Learning to Adjust to Lockdown

As I write this today, it’s 1 June, and here in London, this is our 71st day of lockdown. It’s been 10 long weeks of isolation for most of us, and back in March when restrictions were first announced, we had no idea it could possibly last this long or what they might really mean for us. The most meaningful easing of restrictions – being able to spend time with our families, in each other’s homes, suddenly feels a bleakly long way off.

I should also say now – we have been incredibly lucky. I lost my job and my income at the start of March, but we are well and we have enough. I should also say we have a lot of privilege in that we don’t work on the front line and we have decent space in our home, enough food and a small garden in which we can live well enough. I am keenly aware that to a lot of people, we are living in the height of luxury. London has always been a city of massive difference in privilege and so it proves again with covid-19 and lockdown.

Weirdly enough, this isn’t my first lockdown. About 5 years ago now, I was unwell with an immune condition that meant I needed to be in hospital for 2 weeks in near isolation, and then later that same year I had to take some immunosuppressive drugs that kept me at home with no contact allowed. This period of illness really shook up my lifestyle and my beliefs about what it was that I really needed. It turned a lot of my assumptions about myself on their head. Not unlike this experience of covid lockdown we are sharing now.

When my world was upended by illness, it fundamentally changed who I thought I was, because it had changed what I was capable of. Willpower and desire to carry on weren’t enough – there were many more physical limitations on my and I never thought I would learn to bear them. My everyday thoughts became consumed with just one thing: if life would ever be normal again and if I would be able to rebuild in a way that mattered to me. I remember needing to find a way to give my looping thoughts a break, a way to stop them building into anxiety again and wondering when I would get my personality back. I also remember being amazed when the day finally came that I got back on a tube train and realised I wanted to listen to music again. It was such a milestone and such a departure from the previous months.

Even though this lockdown has felt tough and even though I can’t access many of the ways I would normally make myself feel better – meeting with friends, staying with family, travel to greener or more open space, interviewing for new jobs – little by little, this uncertainty and it’s strangeness has started to feel more comfortable. This smaller world, by the miracle of how human brains are wired to help us adjust to that which we cannot change, has become normal. I’m sure there is a psychological term to describe this acceptance, this normalisation of circumstances, this adaption. It takes frustrating time to process the grief, the sadness, the frustration, the anger – but you get there. I got there. I remember the therapist I visited for many years once telling me being open to change is the best way to cope. Her most repeated definition of madness was ‘doing or thinking the same thing again and again but expecting a different outcome’.

I can’t pretend to know how this lockdown has been for most people and I don’t want to make assumptions. The way news and ideas are shared now are very skewed and it’s difficult to hear opinions from circles outside your own – you have to actively move round the algorithm. What I hope to do here though, is to share some thoughts that got me through and helped me reshape my life. Given that it sounds like we might be living with covid for some time yet, perhaps these ideas can help make the prospect a little less daunting.

Allow yourself emotions but know when to stop

I’m a great one for allowing perpetual worries to take over the everyday moments. I learnt over time to actively manage my emotions and set boundaries for myself and others. I had too. My lack of emotional awareness had begun to spill over and affect my mental health and my relationships with others. Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat Pray Love fame, has a phrase for this concept: ‘practising emotional sobriety’. This is the idea that you should take care with your emotions, in that it’s ok to have emotions, but then treat yourself with compassion and don’t add emotions about emotions to everything you have on your plate.

Find some distractions to keep you busy (but not too busy)

Mindless or mindful distractions worked (and still work) for me. Whilst it’s tempting to overwork, overbake, overclean, over exercise etc, filling every second of your day with a distraction is mentally and physically exhausting – and that type of exhaustion can pretty quickly spill over into emotional exhaustion. I learnt this the hard way. Now, to stop me scrolling through news or Twitter on my phone when I have an hour of time in the evening (and also to stop me using it to eat and berate myself), I’ve picked up my knitting. I’m not great and I don’t know if I will ever wear what I’ve knitted out in public but for now, I find the simple movement soothing and it keeps me out of late night trouble.

Find a new routine and stick to it (even if it’s mundane)

When I was in hospital, it was the smallest things that got me through. Toast for breakfast, the day we have macaroni cheese for lunch, the day we had clean bed sheets, the nightly cup of tea I had when reading. And so it was when I got home. Taking 15 minutes each morning to stretch and breathe, a weekly trip to buy some biscuits, a weekly swim. These small moments marked time for me and allowed me to have something simple and modest to look forward to. Even when the days were miserable, they could be made better by a little pleasure.

Cut yourself some slack

I have to say, I’m fully rejecting using lockdown time to become better at anything. All power to you if you’ve been able to use your downtime to upskill or upgrade anything. But like so many other parents, I’m settling for all of us surviving with our emotional health intact and leaving lockdown still on speaking terms. It’s so easy to compare your life to those of others anyway, and now we have so little other stimulation or social contact, the broadcast of people sharing their drive to improve and impress has become even more obvious. I’ve spent much of the last 10 weeks using my spare time to hold everything together and keep the house clean, and I imagine, I’m not alone. You’re doing great no matter how little you are learning.

Build your resilience by looking after your own wellness

The first few weeks of my illness and this lockdown were tough for this. Adjusting to a new reality means a new routine. You need to find new times to shower, clean, eat, exercise, rest. And those times aren’t always obviously there and ready to be used. Eventually I realised that I needed all these things to help keep me well and sane and that sacrificing them to look after my family made me angry and bitter. Not the type of parent I wanted to be.

I can’t manage all of my ideal wellness routines every day – I often can do just one or two. I might not wash my hair as much as I’d like, I probably choose yoga pants too often, my floors are dusty and I don’t make it out of the house every day. But I never compromise on food. Never ever. I’m sticking rigidly to my 10 portions of fruit and veg a day, and reducing sugar, caffeine and wine as much as possible.

Sometimes, you should just go to bed

And finally, a word of wisdom from my dad, Dave. Sometimes days are just rubbish and you will have had enough. It’s ok just to stop, not do the washing up and go to bed, literally calling it a day. Things usually do look better in the morning.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

The Power of Mothering

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Two close friends of mine had a baby around the same time as me. None of us planned it, but our babies were all born over the summer of 2016, each 6 weeks apart. We were good friends before, but what pulled us closer was our shared parenting experiences.

It turned out that we all had a very similar style of motherhood – a dedication to breastfeeding and co-sleeping, a rejection of sleep training and we all deferred childcare as long as we could. (Again, a massive caveat here: no judgement on any other mamas for their choices and paths, this was just what felt right for all of us at the time). Our personalities differed, our babes were beginning to show their own stripes, but what we shared was a fierce, mama-bear like insistence that this was how we wanted to mother.

I held deep seated convictions over how I wanted to mother from the moment I knew I was pregnant – and, unlike many, I knew I was pregnant from the day after I conceived. Luckily/unluckily, I have a chronic condition that recedes with pregnancy, so I knew from how well I felt that a baby was on the way. It also allowed me to associate the period of pregnancy and breastfeeding with a feeling of whole health and wellness. The baby and I were looking out for each other, right from the start.

My friends and I disappeared into motherhood, allowing ourselves to change, probably beyond recognition some days, and slowly came back out seeing the world through new eyes. We were probably slower than most, allowing the intensity of that first year to really make its mark on our bodies, minds, souls, in a way that we didn’t necessarily see in other mother’s around us.

A lot of our peers, fought to regain their balance, to put a routine in place, to automate their days and re-stablise their relationship with their partner. This routine, the return to work, the sense of order needed to get through the week, reduced the sense of chaos and put other carers into the picture. Sometimes I was envious, sometimes it looked like my worst nightmare.

A few years in, I now realise there were two huge influences on how I parent: my own mother and then a book I had read before we tried for a baby.

I can’t speak for other regions, but here in the UK, a 2011 book by child psychologist Oliver James, called “How Not To F*** Them Up”  was widely read and made a huge impact on how mothers saw themselves. The core of his theory came down to this: how you parent is less relevant to the child than how comfortable you are as a parent. If you are forever trying to outrun your responsibilities as a parent, if you cannot be consistent in how you relate to your child and if you are not able to be true to how you want to parent (whatever end of the attachment spectrum you are naturally on), you will create an unsettled and confusing environment for the child. One way or another, you need to be honest with yourself so you can then create a stable environment that they can orientate themselves around.

James also introduced new terms to the UK parenting culture; those of Organiser, Fleximum and Hugger, clearly describing each and giving a breakdown of the pros and cons of each.

How easy it was to read before you were a parent! And then how easy it was to judge when you finally were a parent – looking for reassurance that your way was ok, seeing the style of other mums you knew reflected in these archetypes. Before I was pregnant, I assumed that I would be a Fleximum and until my girl arrived, it felt like the safest place to stake my ground.

The Fleximum is adaptive to their child, weighing up situations for what they are, still factors themselves and the broader family in and then, as a slight downside, can rationalise every and any decision to make it feel like their kid will benefit, even if that’s slightly stretching the truth. It sounds logical, rational and the best of both. A safe and stable place to be.

As it turned out, I fell into the Hugger category – a mum who allows their needs to collapse into that of their child, emotionally is tied to their child from the start and often sees the world through their child’s eyes, using that perspective to make their choices. The drawback to this is that these mums often find it hard to bring themselves back into the picture, to understand their needs and find it difficult when their child begins to separate from them as they naturally grow into their opinions and personalities.

Throughout the book, James emphasises that often, the parenting tribe we chose is not of our making, that it’s almost entirely as subconscious reaction, with most women either choosing to do the exact opposite of their own mother or do exactly the same.

I most definitely did the same. It’s now plainly obvious that so many of my convictions came from my mum and as a happy side effect, she has felt recognised and respected by how I have modeled her behaviour towards the younger me. That she is able to understand how I do things gives me this extra reassurance, a foundation and confidence that I badly needed when starting out.

My mum has been the person who has enabled me to feel that my Hugger-ish style and the choices that stem from that are not only ok, they can actually be good for my daughter. Her support through the tough and emotional times were the validation I needed to feel comfortable in my skin and stop pushing against how I assumed parenting should be.

A few weeks ago, arm deep in cleaning up toddler vomit at 3am, it finally dawned on me what a sweaty, full bodied, all encompassing experience parenting is and that I was more than cool with it. I actually I relished it. I’m sure the parents of more than one will read this with a wry smile on their face knowing this already. The blood, the sweat, the tears are exactly what you sign up for, and actually are representative of the magnitude of motherhood. You’re in the experience, fully immersed, for the rest of your life, whether you try to out run it or not.

Our experience as a family is tight, full on, emotionally intense and powerful. We shape each other daily. I influence my daughter and she influences me right back. I’m a stronger, richer, deeper person for being her mama.

But here’s the rub, the question we never expected to waiver on… Can we cope with two? Physically, probably. Emotionally, we’re not so sure.

I didn’t realise until recently, just how much my conviction around parenting has shaped this family and established our rhythms, habits and relationships. It’s completely fair and accurate to say that my husband almost didn’t get a look in. I started doing my thing and it’s only recently that we’ve started to question if all my quirky ways have been the right thing for the family.

Clearly, I think co-sleeping, refusing sleep training and being emotionally expressive is good for our daughter. Except now I’m not so sure that it’s been as good for my partner and I as individuals or as a couple.

The conversation over whether to have a second started at least two years ago and we disagreed: I couldn’t imagine not having another and my husband couldn’t imagine having one. For the last few months, I’ve been assuming that my desire to have a second would prevail, that my partner would change his mind. But then all of a sudden I had my doubts too.

Do I have the emotional capacity to keep guiding this family? Can I take the pressure of raising another small human? Can my body physically take the pressure of on demand feeding and vastly reduced sleep? I will probably never be able to make a logical, rational call; I’m sure it will be pure emotion.

I can’t help but look back over the decisions I made on how to parent, I now wonder if I should have chosen to be a bit less hands on, whether I could have detached more and worried less – might this have led to a less intense, more laid back experience for all of us? Might it have made having a second an easy forgone conclusion?

But I’m in the business of raising a small human as well as I can and if I only get to do this once, I will be glad I did it my way.

All of a sudden, now more than ever, I’m realising she’s mirroring me. I’m a hands on mum, hugging, soothing, sitting together constantly. If she replicates this, I know I’ll look on proudly. Even now when she mothers her dolls, I can’t roll my eyes, mention gender bias or feminism, she’s doing what I’m modelling for her. And how can that be a bad thing?

We may not be able to repeat the experience but at least I have given my daughter a template of strong attachment and emotional literacy to follow. If I could choose any position of power to be in, that feels like the pinnacle. I’m literally laying the ground on which she will base her expectations of other relationships and also how she will mother. That is a responsibility and power that matters so much more than sleep.

Photo by Micah Hallahan on Unsplash

Even wonder women need support

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I’ve spent the last 4 or so years of my life training to become a Naturopathic Nutritionist – in other words, someone who uses nutrition, herbs and lifestyle changes to support greater wellbeing.

Whilst I was doing this, I held down a 4 day a week job, tended a marriage, stayed connected to my family and friends and raised my baby. But I’m not saying this to brag. I’m also not looking for sympathy. I’m referencing it because in my relationship circles here in London, it’s a perfectly normal way to behave. People normally congratulate or celebrate you for having a life like this, even though it could be viewed by some as pretty extreme. When I look back, it seems foolish, but I was there doing it, motivated by a desire to look after my daughter, my husband, my family, my friends… and me I suppose. Somewhere long down that list.

Over these past four years, to be awarded my diploma, I’ve studied biomedicine, illnesses and diseases, read papers on the latest research into new drugs to treat us, understood how these drugs interact with supplements but most of all, I’ve seen clients. 200 hours of clients.
Some wanted to improve their appearance, their fitness, their general wellbeing; others were taking on cancer, infertility, diabetes, multiple sclerosis. They all at some point had reached the end of the list of solutions that they could imagine for themselves and somehow had landed on nutritional therapy as an option. For many, going through the process of spending an hour telling their story, was the first time they had been able to take the time to digest and consider it, and to feel heard by someone, even a relative stranger like me.

Over these 200 hours, patterns appeared. The clients I saw were either younger people, battling as hard as they could to keep their head above water in this big city, worrying about being successful at work to make rent, often far away from their family. Or they were women. These women stuck in my mind the most as they, without fail and without complaint, led these incredibly complicated lives where, for them, it truly was difficult to find the time to shop for food differently or take an hour or two each week to focus on themselves.

They came from varied backgrounds and lifestyle: some were older, their kids had already flown the nest; some were supporting their young families, a few were preparing or trying to start a family and some had chosen to be childfree altogether. The red thread was that they were all nearly single handedly running the show, with very little support and very little care for themselves, and slowly but surely it was making them unwell.

Poor attention to their own needs – the food they ate, the sleep they got, the rest they took, they exercise they did, the hobbies or passions they pursued – had become the norm, their way of coping with all the demands, their way of saving time. But as I heard their stories, it became really clear it was a false bargain. They were tired, they were run down and then they started to feel guilty. Guilty that they could no longer reach the high bar they had set themselves, that they had lost enthusiasm for their kids, their partner, and they were often annoyed with themselves that the iron will that had been seeing them through was starting to crumble. As if they would cope better if only they had better resolve or stronger self control.

The very first thing I always said was: “You are doing a wonderful job of managing. But now we need to try to stop coping as well. You need to give yourself permission to be looked after, by me and by the people around you”.

The process of deconstructing the routine that has helped you hold everything together can be a long one, a battle against your perceptions of how much you can ask for, how much you can advocate for your needs versus how comfortable (or not) you feel with reaching out to people and risking your just-about-holding-it-together system collapsing like a pack of cards.

Interestingly, I had to challenge my own perceptions of my role as a nutritionist and as someone who was determined to be holistic and naturopathic. This naturopathic slant on my understanding of health alters how I support people, meaning that I’d find myself casting a net out wider and taking on a greater responsibility for the overall picture of wellness than a straightforward nutritionist or dietician would. I found myself being asked to paper cracks with vitamin supplements (when rest was what was required), to support a client in operating to a crazy caffeine fueled schedule (when it meant they slept only 4 hours a night) or to effectively be complicit in disordered eating (rather than address why controlling food had become a clients only way to cope with their day to day).

So now, here I am, at the end of 4 years of clinical education and finding empathy, having been handed a mission that I didn’t expect to find. In a roundabout way, I found this gap and lack of support work for people like me – the women stretching themselves too thin, trying to juggle everything and never drop the ball.

To help you take your first footsteps on a more balanced path, I’m sharing the 5 things I decided to do to help me reframe what mattered to me and begin to challenge my wonder woman complex.

Decide what to own and what to drop

Be real. The answer cannot be “I can do it all”. Not only is that not a laudable goal, you’re also ruling out the possibility of deepening connections to other people. Being a solo queen is an isolating, perhaps lonely, role to hold. Over the past few years, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my mama tummy is here to stay, that my house will never be fully clean, that my hair will never be coiffed and that my husband and I just won’t have that much alone time. For now, these all have to be optional things. Ones I can’t manage to fit in with the compulsory things, like putting food on the table, keeping people clean and healthy, keeping connected to my family despite the mayhem. And then I had to give myself permission to not worry and not berate myself. If and when the time is right, I will pick up the ones that still matter to me.

Be clear about who is your priority

Hint – it has to be you first. I learned this the hard way more than a few times. The cycle of having just one more coffee, just one more meal that you know isn’t great for you, watching one more box set that’s keeping you from sleep, taking on one more assignment or doing one more favour is hard to break and it all adds up to you not having time to make sure you are looked after. Speaking from experience, everything else will just seem like fluff if you ever do truly do become unwell.

Ruthlessly support your health and mental well being

You must be your own advocate and become better connected to your own body and mind. So many of us see our bodies as the machine that acts on our mind’s commands and wishes, ignoring symptoms of hunger, tiredness, thirst and pain, effectively removing our chance to understand much more about what would make us healthier and happier, about what balance we need to strike and how we can flex our limits at legitimate times of pressure to make sure we can call on our reserves and be resilient when we need it. We can’t be always on.

Emotions are signposts. Valuable ones.

I’m an ex emotion hater. For the longest of times, emotions were useless to me. Pointless signals that made me feel bad and worry about my choices, complications that I didn’t have time for. Needless to say that after 4 years of studying how thoughts and feelings affect the chemical make-up of our bodies, I view them a little differently. Treat these messages from your self as precious and use them accordingly. These connections to your inner wisdom and intuition need respect and acknowledgement or they will just keep trying to reach you. Even worse, if you suppress them long term, they might become quieter and your inner compass will be lost

Lose anyone who isn’t a cheerleader for you

It’s fair to say that most people’s lives are complicated. It’s also right to say that relationships represent our greatest joys and frustrations.They are big, complicated, emotional things (wince – see previous point) that take a lot out of us. Many of my friends and many of the women I met are empathetic to the point of being like a sponge, ready to give and take until there are very few boundaries left. The result? A difficulty seeing in what’s working for you and what isn’t. A slow and gradual acceptance of relationships that aren’t balanced and take too big a part of your all too precious energy. If you don’t feel lifted up by a relationship and positive when you leave them, it’s time to reconsider.

For a wonder woman, I know just how hard it is to admit that old ways of working aren’t right, that maps for the future need to be redrawn, that the wheels may have come off the one woman road show. The clincher for me, as ever, has been my daughter. Acting as a mirror to me, she helps me see just how unstable and unsupportable my deals with myself have become. I’m fervently hoping she won’t ever need to unlearn the doctrine of ferocious self support. It’s up to me to show her a different way.

Photo by Mona Eendra on Unsplash

You can follow me online via Instagram @hannahmearns or @wonder_women_nutrition.