As a clinical social worker, I’ve known about mindfulness and meditation for quite awhile now, but I was hesitant to get involved. There were a million reasons—I was busy, I had other coping skills, I didn’t really need it. But mostly, I thought it just wasn’t my style.
In my mind, someone who meditates or practices mindfulness probably wears organic cotton clothing, enjoys lingering over a warm cup of tea, and would rather spend the night cuddled up a book of Mary Oliver’s poems than watch the latest episode of NCIS. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully, never yells, and stays calm through even the most torrential tantrum. She’s definitely vegetarian, if not vegan, and can whip up healthy, gourmet meals while educating her children about the importance of sustainable agriculture.
Let me very clear: I am seriously not that person.
I talk faster than I can think, I’m sarcastic and mouthy, and I think I’m far funnier than I actually am. I finish most meals long before my body can possibly digest them. I don’t cook, and I can’t stand tea. (Every year or so, I get determined to like it again. It just seems so zen, the beverage of the person I want to be. I linger over the samples at my local tea shop, and inevitably walk away overwhelmed by smells and tastes that I find totally unappealing.) I’m addicted to coffee, and I enjoy nothing more than wandering the aisles of my local office supply store when I’m stressed. (I’m convinced that if a new notebook or pen can’t solve all of life’s problems, I don’t know what can.)
This blog has been quiet for a few days, as I have been sick. I’ve had a head and chest cold for almost 4 weeks, and it got bad enough to land me in urgent care yesterday. One chest x-ray and a blood test later, it was determined that while I don’t have pneumonia, my asthma has been triggered for the first time in years. I came home with prescriptions for some heavy duty meds, including prednisone (an oral steroid), two inhalers, and cough medicine with codeine.
The good news is that my cough disappeared pretty quickly. The bad news is that the prednisone kept me up all night long. As I lay in bed, trying to sleep, I meditated, first by following my breaths, then by counting backwards from 100—anything to keep my concentration focused and my mind from wandering to the past and worrying about the future, which is where it naturally wants to go. (For the record, I never got lower than 75 before my thoughts got the better of me, and often I wouldn’t even make it to 95. But the point of mindfulness practice isn’t to get right, it’s just to keep coming back.)
After almost an hour of that, I got to thinking. I’ve been sick for quite awhile now. For the past 3 weekends, my husband has had to take on the bulk of the parenting while I rested. I’ve had to cancel plans, and I certainly haven’t been able to be fully present or available for my family and friends. My body is clearly trying to tell me something, and it’s not good news. Yes, I’ve been meditating somewhat regularly, and working out a few times a week, but clearly that’s not enough. Something else needs to change.
“All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves.”
I read these words in the description of Andrew Solomon’s latest book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. I haven’t yet read the book, as it just came out, but it’s on my list. In it, Solomon (who won the National Book Award for The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) draws on interviews with over 300 families in which the children were profoundly different from their parents. He spoke with families dealing with schizophrenia, deafness, and other disabilities, as well as those with transgender children and prodigies. (For more information, you can also visit the book’s website.)
The quote above caught my attention, as it is one that I struggle with on a regular basis, in small and big ways. My daughter doesn’t seem interested in math and science, but that would be a good career for her, so should we push it? She’s an anxious child; do I embrace the anxiety (a genetic gift I gave to her) and make life easier when I can? Or do I push her to face it, and hopefully overcome it? And of course, there is the obsession with Hello Kitty and the Disney Princesses. Do I accept my fate (and their love of all things girly and pink) or push forward with my wish for them to be strong, independent girls, unphased by the glitter and glam of pop Americana?
And what about the bigger questions, the future? As much as I’d love to tell you that I don’t have plans for my daughters, that I am willing to follow them on whatever path they may choose, it’s not entirely true. I expect them to be healthy and functional, contributing members of society. I hope they get an education, find life partners, start families, and work hard at careers that inspire them. I want them to be happy, and make the world a better place.
Now that I’ve written it all out, it seems like an awful lot to expect of another person. And yet, I can’t imagine wanting anything less for them.
I initially became interested in mindfulness practice because I wanted to be a better parent. Specifically, I didn’t want to be so reactive to my daughters’ fits and challenging moments. I found myself snapping at the girls when I wanted to be calm and patient. I was grumpy when I wanted to be kind. I knew I wanted to be a different parent, but I wasn’t sure how to get there. I kept reading websites and books telling me to take a time out or count to ten when I was feeling frustrated, but the problem was that I didn’t even realize I was upset until I was already in the middle of my own little tantrum.
Mindfulness practice, both formal meditation and informal practice, has helped create a pause in which I can become aware. I am able to step out of my own agitation and into the present moment, into how I am feeling and what I am doing. In that space, I can make a better choice.
I recently attended a lecture through my local Community Education program, and the presenter offered a great list of books related to mindful parenting. I haven’t read all of them yet, but I’d like to share them with you, along with their author’s websites (when available).
I recently came across two great lists of ideas for how to stay mindful and present with your kids.
The first one is from Gaiam Life, entitled, “Calm Mom: 5 Ways to Be a Present Parent.”
All of the suggestions are great, but my favorite is #5: Breathe. It doesn’t require any planning or changes to our schedule or routine. I’m always breathing; the trick is remembering to pay attention to my breath. When I do, I am able to calm down, step back, and create some space so I can make a better parenting choice.
The second list is “8 Mindful Practices for Parents” from Mindful.org.
I particularly appreciate the suggestion to be the first to apologize. This isn’t always easy for me, as my pride steps and up and insists that I shouldn’t have to say sorry first–after all, *I* wasn’t the one who had the tantrum. (Although, to be honest, sometimes I was.) But then I remember that I am the parent, I have had over three decades of life on this earth, and my daughter is FOUR. Her endless chatter and astonishing negotiation skills sometimes distract me from how young she is. On the most concrete level, my brain is simply bigger and more developed than hers, including my prefrontal cortex, the part of my brain responsible for judgment, decision making, and managing my behavior in social interactions. Quite simply, I’m better equipped to apologize, and I should model it for my daughters.
What do you like from the lists, and what would you add?
Yesterday I wrote about lessons in mindfulness from Cinderella, and a reader left a comment asking about the Little Mermaid. It’s such a good question that I wanted to answer it with an entire post.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a mermaid named Ariel who is fascinated with the human world, and even falls in love with a Prince. Ariel’s father, King Triton, forbids her from ever having contact with humans again, which drives the young mermaid to the lair of the Sea Witch, Ursula. Ariel agrees to give Ursula her beautiful in exchange for a pair of legs, and Ariel has three days to get her Prince to fall in love with her or else she turns back into a mermaid and has to live with Ursula forever. The ending is predictable—Ursula tries to screw everything up, there’s a big fight between good and evil, and in the end, the Prince kills Ursula and poor Ariel is still a mermaid. King Triton is left with a heartbreaking decision. Does he keep his daughter with him in his underwater kingdom, knowing that she will be deeply unhappy, or does he turn her into a human, knowing that she will be happy, but they will spend the rest of their lives in completely different worlds?
My daughters recently discovered Cinderella and the rest of the Disney Princesses, and within a few days they were obsessed. We read the stories on a daily basis, they’ve seen the Cinderella movie, and when they play, there’s a lot of “discussion” about who gets to be Cinderella and who has to be the prince.
The egalitarian feminist social worker in me is a bit horrified; I don’t love the idea of my daughters learning that the way to a better life is being swept off your feet by a handsome man. After the first twenty readings of Cinderella, I realized that I had two choices: I could either suffer through the books time and again, or I could apply what I’ve been learning about mindfulness to story time.
So, I tried to suspend my judgment and just be present. Instead of obsessing over all of the negative messages my daughters might be getting about female empowerment or body image, I decided to just read, notice, and accept. I focused on the feeling of my daughters next to me, the innocent curiosity of their questions, the colorful images on each page and the weight of the book in my lap. After a few readings, I started to notice some different, more positive messages emerging from the story of Cinderella. Is it possible that I was learning about mindfulness from a Disney princess?