


Jill Coubrough

Former CBC reporter

Jill Coubrough was a video journalist with CBC News based in Winnipeg. She previously worked as a reporter for CBC News in Halifax and as an associate producer for the CBC documentary series Land and Sea. She holds a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba and a degree in journalism from the University of King's College.