Mindfulness and Motherhood
Mindfulness is a practice of noticing and observing that which is arising within one’s internal space, in any given moment, without judgment or analysis. Although, I love the simplicity of this act of kindness towards oneself, I must acknowledge the difficulty involved in training the mind to become mindful as a mother.
If you are anything like me, you might agree with my long-held frustration towards the mindfulness movement being dominated by mostly a masculine point of view.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all the teachings and the plethora of research about the benefits of having a practice of mindfulness. And, I acknowledge the wisdom that these wise men have offered us – His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ram Dass, Dan Siegel, Ron Siegel, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Deepak Chopra, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joe Dispenza and Ken Wilber, to name a few. That said, as a mother, woman, and feminist, I have struggled over the years to embody the teachings of these masters because, well, they just don’t fit in with modern motherhood.
Since I was 13-years-old I have attempted to integrate a practice of meditation into my daily life for stress reduction as an athlete, to deal with symptoms of depression, and to find solace as a mother. The literature and current research clearly state the benefits of a daily practice of mindfulness. In an attempt to alleviate my daily struggles with depression, motherhood, and marriage, I figured a practice of meditation would offer much sought-after relief.
Needless to say, I struggled to include this isolated practice into my life as a mother, and I often felt like a failure. I tried waking up earlier, staying up later, listening to guided meditations, using binaural beats, engaging in shamanic journeying, and even participating with shamanic medicines.
Today, my children are teenagers and I have more space for uninterrupted time to include a practice, yet I still find myself jealous of my friends without kids who can sit in meditation for 1-2 hours a day, or go away on week-long retreats.
Can you sense the groaning frustration?
I held a perception that these practices only benefit those who can find the time and space for them throughout a day. Let’s face it, motherhood is all-encompassing and rarely gives rise to the space needed for such a practice. Sure, 20 minutes a day sounds doable. But when mothers struggle to merely take a shower, how are they supposed to find time for a 20-minute sit? Further, new mothers are chronically sleep deprived and by the time the day comes to a close, they are most likely to crash with their kids or zone out in front of Netflix to have a ‘break’ from the day. I get it, I have been there.
My intention is not to tell mothers that they ‘should’ give up Netflix and instead choose a practice of mindfulness because that would be better for them. Mothers have enough ‘shoulding’ in a day. The last thing we need is another ‘should’ that adds to our already critical mindset that lets us know all the ways in which we are ‘not good enough’ as mothers.
It is as if the ‘not good enough’ voice is amplified when we become mothers, and our children let us know on a daily basis all the areas in which we are ‘failing’. Although this negative perception of self-as-mother is almost always inaccurate, I have yet to meet a mother who is not challenged by a negative self-perception of motherhood.
WOULD MINDFULNESS HELP QUIET THIS INTERNAL CRITICAL VOICE? MOST LIKELY, YES. BUT…
But for some reason knowing this is not motivating enough to figure out a way to engage in a daily practice of mindfulness. I would argue the reason is twofold: a) the western worldview of modern motherhood does not support this quality of self-care and b) the recommended practice is not realistic for today’s mother. Let’s take a look at these two statements.
CHALLENGE A: THE WESTERN WORLDVIEW OF MODERN MOTHERHOOD DOES NOT SUPPORT THIS QUALITY OF SELF-CARE.
As a therapist, the field itself often focuses on ‘self-care’. “What do you do for self-care?” is a common question posed to mothers in the postpartum, holding up an assumption that if mothers took more time for themselves they would be happier and more balanced. Most mothers can relate to the fact that when their children are babies, taking a shower without interruption is an arduous task. Need alone staying on top of the ‘to do’ list that many mothers create in their heads.
Realistically, a day and life of a new mother consists of changing diapers, feeding, dealing with a crying infant, maybe taking a nap, figuring out food needs, and finally, collapsing in bed to be awoken within a few hours to do the whole thing over again throughout the night (and add subsequent children to the mix, and well, it is a gong show). I recall Dr. Sears stating in his ‘Dr. Sears Baby Book’ something to the tune that a mother’s clock is a 24-hour clock and the routine that you were once accustomed to is no longer available. Motherhood is a 24/7 job. As our children grow, the demands may change but the pull to be ‘on’ 24/7 doesn’t.
To top it all off, the role of motherhood is viewed as an aside; an adjunct to the role of a contributing citizen (i.e., working in the job force). This mindset festers in the minds of many mothers with thoughts like: “I am not contributing enough,” “I am a failure because I am not earning a living,” or “I need to manage it all – career and motherhood.” Finding meaning in motherhood is an arduous task for many. What is certain is that most mothers would agree that they love their children.
And to complicate matters, mothers who face discrimination and/or abuse, oppression due to race or religion, or find themselves marginalized in any manner experience a multitude of challenges. These added stressors, to an already stressful situation (motherhood), pose additional challenges that would cause any mother to scoff at the notion that ‘mindfulness’ would be beneficial. Survival is the key motivator in such circumstances. Thus, acknowledging that the mere fact that a mother can contemplate how to include a practice of mindfulness into their daily lives, is a privileged conversation.
Considering these general challenges faced by modern mothers, is it any wonder why self-care takes a back burner? Women have been informed for a long while now, based upon perceptions of roles in society, that ‘others’ come before their needs.
The perception of ‘The Good Mother’ is one of a nurturing, loving, care provider, who tends to the home and hearth. And often within this archetypal framework, the mother is also the martyr or the giver of all that she has (including her life in childbirth for some) until her inner well is empty.
HOW CAN WE BALANCE THIS DEEPLY INGRAINED CONCEPT OF ‘THE GOOD MOTHER’ WITH REALITY?
Further, how can we include self-care behaviours and boundaries pertaining to time, individuality, health, passion, and identity? Introducing the practice of mindfulness requires a kind of reorganizing. It is not as simple as stating: “You need merely to include a 20-minute practice daily, with discipline, in order for you to feel better’. Statements like this ignite the critical voice that keeps us feeling small and ashamed.
Compounding the challenge is that many of the men who speak about mindfulness do so from a place that is informed by their experiences of life as a man. Not life as a mother.
Instead, I propose that the notion of self-care and mindfulness should take on a different mother-inspired approach; one that speaks a new language, and no longer fuels the fear of ‘not good enough’.
CHALLENGE B: THE RECOMMENDED PRACTICE IS NOT REALISTIC FOR TODAY’S MOTHER.
When will I find the time? This is the pressing question.
The answers: Wake up earlier, go to bed later, be selfish with your time if you want it bad enough you will find the time. The list goes on and on.
Often this leaves a mother to believe that if she doesn’t do those things than she has failed somehow. In some cases, it causes her to give up completely. I know this place all too well. I struggled with this throughout my journey as a mother of three children. I knew that the mental health benefits of practicing meditation would lend to a mindful way of being. And yet, I wrestled with finding time for just me. When I finally had some time alone, I wanted to get out of the house and go for coffee with friends, or just fall asleep. I didn’t want to spend that time alone, in meditation.
This started to feed a negative core belief about motherhood that sounded like: “Motherhood has sucked me dry and my children are in the way of me enjoying my life.” Sure, I was ashamed to admit that I held this mindset. And yes, I knew it created more challenges and emotions of resentment and anger. Yet, I thought that if only I had more time for me – to focus on what I loved, which at the time was birth and midwifery – I would be happier. This was not the case.
I was running away from motherhood because I felt overwhelmed by the enormous responsibility, challenged by the daily mundane, and did not embody the meaning of motherhood. I had not found the joy in motherhood that we read about or sometimes experience in our friends. I thought embracing mindfulness and practicing meditation daily would cure this discomfort. I thought that I needed to get away from mothering in order to experience more happiness. I believed my purpose was ‘out there’, outside of me and separate from what was in front of me – my children. I thought I was alone and that it was all in my head – and my fault. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this was a complex problem experienced by many mothers.
AND THEN, ONE DAY, A YEAR AFTER THE BIRTH OF MY THIRD CHILD, I EXPERIENCED AN EPIPHANY.
My big wake up moment was when I was about to leave my family to follow a Shaman into the Amazon to work with plant medicines so I too could become a Shaman. In my mind, I likened it to the path of Jesus or Buddha, both spiritual masters who isolated themselves to become awakened. And awakening was the answer that I sought to get out of my misery. I remembered feeling so conflicted by this choice (and so was my husband at the time) because I was surprised that my pull to walk away from my family was so strong. I was a stay-at-home mother, who was homeschooling her children, and studying and apprenticing with midwifery.
And I was about to turn my back to it all, to follow a masculine dominated way of awakening.
Thank fucken god, something spoke loud within. That something is the voice of knowing, the feminine voice. And she said with conviction, “Your work is right here, with your children, in the mundane. Not out there, not spiritually bypassing all your suffering.” I listened. And from this place forward I started to cultivate my own feminine practice of being a mindful mother and woman. And it didn’t look like your typical sitting meditation practice or journeying with plant medicine, or vision questing by fasting.
I realized that the work of motherhood is the spiritual path I am supposed to walk, not run away from. I realized that I needed to lean in more closely and dare I use the word surrender to the work of motherhood. I needed to find meaning in motherhood that gave rise to purpose.
It is a path that has been gritty, hard, in my face, and real.
We use the word authentic all the time nowadays, and my path of motherhood gave rise to embodied authenticity. I have been truly humbled by this journey thus far, and I am only 18 years in.
What follows are a few suggestions that I have learned along that way that will help to give rise to a different way of practicing mindfulness as a mother.
HOW TO CULTIVATE A PRACTICE OF MINDFULNESS AS A MODERN MOTHER
Begin by listening. Listen deeply to what your interior self is saying. Practicing listening to what others say, and notice what your interior says. Listen in solitude and during the chaos. Just start to listen.
Pay attention. Notice your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, images, and memories. Every moment we are given information about ourselves and the experience of others. We need to pay attuned attention to what is arising within. This can be done while cooking, nursing, playing, driving, dressing, showering, dancing, walking, shopping. Just pay attention.
Open in love. Blow open the cage that shields the heart and really love your children, even in their challenges. This grows love for you. This means taking risks with feelings and it usually involves tears. Commit to love.
Stop believing your thoughts. Find a tool or therapist that can help you challenge your thoughts and limiting beliefs. When you start to pay attention, you begin to notice the thoughts that you are believing as truth, and how those thoughts are causing you pain. When you believe your stressful thoughts, which never go away, you feel miserable. Begin a practice of inquiry.
Be curious. Curiosity is a beautiful friend. Lead with curiosity, rather than reason or righteousness. Be curious about your experiences and those around you.
Find meaning in motherhood. This is a personal quest that will look unique for every mother. Without meaning in motherhood, motherhood is one dimensional. Meaning gives rise to purpose, and purpose gives rise to deep satisfaction (a.k.a., happiness).
The art of mindfulness can be discovered within the energy of motherhood. From my lived experience, it does not necessarily need the sitting practice of meditation. I am inviting modern mothers to contemplate this idea and to listen, really listen, and determine for yourself if these suggestions ring true. If anything, it is offering a way of being with mothering and mindfulness that is manageable and meaningful.
Bottom line: you are doing enough; you are enough.