Here is my response to a recent question by Elisha Goldstein, PhD, co-author of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook and author of a great blog Mindfulness and Psychotherapy at psychcentral.com.
Elisha: The journey of pregnancy, childbirth and early parenting can seem like a roller coaster at times for new parents. How can we integrate mindful parenting to help us through this time?
Cassandra: That really is an apt metaphor because pregnancy, childbirth, early parenting, and for many, even conception can be such a roller coaster – ups, downs, highs, lows, scary parts, exhilarating parts, relief. It really is an intensified microcosm of the life journey. Mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat Zinn quotes Zorba the Greek – calling life “the full catastrophe”! Perhaps no time is this more true than during the birthing year and the year or so afterward.
Mindful parenting is a way of riding this roller coaster with your eyes open, your mind clear, your body relaxed, and your spirit and heart involved – rather than clutching on for dear life, clenching shut, and not really enjoying the ride at all. In some ways, it’s about riding it for all it’s worth.
Mindfulness practice helps us deal with stressful moments by keeping us breathing, awake, aware, and able to meet each moment as it arises with an understanding, first of all, that all moments are temporary. Everything arises and passes away, and something new comes to take its place. Just seeing that, letting go, and riding the wave, say of your baby crying in the middle of the night, or difficulties with your partner, or difficulty with breastfeeding – or any of the whole host of things that can happen – can really help.
Then meeting experiences just as they are rather than resisting them or struggling against them (“I hate it,” “I don’t want it to be this way,” “This shouldn’t be happening this way”) – coming in to each moment with a stance of acceptance – meaning that you meet it as it is, not that you necessarily decide to like it, allows you to use all that energy you might otherwise have spent trying to make it different instead finding ways to deal with the situation as it is. You start finding solutions and making choices that are in alignment with your goals and values as a person and as a parent, rather than reacting automatically or habitually.
Spiritual wisdom, and now scientific research, shows that paradoxically, attempts to avoid or suppress your experiences – even when they are upsetting, like anxiety or anger – prolong them. Instead, meeting your own anxiousness or anger, say during a toddler temper tantrum in a supermarket, accepting that “this is what is happening right now – my baby is throwing a fit and I am getting anxious and angry” and breathing right into that for a few moments, centering your awareness in the present moment and in your body, amazingly helps you respond in ways that are adaptive for you and your family.
On that note, centering your awareness in the present moment may be one of the ways that mindfulness is most helpful in pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting. As I said in my book, Mindful Motherhood, “Being present forms the foundation for mindful motherhood. It’s the key to being a mindful mom. If being nonjudgmental, accepting, curious, and compassionate, and observing your experience and letting it be as it is without struggling against it are some of the rooms that make up the house of mindful motherhood, being in the present moment is the foundation of the house.” Why is this? I talk about it as making your attention less like a pinball machine, and more like a searchlight. In a pinball machine, you don’t have much choice about which direction the pinball goes – it just bounces around from place to place depending on what it bangs into. Our attention can be like that, bouncing from place to place, rolling into the future projecting about what is going to happen, or ruminating about the past and what happened there. We even have whole emotional reactions to what we imagine about the future and the past, totally unrelated to what is happening right now, in the present moment. Our attention can also be drawn by whatever is most compelling, and because of how we are wired, this is often what is most negative, what is not working, what doesn’t fit, or what is potentially threatening or fear-inducing. That’s just how our minds work – partly because it’s been useful for survival.
But when directed with intention, attention is like a searchlight. Wherever you point your searchlight becomes illuminated, and you can see what is there. When your attention, your searchlight, is not pointed at something, it is difficult to see clearly what is there. So, when your attention is not trained onto the present moment, it’s hard to perceive the current situation accurately. And, in general, the more your attention and awareness is on the present moment, the more you can be responsive, awake, and creative as a person and as a mom. Babies love people who are right there in the moment with them. It makes them feel safe, loved, and attended to. For that matter, so do partners, loved ones, colleagues, and in fact when we learn to center our attention in the present moment, even we end up feeling safer, loved, and attended to. Present-moment awareness in parenting makes it easier to do everything – from feeding the baby, to soothing their crying, to dealing with in-laws, and it helps us see all the aspects of each situation – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The focus of mindful awareness practice is to cultivate the capacity to be aware and present with whatever is happening. It is to stabilize your attention so that you can be the one who is directing the searchlight of your attention, rather than being the pinball, having your attention bounce toward whatever is most compelling at the moment.
Mindful awareness happens in the present moment. In fact, when you really think about it, everything that you can do anything about happens in the present moment. I am sitting with my baby having lunch with a friend and her baby. I am nursing my baby and reading this book. I am walking on the StairMaster, five months pregnant. In some ways, the only relevant place for your attention to be is right now, in this present moment. Motherhood happens now, and now, and now. As much as we spend our time focusing on the past or planning or rehearsing for the future, the only moment in which you have any power is right now.
When you are present, you can see when your baby starts to get distressed, sometimes before it turns into a full-on wail. When the baby is wailing, you can still be present with her, rooted in the present moment in your body with your breathing. You can see your baby’s expressions and can better respond to what you sense your baby needs.
This is really going to be one of the major rides of your life. You can expect to be tired, exhausted even. You can expect to have your lifestyle, and your relationship to one another change. Your bodies will change (even yours, dad!), your identities, the very way you see yourselves will change. And, as a good friend told me at my baby shower, your heart and capacity for love will stretch wider than you ever thought it could.
I would say that cultivating mindful awareness is a wonderful foundation for great parenting. Mindful awareness is a skill that can be learned, like playing the piano or learning a new language, and as such it takes practice. There are lots of opportunities now to learn mindfulness – at a local meditation center, through taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction class, and increasingly mindful parenting classes are popping up everywhere. The focus here is on being aware of your experiences as parents as they arise, meeting them as they are, learning to center your attention in the present-moment – on what actually is happening right now, rather than your stories about it, or what it means. It’s about learning to approach all of your experiences, as much as possible with openness, curiosity, and compassion. It’s about learning to ride the waves of parenting rather than resisting them and getting battered about in the process.
But mindfulness is more than just a skill, it is also an approach to life, an approach to parenting, that is already something you know how to do. You just need to spend more time in that part of you that is naturally mindful and aware and get more familiar with it. It’s spending more time in the part of you that is resting in your awareness of what is happening, rather than being completely caught up your thoughts about it. Spending more time in the part of you that is here, right now, in this moment, in your body, rather than thinking, doing, achieving, accomplishing – which we all spend so much time doing. In some ways, it’s spending more time just “being” with your family, rather than “doing.”
And above all, cultivate compassion for yourself, each other, your loved ones, and your little one. You will make mistakes, fall into reactions that are not in alignment with your highest ideals as a parent or a partner, and lose your mind from time to time. That too, is a part of life and of parenting. If you are partnered, make time for one another without the baby, so that you can stay connected at a deep level. Give yourself and each other the benefit of the doubt, intentionally be kind to yourself and each other, and take time for the renewal and self-care you need to stay sane. This too, is an important part of mindful parenting.