Since leaving the ever-sunny South at age 18, I have experienced definite mood disorder during the fall and winter months, and it’s more pronounced after becoming a mother. We as mothers are more susceptible to the changes that seasons bring, particularly in the gloomy months. We have fewer pleasurable distractions, fewer opportunities to help ourselves, fewer outs than we did before our lives at home with children.
I deeply admire those mothers who delight in the still, homey indoor time of the fall and winter; candlelight and fireplaces on dark December afternoons; watching the fresh snow fall and being thrilled at the idea of 5 more days inside; snuggling with children in a dimly lit living room reading books and drinking hot cocoa.
But for me, whether it’s nature or nurture or a combination of both, I am solar-powered. All those winter home and hearth images seem so romantic, but they are not my reality. Sunshine means cheerfulness, optimism, motivation, and easy joy. Lack of sunlight means listlessness and blues that eventually, and very suddenly, devolve into disorientation and borderline despair.
Fortunately, with the self-awareness that prayer and good advice have brought, I have learned that Seasonal Affective Disorder need not be such a burden for me and my family. I beat myself up for a few years thinking it was attributable to a pathetic lack of sanctity, but I now know that it’s mostly related to physiology, which can be helped so that the real struggle for holiness can continue!
The winter requires self-knowledge and careful planning. Yes, we plan out our winter days based around my need for sunlight and activity and adequate social time. But it’s more vain for me to pretend I can cope with the darkness and solitude of the winter and then drag around in a sometimes-alarming state of hopelessness from November to March, bringing the family down with me. In our home, winter is not a time for hibernating or nesting. We may even miss out on some winter traditions. But I know what I have to do, and we do it, beginning in late October, before we get so far into fall and winter that the cycle has begun:
(1) In October, replace “soft white” lightbulbs with full spectrum bulbs, or the really bright fluorescent ones.
(2) Immediately upon waking in the morning, open all shades and blinds and turn on all lights. (This sets circadian rhythms and makes a huge difference for my sleep as well as my mood and daytime-nighttime orientation.)
(3) Exercise in the morning, after sunrise if possible. If exercise before sunrise is necessary (it usually is for me), don’t worry, we’ll be going outside again later in the morning…
(4) Go outside every morning that it’s not pouring rain, as early as possible and for as long as possible, whether the sunlight is direct or partly cloud-covered. Layer clothing and take the children for a brisk walk, and try to find the sunniest spots. Turn face into the sun at an angle (so the sunlight goes in the sides of your eyes, not looking directly at the sun). Then thank God for the sun and for Jesus the Light of the World.
(5) Find friends who are light-dependent enough to be willing to venture outside in the cold morning from time to time. They don’t have to be best friends. All you need to have in common is a passion for sunlight : ) It’s nice to have an accountability partner.
(6)After the morning light therapy, move on to regular morning activities. Schoolwork if you homeschool; otherwise errands, housework, etc.
(7) Have a plan for every single afternoon. Write it on the calendar and stick to it. The morning’s goal is sunlight and schoolwork/errands. The afternoon’s goal is avoiding the aimlessness and then depression that comes with the dark afternoons. One afternoon activity may be dissecting a pumpkin, roasting the seeds and baking pumpkin muffins. Invite friends to join the pumpkin fest if you’re up for it, have some apple cider and throw in a dash of alcohol if you’re not pregnant. We also enjoy hosting summer-themed afternoon playdates like “the Islands” where the kids wear leis and sip drinks with umbrella straws and we listen to Jimmy Buffet. Another afternoon, visit friends at their house. One afternoon every single week can be a library mission. Plan in an afternoon of playing in the snow and making hot cocoa with candy canes afterward, and do it. Plan in an afternoon of reading themed books together then making a related craft, and do it. If Dad’s getting home late, trash the kitchen by crafting or baking gifts for friends, deliver the gifts, and then go to McDonalds for Happy Meals for dinner.
(8) Keep a regular bedtime and a regular morning waketime and avoid naps (unless pregnant). Keeping days and nights organized is crucial for my mood. Maybe Queen B our resident doctor can elaborate more on why.
(9) Don’t go wild eating carbs. Seasonal Affective Disorder produces cravings for carbs, but if I stay on track nutritionally (especially by eating large salads once or twice a day) and continue taking vitamin supplements, my mood is steadier.
(10) Let your best friends know that it’s a difficult time of year. In my winter cohort of four last year, one of us was an absolute lover of all things winter. Two of us were Seasonal Affective Disorder gals. The fourth is a saint. We stuck together with regular playdates, inside and outside, checking up on one another, and willing to throw normalcy to the wind to help each other through the season. We hiked through knee-deep snow to the winter-lover’s house and ordered pizzas on the third day of being totally snowed in. We wore four layers and sat outside together on February mornings. Our children missed naps and we had pumpkin muffins for many a meal together under bright fluorescent lights. It was my family’s best winter yet, by far.
May God bless us all in every season! And consider this an open invitation to email me if, come January, you’re sitting around eating frosted brownies and crying while your children watch TV all day. We’re in this together!