People often ask me how I survived the early years of motherhood when our firstborn son woke up between ten to twelve times a night and needed more than the breast to go back to sleep. Part of what allowed me to survive was an extraordinary partner who shouldered the nighttime challenges with me for the first year. Part of it was a fierce commitment to eating nourishing foods and eliminating sugar and caffeine completely. But most of it was learning early on in pregnancy that actively connecting to the free and sustainable fuel source of gratitude powered me through all challenges associated with motherhood.
My gratitude practice began in my first trimester when I was taken down by a sickness nobody could have prepared me for. And the more I interviewed women for my Birthing a New Mother program, the more clearly I saw the direct connection between gratitude and a woman’s ability to ride the storms of mothering more gracefully. As I write in the program:
If there is any antidote to the first trimester tests, one resource so powerful that it acts like an elixir that literally alters a woman’s chemistry, it’s gratitude. When a woman connects to gratitude, she breathes more deeply. When she dips into this well, she cannot help but smile, which relaxes the face and releases the tension in the brow. With regard to nausea, many people have to endure weeks of it while undergoing treatment for cancer battling death. Pregnancy nausea, as difficult as it is, is supporting life. It is the body’s response to strong hormonal levels as it grows the placenta that nourishes a child. In the throes of nausea a woman may feel like she’s on death’s door (as a part of her symbolically is), but the truth is that her body has never been more alive. Just viewing the discomfort through this lens can help re-direct her mind’s tendency to dwell on the suffering and instead focus on the blessing. This is not to glorify the extreme challenge of managing nausea for weeks on end. She’s allowed to hate it, feel trapped and overwhelmed by it, cry and rage about it. But when she’s done hating it – or perhaps alongside it – she can remember to make room for the stunning awareness that there is a miracle growing inside her body…
…If a woman is disconnected from gratitude, the joy and excitement of bearing, birthing, and raising a child quickly degenerates into resentment and a sense of drudgery. Among many other things, motherhood is a sacrifice, and the sacrifice begins during pregnancy. A woman hands over her body to house the growth of a new human being; she births the baby to the best of her ability during the ultimate initiation of her life; and then she must lovingly care for the child day and night, sacrificing sleep, freedom, separateness, and sexuality to varying degrees for various lengths of time so the child survives, thrives, and hopefully grows into a caring, compassionate, confident adult. What a task! And none of it would be worth it if we failed to see the miracle inherent to every stage of this process.
I still rely on gratitude as a reliable energy source. Ten years into parenting with a second son in tow, our kids still sleep with us, and there is rarely a night when I’m not awakened multiple times, even if only for a few moments. We homeschool, work full time, prepare all of our meals, and of course attend to the daily tasks of running a life: bills, laundry, household maintenance, not to mention finding time to nourish a marriage and other friendships and find time to exercise, meditate, etc. It’s no small task! And if I didn’t consciously and actively tap into the fuel source of gratitude, I would be swallowed up in exhaustion and resentment.
Just this morning I woke up at 6:15am and remained in bed while my little one slept in the crook of my arm. I tried to will myself to go back to sleep but nothing worked. So I stared into my five-year old’s precious face, and smiled. I said my morning gratitude prayer. Our cat curled up on my chest and delivered her purr into my heart. The warmth of the love-fest filled me up and I smiled again. Gratitude feeds on itself. You touch into it for a brief moment, acknowledging your blessings, and it grows. Sometimes it comes unbidden in moments of grace, but more often it’s a practice, like everything else worth growing.
One of the misconceptions about gratitude is the belief that you have to feel it in order to connect to it. You don’t. Sometimes gratitude washes over us like a water, and the feeling floods you like warm sun on a cold winter’s day. But more often than not, especially knee-deep in the often-overwhelming, usually-exhausting years of raising children, gratitude is something that you must reach toward until, like a steady hand, it reaches back to you. Just like smiling even when you’re not happy can bring a moment of calm to your nervous system, saying “thank you” even if you don’t feel grateful can help you tap into and activate the current of gratitude inside of you.
We do this by remembering to slow down and say, out loud, thank you. We do this by looking with eyes that see and hearing with ears that listen. One of the many reasons why I’ve loved co-sleeping is that it’s built-in time of lying down next to my kids and seeing all of the day’s stresses and frustrations unravel and float away until only the soft, angelic face of sleep is left. And the two words then naturally emerge from my lips as I stare in awe at their peaceful beauty: thank you.
If you’ve been blessed with a child entrusted into your care, you are blessed indeed. When you take the time to acknowledge the blessing, the normal negativity in the day in the life of a modern parent is absorbed into the positive stream of love and gratitude that can fuel your days.
Image: Sonya Green