Nature and Normality: The School Run Reflections of a Working Mum
Back on the school run …
I’ve just arrived back from the supermarket with a bag full of cookery ingredients (cheesecake, if you’re interested), because my daughters are doing practical DT lessons at school again for the first time in over a year. The washing machine is rumbling away in the other room cleaning yet another PE kit, and I have a large pile of uniforms to iron later. This sounds a bit moany, but it actually feels a liberating thing to be back to ‘normal’. I even don’t mind the ironing.
Things are sort of normal, but not quite. The supermarket still gets me a bit stressed, particularly when, like this morning, someone gets a bit too close to me whilst reaching for biscuits. I have my mandatory anti-virus equipment in my bag at all times (wipes, gel, mask) and find myself mentally appraising risk a lot, like how frequently I’ve wiped high contact surfaces, and whether I should disinfect the milk bottles on the step before they go in the fridge. I get a bit nostalgic when watching pre-2020 TV programmes where people hug one another. I even shed a little tear watching a 1995 episode of Time Team yesterday, when they all huddled round a piece of iron age pottery and then rammed themselves in around an open fire in the pub.
So things are sort of normal, but sort of not. And how do we deal with that mentally? How are we supposed to be behaving? Is this normality, right now? Or was back then normal? Will the future be normal, and if so, what kind of normal? The questions go on, and we seem to have to adapt to this state of flux where dynamism is the only constant. I wish I had the answers to these questions, and I’d probably be quite a wealthy woman if I did, but I’m just riding the waves like everyone else.
Reading some of the early evidence emerging from the pandemic, it’s striking that in the midst of all the tragedy and chaos, humans are really pretty amazing at finding ways to cope. Whilst the pace of life ramped up hugely for some, others found that actively decelerating from the usual demands of commuting, driving, school run etc. had a positive impact on their mental wellbeing, and interestingly this was true for young people as well as adults. Getting closer to nature helped a lot too, with people spending a lot more time outdoors, growing their own fruit, vegetables and flowers, connecting with the seasons, and taking notice of things around them. Routines changed as free time activities shifted, so more people spent time walking and cycling, and lots of people got pets. People also spent more time in parks and gardens, and evidence showed that even seeing a complete stranger walking across a field in the distance could make a real difference to someone’s mood.
So what’s the common denominator of all of this? Well, I’m sure lots of conclusions could be drawn, but for me there are two really important things to reflect on. Firstly, that as humans, our relationship with the great outdoors is a vital part of our mental wellbeing. And secondly, that we’ve done all these things naturally over the last year, without advice or guidance. And I think that is pretty amazing. ‘Nature’ is the theme of this year’s mental health awareness week, and whilst that links to birds and trees and green spaces, I also like to think that it relates to our own fundamental nature as human beings - our capacity for adaptation, resilience and strength. We have this remarkable ability to know ourselves, and to find things that help us, even if we don’t really realise we’re doing it at the time.
So perhaps this mental health awareness week is time to celebrate our natural ability to be our own expert, and reflect on what we’ve learned about ourselves over the past fourteen months – figure out what we’ve enjoyed, what has helped us, and what we can do more of.
Maybe whilst I’m ironing later, I’ll have a little think and try to remember what I’ve gained from this whole experience that I want to preserve as life moves back to the rush of the school run. And maybe, if you’d like to, you might want to set aside time to do something similar.
Written by Rachel Byron, Lecturer on the BSc Mental Health and Wellbeing, BSc Public Health and Wellbeing and MSc Health, Mental Health and Wellbeing programmes.