I recently came across a Facebook meme that said, “You only get one chance to raise your kids right.”
My gut reaction to this post was, “Ugh. Well, I’ve already screwed that one up. Forget the college fund. I need to start a therapy fund.” The truth is that I get frustrated with my daughters, I snap at them, and yes, I have even been known to hide from them. (Only in the bathroom, and not for long, but yes, I was hiding.) I’m assuming that most of this does not count as raising my kids right.
Fortunately, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing that crazy monkey who likes to bounce around inside my head, flinging his crap at every opportunity. I took a moment to shut him up, and then I thought about this idea that we only get one shot at this whole parenting thing.
And I decided it’s not true.
I finally got my hands on the latest edition of TIME Magazine–the one with the serene, skinny, white, blonde woman soaking up rays or meditating or whatever she is doing on the cover.
The article on mindfulness by Kate Pickert was good if not surprising; it included a general overview of mindfulness, a bit of history about Jon Kabat-Zinn and the development of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and a summary of the current research into various applications of mindfulness practice, including the corporate world and the military.
Here is my favorite quote from the piece:
But to view mindfulness simply as the latest self-help fad underplays its potency and misses the point of why it is gaining acceptance with those who might otherwise dismiss mental training techniques closely tied to meditation—Silicon valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more. If distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our age, then mindfulness, in the eyes of its enthusiasts, is the most logical response. Its strength lies in its universality. Though meditation is considered an essential means to achieving mindfulness, the ultimate goal is simply to give your attention fully to what you’re doing. Once can work mindfully, parent mindfully and learn mindfully. Once can exercise and even eat mindfully.
Its strength lies in its universality.
I recently got the following question on my Twitter feed: Do you feel meditation has really changed you? More relaxing, less stress? So on?
The short answer to these questions is YES! All of the above! But that answer isn’t terribly helpful, so I thought it would be useful to share just how my meditation and mindfulness practice helps me to be a better parent.
Before we get into the details, I feel compelled to clarify something. As I have said many times, I am not the Dalai Mama. If any of you were to follow me around for a few days, or spy on me (in a totally non-creep way, of course), you would probably see me snap at my kids or sneak a peek at my smartphone or hide in the kitchen for a break.
You would see me being anything but mindful.
The reality is that I’m doing all of these things less often than I was before I started meditating, and when I do find myself doing them, I am able to calm down, center myself, and make better choices more quickly than before. That’s just what happens when you learn to pay attention to the present moment without judging it or fighting with it. (I actually have a huge amount of experience fighting with reality. I never win.)
Here are the ways in which my meditation and mindfulness practice make me a better mother (in no particular order):
“This meditation stuff is so great. You’ve got to do it. What a pain in the ass.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the individuals most responsible for bringing for bringing mindfulness and meditation to western popular culture, said those words at a conference I attended last week.
I couldn’t agree more.
Let me explain.
As much as I believe in mindfulness, as much as it has helped me become a calmer, happier mother, it’s hard for me to write about it. I feel like an over-eager evangelist, peddling the latest snake oil that will help you be a better mother. “Hey, just breathe and it will all be fine!”
Yeah. Please. Whatever. I get it when my friends roll their eyes at me. Sometimes I roll my eyes at me. It all just sounds so damn corny and contrived, which I have no patience for.
I am thrilled to share that I am currently working on my first book! The book will explore that which is most important in parenting: our relationship with our children, our ability to take care of ourselves, and how we can stay fully present through the ups and downs of all of it. It will draw on my personal journey through parenthood, my professional and academic experience in clinical social work, and my ongoing practice of mindfulness. Parallax Press will publish the book in the fall of 2014.
Parallax Press is a non-profit publishing house based in Berkeley, California. According to their website, “Parallax Press publishes books on engaged Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and other authors. As a division of the Unified Buddhist Church, we are committed to making these teachings accessible to everyone and preserving them for future generations. We believe that, in doing so, we help alleviate suffering and create a more peaceful world.”
As a mother and clinical social worker committed to the centrality of human relationships, the practices of mindfulness, and the importance of social justice, I am honored to be working with Parallax.
The working title of the book is “Learning to Stay,” and it will explore how to stay connected, grounded, and present in the work of parenting when, let’s be honest, all you want to do is run away. The title was inspired by the words of Pema Chödrön, which I have shared before on this blog. Here is my favorite paragraph from that quote:
“The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say “Stay!” “Come!” “Roll over!” and “Sit up!” but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when …
This weekend my family and I went away on a retreat to the mountains with a number of other families with young children. We had all been encouraged to leave our cell phones off, and I was happy to comply. It was easy to do because I wasn’t worried about getting things done or making plans for the weekend; my “job” while we were there was to hang out with my family and friends and take care of my kids.
The time away reminded me of a valuable parenting lesson: in order to be present with my children and tuned in to them (as well as myself), I need to find ways to turn off my mental list of everything I “need” to get done, if only for a few minutes at a time. It’s so easy and tempting to respond to one last work email, unload the dishwasher, answer the phone, put one more load of laundry in, or sort the mail. Look at me! I’m being productive!
But at what expense? At the expense of quality time connecting with my children? Sadly, the answer at times is yes. Now, certainly, I can’t give my kids 100% of my attention 100% of the time; it’s not good for them and it’s not good for me. They need to learn to play alone and navigate conflicts without Mommy stepping in constantly, and my sanity and career would go down the drain and our house would end up looking like a bomb hit it after about 24 hours. The key here is balance.
The question is what exactly do we “need” to get done? In the days before I had children, the answer was everything. I needed to check off every task on my to-do list, whether it was for work or taking care of our home or my personal health or connecting with family or whatever else I was working on at the time. After my daughters were born, my to-do list got even longer: do all of those things AND buy diapers and wipes and make …
Last week I wrote a post for Kveller.com about how much I didn’t want my daughters to take ballet. Even though I didn’t use the word “mindfulness,” the post was essentially about mindful (and mindless!) parenting. My initial reaction to the ballet issue was based almost entirely on my angst about my own terrible experience with ballet in my childhood and my worries about the future and what ballet might mean for my daughters.
I was totally unable to see what was right before me: two little girls who love dancing and a dance school that is fun, supportive, and kind to them.
The ideas of mindful parenting and mindfulness can get all tangled up in more specific words and theories about parenting and meditation and how should we respond to tantrums and whether or not we should use our smartphones around the kids. While those are all valid questions, when it comes down to it, mindful parenting is just about paying attention to what is in front of us.
There’s no question in my mind that mindfulness can make us all better parents, both by helping us to stay tuned in to our own thoughts and feelings so they don’t unconsciously dictate our actions AND by giving us the skills and tools to truly connect with our children so we can best respond to their thoughts and emotions with kindness. I have found that my own meditation and informal mindfulness practices have made a noticeable improvement in my ability to stay calm and choose how I want to respond to my girls, rather than reacting to them out of frustration or anger. I’m definitely not perfect, but it’s getting better.
To be honest, though, I had always thought that mindfulness was going to require more effort in my parenting. I worried that all of that awareness, all of that figuring out what is going on inside my crazy mind (as well as my daughters’ minds!) was going to be an awful lot of work. I decided to do it anyway, because the way I saw it, parenting is hard work no matter how you do it, so you might as well try to get it right, right?
Turns out I was wrong. I just read two studies by Karen Bluth and Robert Wahler at The University of Tennessee looking at the relationship between mindfulness and parental effort. They asked mothers of both adolescents and pre-schoolers to fill out scales measuring how generally mindful they are and also how much effort they expend in parenting. Not surprisingly, they found that “the mothers with high mindfulness scores reported less parenting effort and lower problems with their youth than did mothers with low mindfulness scores” (2011a, p. 177).
I am currently re-reading Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a long book, but well worth the time. I came across this quote and wanted to share it:
“In the Zen tradition of meditation, people are fond of saying that the practice is nothing special. The practice is nothing special in the same way that being a mother or giving birth is nothing special, that being a father is nothing special, that being a farmer and bringing things forth from the land is nothing special, even that being alive is nothing special. That is all true in a way, but try telling that to a mother or a father or a farmer. ‘Nothing special’ also means ‘very special’. The utterly ordinary is utterly extraordinary. It all depends on how you see things, and whether you are willing to look deeply, and live by what you see and feel and know.”
“Wow. I’m never going to get this right.”
Those words passed through my mind last night as I sat on the floor trying to focus on my breathing. I was in a conference room with nine other people, nine other parents who had also signed up to take a mindful parenting class at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester.
As I heard my classmates talk about their struggles with raising their children—most of whom are much older than my own—it hit me. Hard. Parenting doesn’t get easier, and I’m never going to get it right.
Those seven words reveal a tremendous amount about how I have come to understand my role as a parent, for better and for worse (but in this case, mostly worse). On the harder days, the days when the girls and I seem to be taking turns throwing tantrums, when I am exhausted and can’t seem to get anything right and they can’t seem to do anything right, I beat myself up. I’m a bad parent. I’m too harsh on them. I should be nicer to them. Everyone else is a better mother than I am.