#5 strategies for surviving long-term self–isolation, by a returning to work mother

By Natalie McCallum, Media and Communications Manager

Three weeks into starting a new job – and returning to “paid work” – and the world has turned upside down. Coronavirus broke out and within a week our au pair had returned to her home country. But that was okay as the schools were still open.  My husband and I could easily juggle the school runs around our commutes into London. One week later, the schools closed. But that was okay as our lodger, a former nanny, volunteered to look after the children. Hurrah, it was all going to be hunky dory. Back to work, albeit working from home (I was used to that); all perfectly manageable. A few days later, national lockdown. Lodger flees nest to look after ageing parents. But no need to panic as our former babysitter called us looking for work. Bingo. Winning. Everything was under control, business could resume as usual.

Then the bombshell announcement. We must all self-isolate. Gulp. No more childcare “lives” left, no phone a friend option. Two children to home school, one brand new job to navigate, one family business and a home to run. Yikes. My chest tightens itself into a rigid drum, my mouth becomes numb and unable to taste. The global crisis had finally pierced our family bubble. What now??

One week later and surprisingly, I find myself able to breathe again, slowly released from the grip of my suspected coronavirus symptoms as the reality dawns on me that it’s not all that bad. In fact, there have been some positives in all this preliminary COVID-19 chaos.

Firstly, the sun came out and spring arrived. Eureka! Secondly, the children were delighted to rediscover the garden after months of rain-induced captivity. Thirdly, we were generously allowed out of the house once a day. So we’ve made our exercise escapes at 8am, thrown a frisbee in the local field, the kids have scooted happily at the skatepark while I did burpees bootcamps without a spectator in sight. Back at my desk promptly at 9am to hand the baton over to my husband for the next two hours before swapping over and back again. Creative home-schooling sessions pass seamlessly by on cumulus clouds complete with PVA glue, cotton wool and mini marshmallows, followed by one last leg of the work relay. Finally, rounding off the day with a virtual meeting with colleagues on Teams, plus an evening social with friends on Zoom. This is the good life, isn’t it? Work life balance to the max.

Everyone here is happy, for now. But how do we keep up the mental momentum? What happens when the novelty wears off? When we all have cabin fever and are climbing the walls? One week’s been a fun adventure, but how do we keep up our spirits if being housebound and isolated from human contact lasts months on end?

If there’s one thing you learn from being a full-time mum and housewife for an extended season of your life, it’s the art of surviving in the relative desert of social isolation. 

Those early baby-raising years are aptly referred to as living “in the trenches”, particularly if you opt for rearing your children at home rather than taking the daycare route. Try spending consecutive weeks in the midst of the dreary, drizzling winter months housebound with sickly, wailing pre-schoolers, feeling honour-bound not to pop out to friends’ houses, the local playgroup, or even take refuge in a local library or shop as you long for adult human company, for fear of spreading tummy bugs, measles or other forms of contagion.  

Add into the mix the dearth of mental stimulation as you spend day after day in a toy-tidying timewarp of mushrooming mess and acquiring a 2:1 in the Art of Wiping. Getting your kicks from knocking down wooden block towers, squidging (strictly) homemade playdough into gingerbread moulds and blending sweet potato puree only for it to be regurgitated or hurled onto the floor with disgust. Tidy, wipe, sleep, repeat. Love them or love them, when laying out the rug for your little darlings’ 499th teddy bear’s picnic, you simply crave five minutes to read a newspaper or talk politics. Escaping the house with your buggy in hope of a chat with someone at the swings becomes the most exciting adventure of your life. Glory days of commuting into a buzzy career culture, where people occasionally thanked and praised you for your efforts, a dim and distant memory.

So throughout my personal lockdown years, I developed a mental health survival toolkit and practical coping strategies to get me through many a dark and lonely day. It is these that I would like to share with you as it may just give some of you a few nuggets of hope and a light at the end of a tunnel. So here’s my tuppence worth:

Strategy #1 – Above all, Connect

Being a stay at home mum, finding daily social connection was vital to my psychological wellbeing. Back in the baby days, that meant the luxury of leaving the house and being intentional about talking to people.  I sought moments of connection everywhere, from exchanging anecdotes at the bus stop and the swings to chatting to casual passers-by whilst feeding the ducks. People, may I suggest that now is the time to step out of the ignoring-people-on-the-Tube mentality; take a social risk and engage in conversation with human beings you don’t know.

It didn’t take me long to work out that a minimum of one social activity a day would keep me sane. Every week became a military operation of proactively booking in company. Meeting up with my NCT friends for coffee on Fridays became a lifeline. Making a beeline to the local library’s rhyme time on Mondays for a communal singalong of Little Bo Peep nurtured my soul no end (I definitely enjoyed it more than my toddlers) and I even volunteered to run my local toddler group on Tuesdays simply to have a good excuse to stay connected over a cup of tea.

So please don’t feel guilty about stepping away from your garden-view desk for ten minutes to phone your grandma, FaceTime your folks, join a WhatsApp group rant or exchange Facebook Likes on your lunchbreak. Do spend your evenings experimenting with Houseparty and Zoom with a crisp glass of white as you bask in social bliss of grinning at your postage stamp panel of real life friends. Research shows that face-to-face socialising via videolink has similar psychological feel-good benefits to meeting up in person. Quotes The Guardian (on 27.03.20), “Sophie Scott, the director of the institute of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, said research had shown that while people laughed more and felt better after face-to-face meetings than after phone calls or texts, there was no difference when it comes to video meetings.”

The likes of Zoom, FaceTime and Houseparty are all going to be vital to your survival in social isolation. Embrace them.

Strategy # 2. Move your body!

It is a well documented fact that doing bursts of exercise every day boosts our mood and reduces anxiety – doing 30 mins of heart-pumping exercise 3-5 days a week can have the equivalent effect on the brain as taking anti-depressants for many people [source: Harvard Medical School]. There’s no doubt about it, exercise makes us feeeel good. Our endorphins are the best natural high – and they’re free!

My way of living life to the full when being cut off from the rest of the world has been to do a weekly outdoor group fitness class. In the early years, that involved squatting in a circle round giant rubber bands with my Buggyfit class, while the babies gurgled to each other, transfixed. One friend and I found ourselves whizzing our buggies round the park on rollerblades. Latterly, it has been meeting with a group of school mums in a friend’s garden to do a weekly HiiT class with a personal trainer. So much better for our mental health than going to the gym all by yourself.

So while you’re working from home, why not kick off your day with a punchy power walk in the park. It feels so good to get the heart rate up and boost those brain endorphins before starting a day’s work. Or find a live PT streaming session to join so you can pump your glutes in real time with virtually present friends. Or join the 9am session with Joe Wicks and exercise with your children.

Strategy #3 – Live in the present

If there’s one thing looking after children taught me, it’s to live in the present. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen next: a spillage, an illness, an unexpected trip to A&E. Each day is peppered with surprises and however much you try to control and order your home or run a meticulously smooth timetable, everything invariably goes out of the window regardless. The more you let go and go with the flow, the easier it becomes and that brings far more inner peace. Children are experts at living in the moment and accepting their daily reality and we could do with taking a leaf out of their book. So take each day at a time and don’t worry about tomorrow as anything could change, just as the last few weeks have proven.

Whilst the current pandemic may be all-consuming, it will come to an end and life will eventually resume. Scrabbling around unresponsive websites for toilet rolls and pasta was last week’s panic and now the shelves have been restocked and it’s all fine. We just about survived that one.

I would encourage you to embrace the season you’re in and don’t resist it. Like kayaking down a river, paddle your way through these turbulent rapids as best you can and the calm waters will eventually appear. They always do. Savour the present moments and enjoy them. If change comes along, take a deep breath, relax and adapt. Then you’re truly winning.

Strategy # 4 – Use your imagination

Whether you’re in the habit of using your imagination or not, we are all gifted with innate creativity that has no limits. If we engage with our long-lost creativity we will find that it’s still there and even if our imagination been dormant for a while, it doesn’t take long to unblock the fountain again.

When you’re stuck at home for days or weeks on end, it forces you to be creative as you have no other choice. There’s only so much of the telly that you can watch and from a moral perspective, there’s only so much you are prepared to let your kids goggle per day. It’s relatively easy to bundle the children in the car and take them down to the local farm park while you sup on a latte, but it takes imagination to spend an afternoon in the confines of your living room entertaining yourselves – with all electronic devices switched off.

Some of the best days I’ve had were those “in confinement” when we had no agenda other than to just “be”. Suddenly an inner light flicks on and you find yourself remembering how to play charades or making an assault course with sofa cushions to create toddler parcours. Add green food colouring to the water at bathtime and your kids find themselves in a sublime slime pit. Suspend old bedsheets over drying racks and create secret grottoes that will keep them entertained for hours. Now the sun’s come out stick a tent up in the garden with some toys in it. One hour’s peace to get some work done.

Strategy # 5. Eat together & eat well

Fundamentally, one of the most simple and affordable pleasures in life is eating together. It’s as if we are all programmed to need that daily touchpoint of sitting round a table and sharing our stories over a good meal. It’s how we connect best. In the context of our current lock-in, quality time with our families is something we can now enjoy in abundance. So let’s make the most of this rare opportunity before the game changes again. Plotting our hopes and dreams for the day at breakfast and debriefing on the highlights at tea time. Finding bliss in the simplicity of it.

Finally, we are what we eat. Foods have the power to boost our moods and energy and most importantly in present times, they are the superheroes that have the power to supercharge our immune systems. But eating the wrong ones can make us feel sluggish and allow the bugs to win.

Here are a few basic foodie principles I have learnt whilst being at home:

  • Eat all the colours of the rainbow (and that doesn’t mean Haribos!). Variety is key to boosting our immune systems, so go wild with some purple and green.
  • Eat natural and unprocessed food. I’m a big believer in eating paleo – foods that are closest to their natural form as possible. Whole fruit and veg go without saying – full of goodness and they contain the fibre we need to boost our metabolism. My favourite snacks are handfuls of raw pure nuts. For a treat, energy balls made from dates.
  • Cook from scratch. Now we’re all at home, we may have more time to cook. Convenience has been king for so long, but cooking is good for the body and soul. It’s therapeutic. And the nutritional benefits are far higher.

So connect, move, create, eat and embrace the present moment to thrive in these turbulent times. Seize the day and find the opportunities and daily blessings that are hidden in the midst of crisis. Forge new relationships and repair old ones.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.