Motherhood is hard. It is by far the most demanding and relentless responsibility I’ve ever had.
The full reality of parenthood is not often talked about. There’s a lot of hype about how rewarding it is . . . yes . . . and . . . I never hear about any pre-parenthood counseling that helps people realize what they are actually getting into. There just doesn’t seem to be much advice out there for humans thinking about having kids beyond taking a prenatal vitamin. So to be honest, the immensity and intensity of the whole parenting experience caught me off guard, even though my kids were planned pregnancies.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that this difficult territory was a huge opportunity for personal growth, and I set out to explore the adventurous path of conscious parenting.
Lucky for me, I feel well equipped with my box of magic tricks and methods to master my mind and emotions. Being human isn’t always easy, even without the responsibility of raising other humans. So I already had years of coping skills in my secret stash. And I’m always open to finding new ones. I suspect that there is no limit to the amount of inner work that one can undertake to make life easier, meaningful, and infused with rapture. Conscious parenting is one of one of my new tools, solid and sharp and extremely effective.
Conscious parenting means I take all the mindfulness skills in the universe and do my best to use them as a mom, as often as possible.
Sometimes I fail. I run out of patience and I feel annoyed. I feel angry and burnt out and unattractive. But that’s okay, because motherhood gives me a constant stream of opportunities for mindful parenting. Each moment arrives, one after another, and I have countless chances to rise up and experience them with grace and ease.
Living in the present moment is a powerful practice of conscious parenting. Here’s how mindfulness helps me navigating the turbulent sea of parenthood:
Conscious Parenting Tip #1: “When busy, find the one that is not busy.”*
Every parent knows what overwhelm feels like. Those moments when everywhere I look there is chaos. There are endless things that need to be done: bills that need to be paid and heads that need to be shampooed and vegetables that need to be eaten. Little bodies that deserve hugs and bedtime stories even when I haven’t made a dent in my to-do list. Those times when every object we own is scattered on the floor and the kitchen counter is completely cluttered and it’s time to make dinner but there are only carrots and condiments in the fridge and I still haven’t responded to that work email.
I suspect that the to-do list won’t end until I die. But I’ve learned that in the midst of busy, there is a quiet tranquil space, much like the eye of a storm. Find that space, and it doesn’t matter how many things need to be done, each task becomes easy, and many of them become surprisingly pleasurable.
There a Zen story about a monk vigorously sweeping some steps. Another monk sees him and says “Too busy!” and the sweeping monk replies “There is one in me that is not busy.”
The One That is Not Busy is our pure awareness, the power of our calm and focused attention that can rest on any task. So when the days are full and everywhere I look there is something demanding my attention, I call on The One Who is Not Busy. The one who is capable of doing each task with care and quality and perhaps even a touch of bliss.
Conscious Parenting Tip #2: Use the difficult moments as a chance to heal.
Parenthood will find all our buttons and push them, repeatedly. But there is a secret to every uncomfortable moment in life . . . it reveals an opportunity to heal.
Quite often the difficult encounter or the aggravating experience are not objectively difficult . . . they are difficult because they are triggering unresolved pain from a past experience. A moment long ago that I did not process. Instead of opening and allowing an emotion to run its course the first time I encountered that particular type of pain, I chose to contract and shield myself. As my brilliant sister once said, “Armor, engage!” (Insert metal clanging sounds as the heart hides behind an impenetrable fortress.)
Years later, my 6 year old ignores me and I suddenly feel furious. She is normal for a child her age, absorbed in some fantasy involving a fort and a unicorn and unwilling to stop playing to do something tedious, but my mind instantly conjures a story around her unresponsiveness. She is disrespecting me. I have no authority. She thinks I am not worthy of attention . . .
When I feel discomfort, anger, sadness or any negative emotion, it fascinates me to ask: Is this a fresh wound or just the scab being torn off an old one?
So often I realize these are old ghosts haunting me. The parts of life that I haven’t dealt with, the memories that weren’t fully processed, the stories that patiently await closure. And when they are conjured in the present moment . . . by an uncooperative child, a messy home, an unrealistic expectation . . . I can finally allow that pain to burn out for good.
That doesn’t mean acting out and it doesn’t necessitate expressing the emotion. But it does require feeling it, fully, in all its human glory and heart wrenching splendor. Leaning into it. Letting it burn. Listening to what it is teaching me and holding space for it. Making a conscious effort to relax any tension I feel as the pain engulfs the moment.
The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer offers a profound exploration of this process. Singer explores how our shadows are accumulated, how to harness the present moment to heal old wounds, and what waits for us on the other side of that discomfort.
Conscious Parenting Tip #3: Consider not telling young children about events too far ahead of time.
Let’s say they get to have a play date with a friend in a few days, or we are planning a trip to visit grandparents. Choosing the right time to tell the kids is an art form. . . the Tao of timing. For my children, a few minutes notice is plenty for visiting a friend, they will eagerly drop whatever they are doing and put on shoes and run to the car. They will be there pulling the door handle before I can even unlock it, making it difficult to unlock. They will never say “Mama, how long have you known that we were going to go to so-and-so’s house?!?” For longer trips, I usually tell my kids right before we start packing.
Why would I withhold such information? Because if my kids are excited, they will ask me every ten minutes when we are going, even if the adventure is not for another month. If they are tired or moody instead of excited then they will whine about how they don’t want to go, even if the adventure is not for another month.
By not telling them, home is more peaceful, there is less nagging and whining, and my kids are happy playing instead of following me around anxiously asking about the future.
Children naturally stay in the present moment unless something is exciting or worrisome for them. It is much easier for them to enjoy whatever they are doing without the anticipation of a future mega-event. (Even simple things feel like a mega-event to a young child. My four year old gets very excited about going grocery shopping.)
A reasonable amount of secrecy also bestows me with the power of flexibility. I can change my mind about what we are doing without anyone knowing. And every parent knows that canceling something your kid was looking forward to is tragic, even if it was a trip to the grocery store. I save us all potential misery by keeping the future a secret until the right moment. Like a lover considering a marriage proposal, I wait until I’m sure I want to commit before saying anything. Anyone who has ever accidentally said the word “park” near a five year old knows what I mean.
For a deeper dive into the world of conscious parenting, I highly recommend Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross. This magical little book gave me permission to do less and explained why that is actually better for my children.
These are just a few ways to explore the realm of conscious parenting. The possibilities are probably infinite. And parenting certainly isn’t the only undertaking in life that benefits from honed attention and the courage to face what is difficult.
* Mark Lesser in Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less (Read the Book Review How to Be Less Busy)