Nature and My Maternal Mental Health (A personal blog)
Personal blog by Leah McFall
Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, my colleague Kate and I started discussing how we have included this year’s theme of ‘connecting with nature’ into our own lives, and the effect it has had on our mental health. We decided to each document the places we have visited, the quality of time spent there, and how it benefitted our mental wellbeing in a blog. Here’s mine…
I am in an extremely busy stage of life. I have a 16-month-old baby boy and am currently 6 months pregnant with my second. I am the Communications Officer for AWARE, working three days a week for this amazing charity that does vital work within our community that I feel very passionate about. I have just finished my first book to be released this summer and so am now about to enter a promotional stage with my publisher. I am currently in the middle of writing and recording my ongoing music project whilst leading worship at my church twice a month. I’m so grateful to be doing so many things that I love, however am now in a new stage of life where I want to make sure that I prioritise my precious time with my son and husband first and foremost.
Last week was Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week. I was working on creating informative content for our socials and realised what a game-changer this past year has been for me physically, emotionally, and mentally. Becoming a mum has been so wonderful, absolutely terrifying, completely exhausting, and life-altering. When people ask ‘How are you finding motherhood?’ I often reply by saying “Good! It’s mostly picking bogies, holding soggy half-eaten snacks, rescuing your car keys before they plummet down the toilet, and deleting important documents on your phone so that you can keep that minute-long video of your son eating a cracker.” Before adding, ”Oh…and feeling like your heart is going to explode every time they… well…do anything!” It’s been an overwhelming year of emotions! And although I find most of them extremely positive, I sometimes have an overwhelming feeling that I am not dividing myself very well. I am a complete perfectionist and sometimes put far too much pressure on myself. But it is important to me that I give my best to my job, my music, and mostly to being the best mum and wife I can be to my family. I find that I can do this better when I am not bogged down with negative thoughts and emotions such as mum guilt, endless worrying, and a hormonally fuelled lack of body confidence!
One of the things I find unhelpful to my mental wellbeing is too much time spent in the house, alone, and thinking about all the things I could do better at. With working from home, I find time outside to be more now than ever essential to my mental wellbeing.
I treasure my days off with my son. The pandemic meant that we didn’t get to go to all the classes I signed us up for over maternity, we didn’t get to go to soft play or go swimming, and we haven’t got to socialise or meet as many new mum friends as I had hoped. But the pandemic also meant that absolutely every dry day there was, we spent outside. I’ve now officially been to every playpark in Northern Ireland (slight exaggeration), walked thousands of miles (a larger exaggeration) pushing an empty pram with a baby on my hip beside seaside’s, and learned what it’s like to change an eager-to-fly-away dirty nappy in very high force winds (I wish this was an exaggeration!) My son loves being outside! He constantly brings me his wellies, and I usually find that my morning starts with 7 am laps around the garden. The point is, without realising it, nature has been my saving grace as a new mum in a year of lockdown. And thankfully in Northern Ireland, we are blessed to have so much incredible nature on our doorstep.
We recently visited Crawfordsburn –
The good thing about attending these places with your one-year-old is that although you may only walk a 10 metre distance in 2 hours, you will not miss a single thing! We paused to pick bits of grass, held them in our hands, and then blew the grass away to watch the wind take the bright green blades into the air. We paddled and splashed at the sea edge whilst my son paused to watch his feet sink into the wet sand and become a muddy foot pie. Intrigued by this feeling he repeated it around forty times. We laughed at our dog digging a hole in the sand and desperately trying to reverse sniff the sand out of his nostrils. We (unfortunately) ate a worrying amount of sand when making sandcastles. We kept getting distracted by the sound of seagulls flying above our heads and repeatedly said ‘tweet tweet’ to copy their song.
In reading the tips from the Mental Health Foundation on how to truly ‘connect’ with nature, in that you need to engage all of your senses when interacting with it, I can tell you that we have a lot to learn from children on how to not only do that but to do it well!
Crawfordsburn is a stunning place, and I felt that my time there was not wasted at all. I wasn’t eager to get home to do the many things I had on my to-do list. I didn’t feel overwhelmed with thoughts of underachieving. I just took a complete break from any other thought other than how much fun I was having with my son and how beautiful nature is. In fact, even looking out over the sea and seeing how far it went on into the sky, made me feel like the world was a lot bigger than my negative thoughts. I didn’t feel closed in on by them, I felt very free and that I could breathe. It didn’t mean that throughout the rest of the week I didn’t have to manage unhelpful thinking, but it reminded me that I didn’t have to focus on it all of the time and very much deserved a break from it!
We visited World of Owls –
Last Saturday we visited the World of Owls in Randalstown. We spent time walking around the huts and paused to take notice of all the incredible feathers on the different types of birds. All of the patterns, colours, and textures on their wings. The way they interacted with each other, protected their precious eggs, and the way their eyes followed you wherever you went. We tried to copy the sound that the large eagles made and tried not to smell the smelly smell of the chicken's coop (especially when pregnant and having the nose of a bloodhound.) We then went into the reptile hut and got to hold a snake. We took notice of all their beautiful shiny scales and unfortunately had to rescue said snake from having a scale picked off by my son.
We went for a very long walk around the forest and took our time spotting the deer, splashing in puddles, and feeling the bark on trees. As a family, we made sure that this was our only plan for the day. The feeling of not being rushed, not having to be somewhere else meant that we could just take time to enjoy all of the nature surrounding us.
Discovering nature again through the eyes of your child is a very eye-opening experience. As adults, the things we just walk on by and don’t instinctively pause to take in is a shame. Like a butterfly on top of a long blade of grass. You have absolutely no hope of walking past such a beautiful image with your one-year-old beside you, and thank goodness for that!
Again I felt like it was a freeing day. Free of worry, stress or anxiety. Just time to enjoy the quietness of a forest (a break from endless nursery rhymes that now play instead of my favourite r&b playlists) and instead learn how to listen intently for the sound of a deer stepping on a branch. And the feeling of excitement when one was spotted!
It is SO essential for our mental well-being to get out and enjoy what our country has to offer! To allow yourself a break from overthinking within four walls that can sometimes feel very claustrophobic. Not being able to meet my friends for breakfast in my favourite brunch place, dragging my kid along with me just because I am so in need of social time, has forced me to embrace a life that includes a lot of spending time outside and in nature. I feel it has truly helped my mental health as a new mum, and I am so thankful to live in a country that offers easy access to stunning beaches, forests, parks, lakes, rivers, and mountains. We need to push the care of our mental wellbeing up our to-do list. If you feel that you are dividing yourself very thin, then you owe it to yourself and to the people that depend on you, to take care of your mind. You are doing great! And you deserve a break from the negative thoughts you may be experiencing that are telling you that you are not.
So to everyone reading this, I say…on this Mental Health Awareness Week … OUT YE’S GET! You won't regret it!