Written by: Emily McRae, Health Psychologist, PGDipHealthPsych, MSc
The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world in ways many of us could not have imagined. Mothering is tough, but did we ever imagine there would be a scenario where we would need to be in 24/7 ‘lockdown’ with our babies and children without any help? To say it is overwhelming probably misses the mark. This pandemic has bought with it intense feelings of fear, anxiety, concern and stress. We are saturated by media content of horrific images, statistics, and stories. We have been living in a state of fear and panic for quite some time. And slowly, and ever more strongly, the realities of this pandemic hit home.
In many ways this is exacerbated as parents and first-time parents. Emotionally, we are frightened for our health and the health of our little people. We are frightened about finances and whether ours or our partner's jobs are secure. We are anxious about how to cope without the support of family and friends. For new parents, it might be the realisation that ‘the Grandparents’ cannot drop over dinner or lend a hand with nappies. The realisation that loved ones might not be able to meet our newer arrivals or guide us in how to become parents. For parents of babies and older children, it might be that we cannot “just drop the kids to the Grandparents” and enjoy a few hours reprieve. We might be overwhelmed at the implications of home-schooling or managing our children all while trying to settle our babies. As if parenting wasn’t hard enough!
The ‘villages’ that we raise our children in are all in ‘lockdown’ and suddenly it feels all too real, all too isolating, and all too much. For those who are first-time parents, you might only just be finding your feet and getting into a ‘rhythm’ with your little baby only to be absolutely rattled by these very real impacts of living in ‘lockdown’.
The fallout? Our mental health. Our wellbeing. Our sanity.
How often lately have you found yourself yelling or snapping more? How often have you found yourself struggling to fall asleep, even if you have managed to get your baby to sleep? How often do you find yourself having thoughts about how tough this is? Or just wanting to sit and cry? How often have you reached out for an extra helping of chocolate? Or craved a big glass of wine?
As a psychologist, and a mother, I can too easily see how this pandemic can have significant impacts on our overall wellbeing. Our new reality is not something we are designed to do as humans, and implications of this are far-reaching.
Yet, somehow, we do need to cope. We do need to keep going and parenting. Our babies will still wake up, need feeding, need love and need attention. Issues of ‘reflux’, ‘winding’ or ‘colic’ don’t somehow ‘just stop’ because we are in lock-down. And because of this, it becomes even more important to learn how to manage how we feel, in ways that are health-promoting, rather than self-limiting (anyone have any Easter Eggs left?)
This is where I can help.
The first message I want to convey is this: there is still so much you can do to ensure good mental wellbeing during this crazy time. During times where we feel largely out of control, this message becomes even more important. You can control how you manage your health and wellbeing. The focus, therefore, should not be on “what am I missing out on?” and switch to “how can I care for myself during this time?”.
A big part of this gear shift in thinking will require us to embrace the idea of self-kindness and compassion. This is something that does not come easily to us as parents. We are stuck in a model where the needs of our babies and children far surpass the needs of our own. However, in order to cope in this climate, it is essential to engage in self-compassion and self-kindness. This is going to be your armour.
Compassion and kindness are easily understood in terms of our actions towards others. We can show compassion by listening to someone, hugging them, and saying reassuring and calming statements. We show kindness by offering to help people in hard times, or by telling them positive affirmations on how well they are doing. Yet how often do we show ourselves kindness or compassion?
When you make a mistake, how do you respond? For many of us, we judge and berate ourselves harshly. When you feel overwhelmed with all you have to do, or your baby doesn’t sleep well how do you respond? Again, for many, it is to engage in self-limiting activities such as eating or drinking alcohol and just somehow expect to “keep going”.
The issue is that for many of us, showing self-compassion or kindness can seem almost ‘indulgent’. That could not be further from the truth. Research now tells us that self-compassion and kindness are linked to important health benefits, including a flourishing mental wellbeing.
Therefore, the best armour we can give ourselves during this incredibly difficult time is to start showing ourselves compassion and kindness.
Here’s how we can do it…
First, we need to start tuning in with how we are really feeling. Start by noticing your behaviours. Are you snapping more? Yelling more? Are you eating or drinking more? Exercising less? If so, tune into that behaviour – and ask yourself, “how am I really feeling?”. What we know in psychology is that feelings such as ‘anger’ or ‘frustration’ are emotions that are more easily accessible. They rise to the surface more. However, what often underpins these emotions are feelings of anxiety, sadness or fear.
Second, once you are aware of how you are really feeling then you can start to respond more appropriately. For example, if you find yourself feeling really frustrated at your baby not sleeping, instead of reaching for the chocolate you could try doing a brief on-the-spot relaxation technique such as 10 deep breaths. This will do a lot more for your stress than eating!
Third, hug and reassure yourself. As funny as this sounds, when you are feeling really overwhelmed, a gentle touch can be very healing. Put your hand over your chest, take a deep breath, and tell yourself “I will be okay”, or “this is hard, but I will get through this”.
Fourth, if you really find you cannot calm down – walk away. Find a quiet corner of the house where you can just gather yourself. Slowly hold your hand on your chest, reassure yourself, and deep breathe in and out. What can work very well is if you imagine breathing out red hot tension, and breathing in blue calm. Visualising your breathing is very effective.
Fifth, establish daily self-care. “Self-care” is engaging in activities that make you feel good. That boost your mood. For many of my patients, things such as knitting, reading a book, taking a bath, meditating, calling a friend, reading a magazine, listening to relaxing music, exercising, watching a favourite show or doing arts and crafts can really help. Note that most of these are readily available and are free! Whatever it is, make sure you do it daily.
Six, and particularly during this time, make sure you schedule in dedicated “time-out”. If you know you have a full-day ahead with parenting, ask your partner (if possible) if he/she could give you a break. What works well for me is every day my husband gives me an hour where I go for a walk, take a long shower, or meditate – it is my ‘sanity hour’. Be mindful in these times. Really embrace the good times, especially if they are fleeting.
Seven, and finally, keep connected to those close to you. Text/call/video-message people who make you feel good. The ones who you find uplifting. Have a laugh or a moan. When we surround ourselves with good people (even remotely!), we instantly feel better.
About the Author
Emily is a Health Psychologist (NZ Registered) with a decade of experience in psychology. Emily runs a health and wellness website - thewellhub.co - where she provides online support to enhance psychological wellness. Emily also assesses and supports patients prior to surgery at a private hospital in New Zealand. Emily is a mother to three young children - Archie (5) and twins - Eli & Sienna (3) and lives in Auckland, New Zealand.