Raising children when your mental health is spiralling

Tori Bowman Johnson

Tori Bowman Johnson

Tori, a freelance writer, has worked in production, talent management & branding since her agency role at Vivien’s Model Management in Melbourne in 2011. Tori has recently launched, The First Word; a conversational podcast for women, particularly those who juggle young children & paid work. Tori is also a very proud mum of two little boys.
Updated on Jun 13, 2024 · 10 mins read
Raising children when your mental health is spiralling

When depressive slopes spill into my morning coffee, it’s my two boys who seem to override all other remedies. I used to think that looking after children through the blue days would be impossible (and don’t get me wrong, there are times when it does seem unthinkable), but they provide purpose and grounding when I unintentionally disconnect.

In many ways a child’s soft nature personifies kindness. Being engulfed by a child’s world feels like the universe is handing you a gift in the form of a sweet entry into innocent space. The kindness behind this is healing.

There’s a divine quote in what I personally believe to be one of the best books ever written, Wonder by R J Palacio. He writes, “Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.”

In this context, this quote acts as a reminder to unreservedly dissolve into my children’s view of the world (colour, song, play) and let the experience of doing so smother my blue.

Recently I had COVID. Ugh, what an absolute inconvenience that particular double-lined test result can be. Not to mention a pretty grim sickness to be laden with, with kids in tow. Symptom-wise my case was fairly mild, thank goodness. The undoing was in the fatigue, the loss of taste, and the brain fog. All of which triggered a depressive spiral. I repeat, ugh.

When I’m feeling poorly, I tend to take time off exercise to give my body time to rest and recover. While beneficial to my immune system, it can be somewhat detrimental to my state of mind. I know I am not alone here. 

I’ve written about my history with depression and OCD in previous articles and explained how the combination of medication, exercise, and diet act as a very helpful clutch. The trick behind the efficacy of this clutch, however, is consistency. Daily consistency.

The consequences of no consistency

Regarding my recent bout of COVID; consistency fell out the window. So toodle-oo clutch. 

What happens when you’re separated from your safety net? Well for me:

No exercise for over a week left me feeling stuck and lethargic. 

A week might not sound like a long time, but those like myself who count on the loveliness of endorphins will appreciate the loss here.

Endorphins are hormones released by the body when pain or stress is detected. Endorphins are released during pleasurable activities such as exercise, massage, food, or sex. Quite often they’re known as the ‘happy hormone’ as they can significantly reduce stress and improve a sense of well-being. #ILoveEndorphins

I’ve been tempted at times to replace an endorphin hit with a dopamine hit but it’s never the same. For those unsure, dopamine is another hormone. In short, the human brain is constantly looking out for behaviours that release dopamine into the body’s mesolimbic system – a.k.a the ‘reward system’ – as it releases a feel-good effect. When you’re engaged in something that breeds pleasure, your brain releases large amounts of dopamine, making you feel happy. 

It’s different for everyone but nowadays I find that dopamine tends to follow from social media engagement to retail therapy, indulgence, etc. So I’ve always found endorphins to offer a more humble impact.

Losing my sense of taste

This meant that whatever I was feeding my body lacked the charm food usually brings (an example of a dopamine hit). 

I found myself eating soup and toast most nights, as the feeling of a warm belly was comforting. Every small win counts! 

And then to the hideous brain fog COVID brings….

The brain fog disrupted my train of thought and therefore my ability to write. As I usually express myself or distract myself with writing, I felt robbed of another outlet. I could barely string a sentence together beyond my own name and coffee order.

With all this going on, I caught myself spiralling. And I spiralled quite internally, in solitude. 

Sometimes when I’m down, I force an unnatural, stoic facade in hopes of tricking my brain to follow suit. It never does though, hey? Humans need each other. And we also need time. 

Another way out of the spiral, I knew well, was just time. After my bout of COVID dissipated and I could once again access my clutches, I’d be able to dig myself out of the mud. I just had to wait patiently. 

Gifts found in the waiting

During the waiting period, I decided to angle my days solely towards my boys and our ‘at home itinerary.’ 

I let my world contract to match their boundaries. Their rooms, their crayons, their make-believe cafe, their toy boxes, and their vivid imaginations. A land where the floor is lava and the Pokémon theme song plays on repeat for hours. I spent a lot of time on the floor, simply playing. Maybe the distraction of their darling charm could help? I was right. 

To my surprise, the week of play was not only a distraction but also a bridge that reunited me back into my body. I was feeling a sense of connection again. The spiral weakened. 

A child’s space is so wonderfully expansive in creativity and crowded by colour. It is a space that is full of what is sweet and harmless. Books. Crayons. Toy cars. Bears. Tiaras. Dolls. Blocks. Dress ups. Simplicity. Giggles. Pitter-patter. Things that are soft. Things that fly. Things that roll. Things that sing. It’s blissful.

Spending this time in their rooms each day meant that I was low to the floor. It was grounding. It required me to be barefoot. I was stripped back to basics. It required me to follow their made-up words and sentences (many of which were missing essential verbs). The onus to lead was lifted, I could simply follow. I had to match their pace. I slowed down – both mind and body. 

We all talk and read about the importance of being present, practicing mindfulness, and learning to switch off and unplug in terms of mental health – and for good reason.

At times I’ve felt confused about exactly how to achieve these things in the busyness of life. Sure, I put my phone away and focus on the kids but surely it’s supposed to mean more than that? 

The answer is yes. It can mean a lot more if you don’t force it. I’ve learned that in order to be ‘present’, you have to let go of what you think being present should look like and instead be engulfed by the environment you’re in. If you are truly present, it won’t matter where your phone is. It’ll be the last thing on your mind. 

Looking back on my recent spiral (and COVID), I noticed that being present with my children helped me feel better. Being present meant allowing their space to become my home away from home. It meant allowing their words to become our shared language. It meant ensuring the importance of their to-do lists trumped my own. Because everything they were sharing with me, gave me happiness, escapism, pride (so much pride), sweet relief, and weightless joy.

Re-discovering play by being present

Below is what I learned on the underlying (yet real) meanings of play. Each of these observations was a building block, smashing that spiral. 

Building LEGO or Duplo. Listen to what they’re designing, planning, and building. What’s their vision? Watch their purposeful decision-making and commitment to every detail.

 What I saw: Intelligent, perceptive, and thoughtful little minds. 

Piling every soft toy onto the bed and appreciating their Why. ‘All the animals have to nap now. Turn the lights off and shhhhh, we can’t wake them!’ OR ‘The floor is lava – we have to save them!” OR ‘We’re on a boat. Jump on mum and grab an oar!’ 

What I saw: Purpose-driven and protective little minds. 

Dressing their teddies or dolls in ‘real’ clothes. Nappy on! T-shirt or dress on! Hat and socks on! In this play, they’re mirroring the love and care you show them every day. They’re showing compassion by attending to their beloved teddies in such a life-like way. It’s an astonishing reflection of a child’s maternal instinct. 

What I saw: Instinctive, observant, wise (beyond their years) little minds. 

Playing cafes and making you an air coffee (or 20) with a muffin and a soup. Side thought; Is it just me or do kids cafes only ever take credit or leaves? And why are they always out of oat milk? Back to it … They’re nourishing you by tending to your belly, the way you do theirs. 

What I saw: Kindness, creativity, and care.   

Colouring and drawing. There is no pressure to stay within the lines. They construct no rules about light and shade. The real beauty? They only draw what they see and remember to be important. Often, they draw a family, a home, flowers, a big blue sky, green grass, and a yellow sun. 

What I saw: Delight! There is so much comfort in learning what they perceive to be real and safe. 

Wrapping it up

Engaging in the simplicity of their play was a beautiful way to pass the time as I waited for the fog to clear. None of it required much of me (which I point out as when you’re down, you don’t have an abundance to give), other than to show up and be close to my kids. 

Playing felt nothing like an adulthood regression or ‘hiding from reality’ but far more like a ritual – which was uplifting. 

I will finish this piece by leaving you with the definition of a ritual in case these worlds help you. 

This definition is written by a wise and wonderful Doula, Tiffany Smith-Shiels of The Ritual Doula @tiff_theritualdoula

‘When you consider the word ritual, what comes to mind? You may think of organised religion or collective shared rituals such as birthdays, weddings, or Christmas. The word may feel expansive and exciting for you, or the idea of a fixed routine or rigid process may bring up a sense of discomfort. 

But to bring it back to basics, rituals are a way of creating meaning and reverence in our everyday lives. By combining a series of steps, we take gentle action; infused with intention and imbued with deeper meaning.

Where habits and routines are done on auto pilot, rituals are performed on a more conscious level. They require our awareness in the moment, and while they are repetitive, it is in this structure we experience freedom and connection. The subtle formula becomes a rhythm to tune us into a more grounded frequency.

Anything from making a cup of tea to the transition from work mode to home mode, watching your favourite sports team or folding clothes can be a ritual. Rituals make the simple sacred, the mundane magic. Rituals act as a bridge to come back to yourself and remember your uniqueness. In a world where our focus is constantly tugged away in all directions, our attention is the most valuable gift we can give to ourselves.’

I love these words, a lot. 

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