DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
WE WERE surviving by taking walks or bike rides. Just the three of us, right about 5.30 in the afternoon when the light was most golden and the sun was beginning to set. We had just begun to congratulate ourselves on how well we were managing because of those walks, with our masks on, stretching under the sky, commenting on birds and breathing fresh air.
Just as Zi began to seem unfocused, tense, lethargic, resistant, reluctant or bad-tempered, or would literally walk around in circles in her room, we would hustle her outside and keep her moving until her energy, mood, co-ordination, responsiveness and mindset settled back in place.
That half an hour saved us many quarrels that would have resulted from my impatience with or misunderstanding of her behaviour and her inability to foretell, describe or control unspecified feelings she wasn’t used to in a context that was entirely new. Had I not seen her change between when we left and when we came back, her muscles seeming to unknot and actual laughter replacing a kind of inner frown, I wouldn’t have realised how crucial those walks or rides were to parenting.
Many times, what we thought was an issue of discipline was instead one of relieving stress, being patient, practising understanding, and finding small techniques to keep things calmer and more co-operative. I gave up some work hours, and pressure on Zi to function optimally at everything in school. I found I became less connected when we didn’t get outside together, and zoning into my phone instead became a form of individual downtime.
One of the limitations of devices, for us all, is that they can’t substitute for how physical activity benefits our emotions and minds. It wasn’t just her, as a working parent in a pandemic, half an hour away from any pressure to complete housework, supervise homework or rush through e-mails, that made me step out of a space of demands, get out of my head, and become softer, a better listener and more loving.
I share this because of the state of emergency (SoE), which has established new rules, including no walks, rides or time outdoors. I’m not debating the regulations. The legitimate goal is to cut down as many points of contact as possible.
The other morning, I was surprised when I found myself lighting a deya for those who have died, thinking of their families’ grief, praying for the safety of my own. It was a moment that stood still, struck by how quickly the hospitals became filled, and how terrifying our prospects feel. So I understand why we must stay at home, and agree.
Still, I think back to those short walks or rides. What will replace them? How long will it take us to figure out again how best to cope? These are not peripheral questions or concerns. We have to survive the pandemic, but also emerge without PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Emotional intelligence requires us to recognise that this, too, is a governance issue.
Indeed, even while global data has suggested that violence against women, abuse of children and substance abuse are likely to rise, we have heard little of these shadow aspects of the pandemic addressed in state press conferences. We may be in war mode, but we also need to talk about care.
The State has responsibility for supporting how families reduce misrecognition of stress and de-escalate conflict when the ways that parents and children were previously adapting are no longer available, even if for a few weeks. The press conferences need to do far more, treating strategies to manage mental health in households and among children as important as the Prime Minister’s buff-up or the Minister of Health’s tears.
Sensitivity to this should weigh heavily in communication with the public. The frustrations are different for men who may be emasculated from job loss or women who are pressed into transactional sex for shelter for them and their children, or children who have become vulnerable to abuse, but to not acknowledge these as realities people are negotiating is irresponsible.
Even while we save lives, the language from the highest levels now needs to shift. It may be necessary to stop us from taking a walk, but families need more than death, desperation and depression. They need expertise to repeatedly provide good advice that identifies and responds to the psychological impact of the SoE, recognising that families’, and particularly children’s, emotional lives are part of this new, daily challenge and a real public health concern.
Diary of a mothering worker