This Love Parks Week 2022, the Coordinator of our Perinatal Mental Health Peer Supporter Alliance, Clare, has shared her thoughts on the importance of parks to parents’ mental health. She has also co-ordinated some key info of park-based projects parents can get involved with across West Yorkshire:
My daughter was born in early January. It was cold and dark. January often feels like a month with no hope – Will it ever be light or warm? Will I ever go outside? Will I ever have fun again? With a brand-new baby, these questions took on even more weight. Every day felt dark, cold, isolated. I felt trapped, staring at the same four walls day-in day-out – the intensity of incessant crying doubled and redoubled because it was all I could hear and see.
However, there were still appointments to attend, to check my baby’s health and growth, and (luckily for me) I could walk through my local park to get to them. Even in the bitter cold of January, the air in the park was still refreshing. The cry of my baby didn’t sound quite so loud outside. My four walls were replaced for a few minutes by the drama of skeletal leafless trees against the backdrop of hills and a moody sky. I walked. My baby quietened. Outside in the park I was able to experience all my senses, rather than being stuck in my head with its constant tape-loop of doubts and resentments. The nip of frosty air on my skin, the smell of damp leaves, the sound of wind rushing through the trees – it all felt just a little bit more like being alive.
Spring in the Park
As the seasons changed ever more hopeful, so did my mood. Seeing the crocus flowers poke up from the grass and then the cherry trees start to blossom filled me with relief and joy. It wasn’t going to be dark forever! Rainy days were no longer an excuse to stay in… walking in the park was good for me and often the only time my baby would ever sleep was while pushed in the pram at a speed. The rain brought the gift of seeing things through a child’s eyes as my baby spent hours fascinated and laughing at the pattern the raindrops made on her rain cover. I can’t say I laughed too, but I didn’t cry.
Summer came and with it the dread of the school holidays, when all the baby-groups and mum-cafes and family-learning courses just STOP. That meant going back to feeling trapped in the house again – the place where it’s just me and I’m not enough. But – “Why don’t we just keep the groups going in the park over the summer?” suggested another mum. The park! Offering hope once again.
A Daily Pilgrimage
My local park has been many things to me over the years. As my child grew, the park’s playground was a daily pilgrimage. It is so close to me that I could forget the odd change of clothes or pack of wipes and still be OK. I have been known to take a hot cup of tea in a china mug with me to the park because it’s that close! I honestly don’t know how people cope without a decent local park. It is now host to a Couch-to-5k, a social running group and a Park Run which is now supporting my mental health through perimenopause. Every year the crocuses peep out again from among the wet leaves and it’s like the park is telling me “It never stays dark forever!”
Support Groups for New Parents
Now I work for Touchstone as the Coordinator of the West Yorkshire Perinatal Mental Health Peer Support Alliance. As part of that role, I’m currently involved in finding and helping local groups and organisations that support the wellbeing of new parents. Many used parks during lockdown as a way to keep their groups going when they couldn’t meet indoors.
Here are a few of those amazing projects you can get involved with:
One such group was MumSpace in Leeds. Their co-ordinator said:
“We used the parks as a way to meet up safely… we still use them now (weather permitting) as a way to enjoy the outdoors and get people walking and talking”.
Where: Epiphany Church, Gipton, Leeds
When: Term time, Wednesdays at 10am.
Facebook: @MumSpace Leeds
Parent Sanctuary ‘Schools out’ Leaflet
Other groups have always used outdoor space as a key part of their peer support for parents, such as Parent Sanctuary in Kirklees.
Back in 2020, when the world was locked down, Rachel gave birth to twins. As the world paused, hers grew. She was at home with a 3 year old and a 5 year old plus her newborn twins. She knew she had to be proactive to protect her mental health, staying inside was a recipe for disaster. As rules relaxed and we were able to meet friends for walks, Rachel, Elizabeth and Charlotte began walking with their babies, toddlers, preschoolers and reception-aged children. They noticed how much they looked forward to their adventures and how better family life was because of a dose of nature. This is how Parent Sanctuary was born!
As we developed the business plan, the evidence became clear – even the royal society of psychiatry was producing guidelines for therapeutic intervention in nature! Nature nurtures us! Many of us have a nature deficit and, whilst getting out of the house can feel like a mammoth task, we don’t need to go far or do much.
Combining nature, peer support, and gentle exercise we find parents relax, become calmer and more confident. They enjoy their nature walks, they talk about their issues and help each other to overcome them or inspire each other that the current problem will pass – giving them hope that what feels insurmountable right now will pass, will change, will evolve.
Our minds and our bodies change in nature. We get the physical benefits of fresh air, exercise, and even improved blood flow through grounding. We look for wonder, for connection, for learning at every opportunity and our problems fade. Taking time out can be just what we need to solve a problem. Enjoying ourselves in a new activity, a new place, or laughing together helps distract us and engage our creativity.
Telephone: 07835 623617
Many of you will also have seen LeedsDads gathering for walks and ice-creams in parks across Leeds. Walking and talking with other Dads can make all the difference. Dads need peer support too!
To get involved take a look at their Twitter or facebook.
To reach out and get involved in Touchstone’s Perinatal Mental Health Peer Support Alliance, please visit our website.