Water Privilege and the Impact on Occupation
Written by Amanda Hall, MSc.OT, OT Reg. (Ont.), PMH-C
As a child, I have great memories of running through the sprinkler on a really hot summer day, putting the hose on our slide leading into our slip and slide. These days, I’m having even more summer fun playing with my two kids as they run through the sprinkler, have water balloon fights, and create water play activities for them. Water play has been a significant part of my children’s development and, as an occupational therapist, I can’t help but bring in a sensory approach to this water play.
Bath time is also a big deal in our house. My kids love taking as long of a bath as possible, waiting for the water to get cold and their fingertips wrinkly. We have the bath toys, the foam letters, the buckets, and bubbles to make bath time as appealing as possible.
As babies, both of my children were fed powdered formula. Everyday it was a process of lining up the bottles, boiling the water, measuring out each formula scoop, and then washing the bottles to make sure they are clean and sterilized to start the process over again the next day. Now that my babies are older, they both start their day with a fresh water bottle each day, that gets refilled without a second thought when it gets empty.
When I was breastfeeding, I was thirsty! I had never drunk as much water as I did when I was breastfeeding. I carried my water bottle around with me everywhere I went. I refilled it multiple times a day. The lactation consultant I saw said my water intake was great as it was going to help boost my milk supply. Being dehydrated would likely reduce my supply. So, I kept up my water intake. I made regular trips to our water tap which filled my bottle with cold, clean, fresh water straight from the well on our farm.
My daughter had a good set of lungs on her. She was colicky and we struggled with nap time. She hated being put down for naps. She needed to be held and at one point, when she was around 6 months old, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was so touched out. I needed some space. A friend of mine said to me, “put her in her crib; she will be safe, go have a 10-minute shower”. If, more like, when, she cries, the noise of the water in the shower will help distract you. The warmth of the water will comfort you. Take some deep breaths while you are in the shower. It worked. I felt better. I was also very likely overdue for a shower anyways! I got out of the shower, and my daughter was asleep. She was asleep in her crib! I felt like I had won the lottery. She was so sweet and peaceful laying in her crib with her sleep sack wrapped around her. My whole mood changed as I went to the kitchen, filled my coffee pot with clean water, and sat down with a delicious, steaming cup of coffee. This was my self-care that day. This is how I looked after myself, mentally and physically, when it was a hard day of motherhood.
The day finally came when my maternity leave was over. I was heading back to work at my job in our local hospital. I was not ready to go back. I was not ready to leave my 12-month-old baby girl in daycare. But the morning came. I woke up groggy from another sleepless night, hopped into the shower to get ready for the day and try to wake myself up. After my shower, I brushed my teeth, drank some water from the tap and finished getting myself ready. I felt like I could handle whatever the day was going to throw at me, even if I wasn’t ready for it. Even if my anxiety levels were high.
When I got home later that day, I picked up my daughter from daycare, and with my husband, we ate our dinner down by the water. I always feel calm when I’m close to water and there is now research showing that close proximity to water has benefits on our mental health.
Just days before my daughter turned 3, I gave birth to my son. I wanted a water birth. For me, being immersed in water is calming, I can relax, and while I was pregnant, it was soothing to my aching body. I was excited that our local hospital had birthing tubs in the delivery rooms. However, due to unforeseen complications, the water birth didn’t happen for me, but the option was always there. The option to fill that huge tub with warm, clean water so I could rest my labouring body as my son came into this world.
Can you see a theme here? Have you figured out the privilege I live with each day and have done so every single day of my life?
It’s water. Access to an abundance of clean, safe water that I can use in all of my meaningful occupations, the things I need to do, want to do, and are expected to do on a daily basis. Over the last few years, I have become aware of how privileged I am to have this clean, safe water to play in, manage my self-care with, maintain my physical and mental health with, and use to care for my babies.
When I gave both of my babies their first bath, I was nervous, but I was nervous because they were squirmy and slippery, worried about if they would be too cold, anxious if they would tolerate it, and oh my god, what do I do with their belly button! I never had a thought about what if we don’t have enough water, what if we aren’t able to boil our water, what if my baby gets sick from our water. That’s my privilege.
When I feed my family, I know that I am using clean, safe water to boil our potatoes in, to wash our fruit in, and to clean our dishes with. I don’t have to think about whether or not this is safe for my family. That’s my privilege.
I can register my children in swimming lessons. Allow them to have fun in the water, teach them how to swim and thrive in the water. I don’t think twice about where all the pool water came from. I don’t need to think about what other areas now have a depleted water source because of the gigantic pool filled for our enjoyment. That’s my privilege.
I have lived my day-to-day life taking part in all the activities that involve water each day without thinking twice about it. I have been able to use water to play as a child, play with my own kids, bring it into my practice and the work I do with my clients. I use water in my coping strategies for self care, whether it is taking a bath or shower, making a cup of coffee, sitting by the water, canoeing, or swimming. I have been able to use water to feed my children so they can thrive as babies and growing children. I use water to maintain my hygiene so I can feel confident and capable to go to work and be successful in my career.
It is no secret that Canada has a long-standing water crisis. This is not the place to start a political debate or problem solve. My intent here is to bring awareness to how closely intertwined our daily occupations are with water use and how disengagement in those occupations can and likely will occur when access to clean, safe water is limited. Concerns with safe water availability is not isolated to crisis situations. It is a concern in rural locations when residential wells have been contaminated or the water table is not high enough to withstand the demands. It is a concern when water treatment facilities are working overtime and are not always sustainable. It is also a concern when people living with water scarcity or contamination rely on public facilities for water access. Facilities that have been shut down on and off throughout the pandemic lockdowns we have been experiencing over the last 18 months.
Access to clean safe water is a necessity for survival, function, and over all well-being. Within occupational therapy, we know that a disengagement in meaningful occupations can lead to physical, mental, and social health issues. Water scarcity is a global issue and one that as occupational therapists we need to have an awareness of when we create an occupational profile for our clients.
So, just as I have done, I challenge you to recognize where your water privilege lies and how this privilege allows you to do the things you need to do, want to do, and are expected to do on a daily basis.