Of all the occupations out there, none is quite as challenging as parenting. Last-minute requests, sometimes difficult co-workers, relentless hours, and constant second guessing over every single decision. It’s exhausting, but the rewards far outweigh the challenges. For all of the mothers and fathers in the trenches, Dave Johnson PhD, CNS, BC, LMFT, employee assistance specialist, Parkview Health, has some wonderful advice for incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine for a slice of sanity the whole family will appreciate.
You have to be mindful of yourself first. We call it a practice because it requires practice. It’s not enough to know you should be mindful. You have to practice both formally and informally. For a formal practice, you’re taking yourself off of autopilot, breathing and counting to 10. You’re stopping to smell your tea, notice if you’re hungry, and pause to take a break and come out of that thinking and overthinking mind.
My formal practice is 10-15 minutes – which doesn’t sound like much – of sitting meditation. I sit and come to my senses in real time in this moment with my eyes open or closed, where I’m not distracted by anything other than what is. My mind wants to wander, so I notice and come back to this moment, over and over again. Our attention spans are so short that unless we practice, we’re certainly going to be sidetracked by children and demands.
Informally, I encourage parents to take full 60 seconds before they get out of their car and enter house. Breathe your body and come to your senses. Shift out of work mode into parent mode. Prepare yourself to step over that threshold and enter the world of your child. Sometimes changing clothing or washing your hands or face can help provide a fresh set of lenses. When we practice, it becomes more intuitive that we need to do it with our children as well. They are, after all, the most important pieces of our lives.
When we think about parenting, it can seem like a daunting task, the most important we’ll ever do in our lives. And children don’t come with an owner’s manual. There’s no right, wrong, good or bad. Our children call us to action, and mindfulness is a good way to parent. With intention, we ask ourselves the questions, “What’s my intention?” If it’s to put the child to bed at night and whisper about the day and be totally present, then be present. If the intention is to put the child in bed and get out as fast as we can, that’s a very different pause.
If we’re caught in worry and problem-solving – worrying about the future or what happened earlier or feeling guilty or being caught up in the multitude of other things we need to take care of – we cannot be present. Attention is always sensory driven; What am I seeing, touching, hearing, feeling, tasting?
When I take a child on a walk and they stop at a puddle at the end of a driveway to marvel at their mirror image, but the parent says, “C’mon, we’re going for a walk!” we’ve missed that opportunity to be present. Kids anchor us into our senses. Embrace the opportunity to pause and be present to your children, intentionally and attentionally.
We need courage to parent. We also need to take care of ourselves, be kind, be compassionate and find space for breaks when we need them. Parents need to pause and refresh their well to rejuvenate. There’s this notion of attitude, with an emphasis on calm. Let’s be honest, there are times we’re called to react. For example, if a child runs out into the street, we’re going to react. But then there are times we’re in reactive mode because we’re on autopilot. This is where we need to cultivate an awareness.
If we think about what the child is hearing, if we slip into their shoes and peak at what they’re seeing, it gives us a bit of empathy in terms of what the child is experiencing. We can better appreciate where they’re coming from. If we can embrace an attitude that we’re joined with them, partnering with them, helping, mentoring, coaching them, that can be beneficial. But sometimes when we’re tired, angry, confused, hungry and so on, we go into that reactive mode and they aren’t seeing the best of us. Then, in turn, we often see the child go into reactive mode as well.
The reset + finding our anchors
This concept of reset is very important, because we all lose it sometimes. We’re humans! Our children have tantrums or fits and, as parents, our fits don’t look the same but in many ways, they are. There are times when, even if we aren’t displaying it through our tone or actions, the child can see it in our eyes. They see we’re having a meltdown. It’s important to be able to stop and recognize what’s taking place. This is when we use anchors.
The most common anchor is breathing; Coming off autopilot and taking slow deep breaths so we can come back to our body and notice what’s in front of us. “Oh, I’m frustrated.” It sounds cliché, but it’s important to both the parent and the child, to name what’s happening. “What you’re seeing is Mommy being frustrated and I need a break, so I’m going to go for a walk and Daddy’s going to play with you.” That pause can reenergize you so you can reengage and be present again. It’s OK to say, “I’m sorry” to your child, too. You don’t want to overuse it to where it becomes an autopilot response and no longer carries meaning, but it’s healthy to ask for forgiveness, from yourself and your child.
The idea of resetting takes practice. That’s where children are little Zen masters. They float in and give us opportunities to be curious. So that when we lose it, so to speak, and we are being reactive, we have a sensibility of, “Oh, I’m reacting. Isn’t that interesting?” So we can pull to curiosity rather than judgment. The last thing we need is guilt. That guilt can derail an entire day. Hit that reset so you can forgive and start anew. This is a great gift to the child as well. See life as a practice. We’ve not accomplished it all or finally arrived. Every moment is an opportunity. Some are dark, and some produce anxiety, but the last thing we need is to hold onto shame or guilt or remorse. Come to your senses and pick back up where you were. Some of us hold onto old hurt, old anger. We need to be able to let go.
People are great anchors as well, because they can really listen and validate that this parenting thing is exhausting and many of us don’t have the internal resources to do it well 100 percent of the time. How could we? When a person looks into your eyes and acknowledges that it is tough, sometimes that’s all we need. Pause and recognize who your anchors are and cultivate those relationships. This goes for your co-parent as well. Be present so you can notice when your partner needs relief and you can provide kindness and empathy to them as well.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
-- David Wagoner