Hot chocolate doesn’t belong on ceilings. Poop doesn’t belong on walls. But when you have a toddler, these things happen. Children have a way of reordering not only your house but also your body (hello, stretch marks), mind (good bye, expectations), and soul (I swear I used to be a really patient person). The constantly shifting order of a parent’s world is joyful one moment and utterly overwhelming the next. Every now and then, when that catapulted hot chocolate and the fecal wall art are too much, I do what many of us have done. I hunker down behind a locked door for either a) a good, long sob, b) a king-size chocolate bar, c) a social media binge, or d) a midday slurp of some beverage that I would never pour into a sippy cup. I hear that the best parents—masters at multi-tasking—manage to ingest the chocolate and mommy juice between those body-racking sobs, all while going live on Facebook. When my kids are cranky, though, my advice is never “Go lock yourself in the bathroom” or “Stare at a screen until you feel better.” Sure, we take the time for a good cry when we need it (and yes, we enjoy our screen time, too), but more often than not, I send my sad, cranky, or squabbling kids outside.
Evicting grumpy kids from the house is awesome for two reasons. Reason one: it makes my life easier. Reason two: it makes life better for my kids. The first minutes might be spent sulkily kicking at the dirt or angrily banging a stick against a tree. But then oh my gosh, there’s a worm in the dirt, and it’s so slimy and squirmy! Or look at that nest up near the top of the tree; I wonder if it has eggs in it! Time spent engaging with the natural world is transformative.
I’m not always as kind to myself as I am to my children. In the small container of my house, with it’s low, hot-chocolate-stained ceiling, my frustration and pain get squeezed into a heavy, unbreakable solid. When I open the door and step outside, the ceiling gives way to an infinity of sky, and my pain—whatever its source—changes shape. It loosens, softens, and sometimes even dissipates. Next to that enormous black walnut tree—older than me—my pain is young and small. And there’s nothing like a violently red sunset to burn away the imaginary lines dividing me from the larger world.
A growing body of scientific research confirms what many of us already know from experience: time spent in natural environments is good for mind, body, and soul. A walk in the park, a few moments spent standing under a tree to admire its canopy, or even time spent gazing mindfully at a picture of a tree reduce stress hormone levels. I’m getting better at remembering this. When I’m feeling trapped in my own petty problems, I don’t always hide behind doors or chocolate or a smartphone. More and more often, I step outside instead—shoeless, hatless, jacketless, placing as few barriers as possible between myself and the world. Barefoot, I walk into the grass and absorb its texture with my toes, imagining the layers of earth extending below me. I stretch out my hand to the bark of a maple tree and breathe the oxygen-rich air of its underbelly. If it’s raining, I tilt my face to meet the water, letting it spill down my cheeks.
Why? What’s the point of all this? For me, when sensations like frustration, anger, shame, or exhaustion press too heavily, I can lighten them by inviting other sensations to stand alongside them. I don’t need to force away pain. I just need to give myself space to feel other things too—the soft prickle of grass beneath my feet, the shock of cold air against my face—and then the overwhelm feels less overwhelming. Getting my nature fix is central to my self-care. And speaking of fixes, my fellow chocoholics will be pleased to hear that a handful of studies also link consumption of dark chocolate to decreased stress hormones—which of course tells me that I should be taking chocolate outside with me more often!
Tell me, what role does nature play in your self-care?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Thomas is the nature-lovin' mama of three nature-lovin' boys. In her free time, you'll most likely find her reading, writing, running (it's more of a waddle, really), or rock climbing.