Parenting Challenges in the First Year During a Global Pandemic

Alicia Ashton, RN, MHA, Executive Director


The Challenges

On Thursday, February 4, 2021 Mothercraft Ottawa’s Executive Director, Alicia Ashton, spoke with CBC Ottawa Morning to speak about the increasing numbers of child maltreatment injuries being seen at CHEO over the course of the pandemic and how this statistic speaks to the ongoing stress faced by parents during these times. You can find the on-demand recording of the interview here.

We already know that having a new baby is an isolating experience. The isolation is even greater during the pandemic. Families have lost their access to their communities, their supports and their networks. The network of family and friends who can help with supports and social connections are relegated to the world of virtual visits. Many people are afraid to accept help, even door delivery, and so the supports that families need during the first year are gone.

Families speak of the grief of the loss of the parental leave experience. There are no shared experiences, classes, or visits from family. All of it is gone. Instead you are home with one or more children, and possibly a partner working from home and maybe children trying to do virtual school. It’s an incredible loss that many of our families are grieving with sadness and anger and all of the emotions that come with grief.

For families with adults or school age children working from home, there is incredible pressure to keep their baby and toddler quiet. Partners may be at home, but not available. Or maybe the family has faced a job loss or reduction of hours. Families have lost the resources that they normally would have, and have increased pressures that add even greater stress.

Families may be wanting to go for walks, and connect with other people, however, the fear is keeping people inside when they would otherwise go. If families do go out, going to park and teaching older kids about keeping distance from others at the park is incredibly difficult, and often something that needs a constant reminder. It’s just easier to stay home. Families also speak to confusion around the various public health restrictions. “If I go out, will I get in trouble?”

We also know that the isolation families are facing is not only resulting in a loss of community and connection, but also a loss opportunity for others to see and hear the challenges and suggest resources for help. Friends and extended family, as well as EarlyON infant playgroup facilitators, Parenting in Ottawa Nurses and other early years providers are often the people who will say to families “I see and hear your struggles. Here are some resources and supports to help you. You and your baby are worth it.” Without these opportunities to connect, families are more often suffering in silence.

We know it and we see it: Maternal mental health is suffering.


Barriers to Accessing Supports

At any time, accessing support services and mental health services can be daunting. Shame, finding the time, being afraid of being reported, being judged, being judged because someone couldn’t cope, “Am I going to have my child taken away?” are all barriers families speak of that stand in the way of reaching out for help.

On top of that, in a pandemic we hear “Everyone else is living with this pandemic, no one else wants to hear my problems” or “I don’t have it as bad as someone else”. These statements don’t mean that a person is not worthy of support.

With many supports being offered virtually, access to computers or data can present a huge barrier to being able to access services. Families may be sharing computers, so access to the tools needed for virtual supports may not be available when needed. With many people working from home, there really is no privacy to speak as freely as one might want to or need to. Some people are not comfortable online. Maybe they need in-person support to form a trusting connection, or maybe they have concerns about exposing their home, of sharing the mess or chaos and fear facing judgement. All of these make it even harder for families to reach out, even as we echo the truth that “It’s okay to not be okay” and “seek support”.


Services Are Available

Services are open! We have had families reach out to us and ask “I know you probably aren’t open right now, but when you are, I need help.” We’ve been offering virtual programming since March 23. We’re here! Community health centres are still offering many of their programs, either virtually or in-person. Counselling services are operating. Services are available.

Virtual can work. It’s worth a try!

Yes, virtual supports will not solve the pandemic. They won’t bring back in-person parent-and-baby groups. They won’t rebuild the village that is temporarily put on hold. But, these supports break isolation. They can help families identify and develop strategies to dealing with the incredible stresses of parenting during a pandemic. Depending on the support, they can help families connect to other families, to help build networks that can be called on as we move through the pandemic, and beyond.

Mothercraft Ottawa’s Programs

Ottawa Public Health Parenting in Ottawa


It’s Not Just Up to Parents to Ask For Help

Ottawa Public Health is still offering Healthy Babies Healthy Children and Parenting in Ottawa programs, but they aren’t able to offer the same supports and universal outreach they used to. They are busy at the front of this pandemic, redeploying many of their staff to respond to COVID, to answer the phones, to do the labour intensive contact trace and the like. And we need them to do that. But with this reality, the really early interaction is not present, parents are not tapped and drawn in as early as they usually were pre-pandemic. It falls to agencies to seek people out more, and other professionals like family physicians, pediatricians, midwives, doulas, and others to make the referrals before things end up in a CHEO visit.

We speak of families needing to reach out for support, and that’s true. But it is not just the families who have the onus to access services, care professionals who work with families need to be aware that referrals are important and sometimes what families need in order to reach out for help. If you are a Provider and see parents struggling, please help them reach out. Even families who don’t appear to have any challenges when you see them can always benefit from being made aware of the services available in the community. Early connection and intervention is key.