Mothers today juggle so many activities, appointments and duties that they may more closely resemble carnival entertainers than icons of love and calm. Of course, being an icon is over-rated, but we could all probably benefit from the ability to slow down some, become more focused and find a greater sense of calm and well-being.
Mindfulness—borrowed from the Buddhist practice of being present and aware of one’s thoughts, actions and environment—can add a powerful tool to our mothering repertoire, allowing us to take better care of ourselves and those around us.
Each moment we spend playing with and caring for our children while thinking of what to make for dinner, the bills we need to pay, how many more minutes until we have to run out the door, the groceries we need to buy or anything other than exactly what we are doing with our child is a moment with them lost. Truth is, life with our children goes by all too fast. For many mothers, it seems like the time between birth and the first day of school goes by in the blink of an eye.
More and more, mothers are choosing to slow down, reject the cultural values of multi-tasking and maximum efficiency, placing value instead in natural living and attachment parenting and homeschooling. Going back to the Earth and Mothering centers our Selves, revealing meaning and value that nourishes instead of fractures. Motherhood offers us the chance to rebirth ourselves through the birth of our children. Mindful mothering becomes the spiritual practice of our daily lives.
Miniature Zen masters, our children offer us valuable insight into living with present awareness as well as the opportunity to practice on a daily basis. A smile, a laugh, the sense of wonder at each new experience call us back to the moment, back to ourselves, begging us to see the world through our child’s eyes, to re-experience and re-awaken to the world around us.
A squeal of delight as our child experiences the movement of a “kitty” invites us to look more closely at the cat, to see the texture and color of the fur, the suppleness of movement, the flexibility and focus the cat commands. We see with the wonder of our toddler’s eyes and the world is new. Our children generously lend us their perspective from moment to moment, renewing for us the miracle of living, if we only accept their gift as graciously as it is given.
What does it mean to accept this gift? How do we live each moment more fully? We can begin by unlearning many of the lessons our fast-paced society tries to teach. We can begin by slowing down, breathing deeply, focusing on the task at hand, and we can allow ourselves to experience the moment with all of our senses, bringing our body and mind together as one, united in common experience.
Becoming More Mindful
Nursing mothers know the benefits of prolactin, “the mothering hormone” that’s released during breastfeeding, physiologically relaxing us into the moment of nursing—a perfect example of mindful mothering. Everything stops when we nurse our newborn in the days before it becomes as routine as brushing our teeth. Think back to those first weeks of nursing, sitting still, quieting mind and body as we cradle that new life against our skin, breathing deeply the smell of our infant and gazing intently at wondrous, tiny features. This is mindfulness. The key is to carry this sense of present awareness into all our actions and interactions throughout our days, but as mothers, we already recognize it.
We can continue our mindfulness with something as simple as breathing. Buddhists have long known that focusing on the breath unites mind and body, bringing the Whole Self into present awareness. Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and 1967 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, has called conscious breathing the crucial bridge between mind and body, unifying the two and allowing us to become whole again. He recommends using the words, “Breathing in I calm my body; Breathing out, I smile.” Simply taking a moment to breathe, to recall our conscious mind and to relax our mouth into a smile enables us to see and experience life more clearly, richly and honestly.
As parents of young children, we have countless opportunities throughout the day to practice this bridging, using conscious breathing to recall ourselves to mindfulness in stressful moments. More than the classic adage “count to three,” the practice of conscious breathing taps into our deepest awareness, refocusing our energy from reaction to recentering. Moving past reaction by breathing deeply, embracing our emotion and owning it, we can avoid horn-locking our energy with our child’s and focus instead on compassion and empathy, parenting our child through intense emotion rather than supplanting it with our own.
We can continue with small moments, like giving a child a bath. Rather than sitting by the tub with countless obligations running through our mind, there in order to keep our child safe but not really there, we can join the experience, become really present.
Climb into the tub, or roll up sleeves to feel the warmth of the water. Naturally scented bubble bath can augment the sensory experience, pulling us back into the moment with the foamy lightness of the bubbles, the soothing scent of lavender or chamomile, relaxing body and mind into the moment. We can compress a thick sponge, release, feel it drinking in water, becoming heavy, then squeeze, inviting warm water to rain down our child’s back. Being present and aware creates a moment of connection between ourselves and our child as together we live that moment fully.
We can continue by truly listening to our children and viewing the world through their eyes. By allowing our child’s voice to be our clarion call back to the present, we can focus all our being on her wonder, curiosity and need to explore her world. We can look into her eyes as she tells us about the discovery she’s just made, rub her back as she describes the hurt she feels, get down to her height as she explains her needs and plans, shifting our perspective to meet hers as much as possible.
By making physical, emotional and spiritual connection with our children, we assure them that they matter in our lives, that they are more important than the book we’re reading or the phone call we need to make or the laundry list of things we need to get done. These connections, as they occur, make up the ongoing symbiosis of nurture and wonder between mother and child, weaving us together at countless points throughout the day, wrapping us both in the warmth, love and safety of togetherness in each moment, really breathing, really loving, really living.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Living more mindfully brings us closer to our child’s perspective, allowing us to glimpse the world through his eyes, but more importantly, providing us insight into our child’s Self. Because we are able to view things more readily from our child’s perspective, we become an important ally, a trusted advisor and a partner in problem solving.
Through the empathy gained by mothering mindfully, we can aid our children in fulfilling their dreams and desires in safe, productive and healthy ways. Because they trust that we understand them and can see the world from their perspective, they are more willing to turn to us for help, fostering the openness and communication essential to a positive parent/ child relationship.
Mindfulness also offers us a shift in our own perspective, enabling us to see life for what it really is—each moment a miracle. By living life moment to moment, we leave the regrets of the past behind us and the worries of the future for the day they may come to be. Moreover, we begin to see that each moment offers us a fresh opportunity to see what we have right now and enjoy it while it graces our life. Mindfulness centers us in the moment we are alive—breathing, living—freeing us to see the joy that surrounds us in our child’s smile, the light catching the leaves in summer, snow crystals glinting in the crisp winter sun. We learn to see the joy that’s all around us.
Practicing mindfulness is an excellent way to counter the fear-based culture in which we live, providing an antidote to each primetime newscast sensationally reporting yet another threat to ourselves and our children. Fear demands that we dwell in what-ifs and a false future, sacrificing the joy of the moment for the fear of someday. As we work to live in the moment, we recognize more deeply the worries and emotions that wrestle us out of the moment, seeing them for the chimeras they so often are.
Beyond the clarity that mindfulness brings to our perception of the world, it simultaneously offers clarity of Self. Fostering introspection and greater self-awareness, mindfulness can give us a deeper understanding of who we are and our place in this world. When we hold our mind in focus, we begin to prioritize our life by placing the people and the principles that are most important to us foremost where they truly belong. Too easily do we lose sight of the value our children bring to our lives, wishing away the moments of finding shoes and buckling car seats. Mindfulness brings that value back into focus, reminding us to treasure each moment we are blessed with them, however mundane, because it is a gift.
When we can hold the truth of that gift in our minds, we can find a greater sense of peace within ourselves that allows us to respond with a greater sense of peace and gentleness to our children. How many times have we woken in the middle of the night to gaze upon our sleeping children, assuring ourselves that they are still breathing, whether they are next to us or in the next room, two or ten? How many times has the mother who lost a child wished for every moment back again? If we can hold that sense of mindfulness of life’s precious value, we hold the key to responding to our children with love and kindness instead of sharpness and exasperation.
We can easily recall ourselves to this sense of mindfulness by practicing conscious breathing, recalling our priorities and clearing our perspective from the baggage we bring. When we can stop, focus on our breathing and re-center, we see the spilt milk for what it truly is: our child’s attempt to explore his world, to become more independent, to perform an act of thoughtfulness.
Our practice becomes our child’s practice as well, as we model for them peaceful and empathetic response. By modeling conscious breathing before reacting, we show our children how to deal effectively with intense emotions without ever giving a lesson. Young children, too, can benefit tremendously from learning to breathe through their anger, frustration and disappointment. In my family, we call it “blowing bubbles”—breathing in good energy and blowing out negative energy in tiny bubbles that float safely skyward, popping without harm to ourselves or others. Such deep breathing and visualization techniques give children positive and practical tools that stay with them through life.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of mindful mothering is the joyful and compassionate home it creates. The ripples of our own mindfulness emanate, touching all members of the family. Our own empathetic and compassionate responses are rejoined by compassion from our spouse and our children. When we maintain perspective and clarity, we bring others back to mindful living with us, reminding them of their own priorities and the joy that surrounds them. When we feel peace, we become peace and embody the grace of that serenity, embracing our children with a heart of compassion and joy.
© Danielle E. Conger 2005