Putting on my own oxygen mask first
I could sit here and write about my time teaching in primary schools, and how it dawned on me over the years that children really needed more support with their mental health and their wellbeing than they had been getting up till recent times. And that would be true.
I could also tell you all about my own children, and how I wanted to learn how to explain concepts like mindsets and resilience to them. And that would be true also.
But all that came later.
The first thing that really started me on this journey about ten years ago were my own struggles. My own sense of barely keeping my head above water over the years. Of dipping under from time to time and having to fight my way back up. Of years of feeling lost and out of place. Like I didn’t belong. Like something was missing inside me. That there was a hole in my soul and I didn’t know how to fill it. But I managed to keep treading water. Managed, that is, until the birth of my children. At that point, the exhaustion of the early years of parenthood caused my anxiety to start spilling over into everyday life on an almost constant basis.
I would be sitting on the sofa in the evening, holding my son and watching tv when out of nowhere, a lump the size of my fist would rise up from my chest into my throat, making me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Standing in the kitchen boiling the kettle, I would feel awash with panic, without even knowing what exactly I was worrying about.
I knew enough at this stage of my life to understand that without intervention, this wasn’t going to get any better. I had already discussed it with my GP and he had suggested antidepressants might be an option. At that point, it wasn’t severe enough to need to go on them straight away, so I decided to try some other options first. And so, I found myself one Thursday evening sitting cross legged on the floor of a converted barn a couple of miles from my house. With my eyes closed in a room full of strangers. Anxiety-inducing in itself, one might say. And although the voice in my head kept telling me how ridiculous this was, how I could be at home drinking tea and eating nice biscuits in front of the fire, how crazy it was to be sitting with my eyes closed surrounded by potentially axe wielding strangers, something else inside of me kept me and my crossed legs firmly planted on the floor. But I vowed that I would leave as soon as the bell rang. After an interminable 45 minutes of silence finished, I opened my eyes. I decided I better wait 5 minutes out of politeness before fleeing home to my pajamas. Before I had the chance to leave though, tea was produced. And chocolate. I decided that I might stay a little while, after all. It would be rude not to, wouldn’t it.
And so, my own personal journey towards wellbeing began. It was far from an overnight fix, much to my initial disappointment. But I’ve learnt over time that almost nothing worthwhile is. To paraphrase Aesop and Aristotle, one trip to a meditation group does not a well-balanced life make. Wellbeing is not comprised of any one thing. Rather, it’s a way of living that incorporates many different concepts, techniques and ideas that, together, help us live a well-rounded life. One where we feel more able to meet the ups and downs of life with strength and courage.
As my own children began to move out of the toddler stage, I started to talk with them about topics like mindfulness, neuroplasticity, and resilience. I just left out the big words. I tried to simplify tricky concepts. Breaking them down into manageable bites, using language they understood.
One day, watching my children running around in the playground, a seed began to germinate. One line. Then another. I took out my phone and began to make notes. Over the following weeks, more and more words and ideas came to me. I bought a new notebook. New pens. It doesn’t take much for me to justify new stationary. My children were quite young, so I grabbed time when I could. During naps. While Fireman Sam was on. After bedtime. I tried getting up earlier than the boys, but my eldest constantly foiled my attempts at this, displaying a penchant for waking before 5 a.m. for the first six years of his life.
Children can sniff out earnest words and writing, and they usually run a mile from it. So it was essential to me when writing Mighty Mindsets that it have a sense of fun. Like life itself, writing is a serious endeavor best worn lightly. Although a few years have passed since I first began typing notes in a damp, grey playground in Co. Galway, the essence of the book remains: how to help our children cope with life’s ups and downs. Giving them the tools to not just survive, but to thrive in a fast-changing world. And to be able to smile as they do so.
(c) Niamh Doyle
About Mighty Mindsets:
‘Your mindset is how you think about things, what you think you can or can’t do.’
A gentle non-fiction picture book about emotions, mindfulness, your amazing brain and how to feel calm.
How does your brain work, and what does it have to do with moods? Why do you sometimes feel anxious, cross or afraid, and what can you do about it? How can breathing, looking at a snowglobe, or changing what the voice inside you says, help you feel better?
When we tell ourselves negative stories – like “I’m not good at maths” – it becomes harder to learn. But if we can change our mindset – “I’m not good at maths yet” – we help our brains to learn.
Mighty Mindsets puts together mindsets, mindfulness and neuroscience in a gentle self-care manual for young readers. With calming and playful illustrations by Carol Betera, Mighty Mindsets helps children understand their emotions and learn tips to take care of their mental health.
Order your copy online here.