Family Mental Health

Lessons from a pandemic

I’m sure everyone has their own personal takeaway from the pandemic, some may overlap, and some may be unique. After some reflection, and a little distance between us, these are mine.

Physical Health is Important and often Taken for Granted

How many times have you been going through the motions, ignorant of how good you have it, until one day you get sick? It’s something that happens to me again and again. A lesson I never seem to learn. I take my health for granted. The ease of thinking for my job, without a foggy brain full of Texas allergens. The ability to get out of bed without my body aching with pain and fever. Looking at the computer screen, without a blinding headache. Going to the grocery store, without the fear of contracting something dangerous. It’s in this moment that I need to remind myself as well, that being able to see, hear and smell, as well as walk and hug people are physical gifts too! Gifts that we often don’t appreciate until they are gone. During the pandemic I was also aware of physical health being important, as people who had breathing conditions, or were overweight, or were fighting cancer or similar were much more susceptible to complications. The death toll was a glaring reminder to take care of ourselves and appreciate our health, while we still have it.

Children Belong in School with their Peers and Teachers

In my house (at least for me) working from home was a joy! I repeatedly said the only thing I’d change is for my family to go back to the office and school, because quite frankly being an employee, teacher, wife, chef, and housekeeper twenty-four hours a day is for the birds! My husband wasn’t a huge fan of confinement, but my kids were the ones that suffered the most. Luckily, my kids were a little older and closer to independent work (this might be a different story if I had to be more hands on), but it was clear they were not as happy or engaged in learning as they are when they’re in a classroom. I believe very much in experiencing the world, that traveling to visit a place will teach you more than a textbook. My kids went to a Montessori preschool for this reason, and it’s part of why I think technology is so dangerous, because while you can see the world on a screen, your experience is two-dimensional. Even as technology tries to catch up to reality, it is still no substitute. When I visited the 9/11 memorial, the gravity of what had happened there was palpable. As real as virtual reality can be, we are spiritual creatures and the experience of being somewhere, and a part of something greater through connection, with eye contact and touch cannot be replicated.

While the teachers and students did an amazing job of adjusting and I am forever grateful to the extra miles our teachers went during this time, there is no substitute for in person learning. The morning hug from your favorite teacher, the pat on the back from coach to say, “it’s alright, you’ll do better next time”, that glance at a classmate to realize you’re not the only one who thinks the teacher is speaking Greek in this Math class. The teacher pulling you aside privately because he/she noticed that you have a look on your face that says you don’t understand their Greek. Learning to ask questions and advocate for yourself when the teacher doesn’t notice. Navigating where and whom to sit with at lunch time. Learning to play a new game, being a class helper, stand up to a bully or be there for a friend. Realizing I need to brush my teeth better or start wearing deodorant. School is where we prepare for life after, life is messy, and we are social creatures who need each other physically to feel connected. The smells, the atmosphere, the experience is all an important part of growing up.

Sometimes we need to slow down

Not everything deserves a place on our calendar. I have often thought that when I’m sick, it’s God or the universe’s way of forcing me to slow down. The pandemic was a worldwide push for everyone to clear their calendars and slow down. Ironically, as the world has sped up with data speeds, fast food and instant gratification, the pandemic was a forced shut down and slowing, taking a lot of what we previously knew away. Coping mechanisms like being busy and in some places like South Africa, even alcohol was taken away, leaving just the raw person, without their schedule to float around in their house.

I don’t know about you, but I am grateful for the pause. I am grateful for the opportunity to realize that not everything deserves a place on my calendar. More is not always better. I’m grateful for the extra, slow moments with my family, the boredom that led to creative play and games. The open mental space in my mind that allowed a new form of peace to exist. I have an opportunity to be intentional about what I say yes to and what I allow in my life. I don’t need to get my value from a full calendar. When we speed in a car, the window scenes blur and fly by us, the same is with life. Time is our most precious commodity, and we should spend it wisely.

Home affects our lives more than we know

We moved into a small townhouse, half the size of what we were used to, right before the pandemic. We were building a new house and the plan was basically to “only sleep there”. The new area was beautiful with trees and parks, public swimming pools and nice gyms. We could survive the smaller living quarters because we “wouldn’t be there much”. Then three months later, word of a deadly pandemic started spreading, and slowly more and more of our plans shut down. In half the house we used to have, no yard or pool that we were accustomed to, my family of four plus our large dog, senior cat, and the fish, now spent 24 hours a day doing work, school and everything else over zoom or within our new confines.

Many seem to have realized the importance of home as well, with remodeling, new construction and pool building all increasing. Some of my friends were now able to move further out and afford bigger and better housing in the suburbs, because they no longer had the commute to worry about. People are “stocking up” on space (and maybe toilet paper) in preparation for the next shut down. My space has also now become my sanctuary, every color I chose, window view and room choice, had intentional tranquility in mind. I asked myself “How would I feel at home if the world shut down again?”. The world has become a very stressful place to exist, and my home is where my family should be able to connect, relax and rejuvenate.

Mental Health is paramount

I adore my family, but it was a lot of together time. Mental health is a constant conscious effort and something that without which, it’s difficult to appreciate the other things on this page.

Late to the game, but ever grateful for finding it during this time, I started watching Downton Abbey. Every day at 3pm, I’d make a cup of tea, close my bedroom door behind me and watch one hour of my choice without talking to anyone. It sounds simple, but this routine and self-care preserved my sanity! Another routine that became instrumental in mental warfare, was our daily walks with our dog. The spring that year, seemed to be extra beautiful (or maybe we had just slowed down enough to notice it). Once daily, and more if we noticed tension in the air, our family would go for a walk. There is something almost magical about being outside in nature, the fresh air, the sky. We found a hidden grassy area with a little creek behind the trees on one of our pathways and claimed it as our own. It was here that were able to connect to each other, connect to ourselves and connect to a higher power. I keep that feeling in mind even now, recalling how healing the outdoors can be and how much we need it for mental health.

As much as our family loves one another, we are not able to fulfill all of each other’s needs. I cannot fulfill the role of my child’s best friend. My husband cares to talk about emotions, as much as I like sports. We need diverse people in our lives to help us be fulfilled and balanced. We need to have eye contact and touch to boost those happy hormones. We need to move our bodies and be outdoors. And most of all, we need to trust the world we’re living in. Something that I think is still missing. We are living under constant stress of germs, misinformation, mistrust, and it is seeping out everywhere. Social media is rampant with hateful comments and the news is full of sadness and evil. I grew up in a third world country, never realizing the impact the civil unrest had on my mental state and health, until I moved to America. Our children are absorbing the distrust and negativity, it is shaping who they will become.

The amount of technology consumed before the pandemic was at record highs and has intensified since. Parents, scared to have their kids roam the streets because of the news, are now allowing their children to roam the internet unsupervised, thinking it the “safer alternative”. Technology as a babysitter and pacifist is rampant, I see it every time I leave the house. Our children are being exposed to a world they are not prepared for online. The risks include addiction, depression, pornography, predators, comparison, consumerism, bullying and more. The lessons of self-awareness, self-love, patience, connection, true friendship, resilience, hard work, and healthy communication are not online.   Our children’s mental health is at risk.

Unexpected gifts

Even out of the darkest times, good can come. At the time, and the way it occurred, being let go from work I had done for thirteen years, did not seem like a gift. But after some reflection and soul searching, I realized that I had an opportunity to follow my passion of helping others. This is a move I had thought about often, but never acted on.

I also got to spend 24/7 with the ones I love. Time with my pre-teens who often prefer friends over mom and dad, time at home instead of rushing in the car to their next scheduled event and time spent in fun inventive ways… because let’s face it 24/7 is a lot of time! For good and bad, life will never be the same after this experience.