When my sister and I were kids, we’d blast Tchaikovsky and wreck the living room with our latest staging of The Nutcracker. My mom would poke her head in and chuckle appreciatively at the soldiers – our three brothers – doing pitched battle with the evil Mouse King, our hulking dog.
My dad, however, would flip. The barking. The mess. The fights between the soldiers and their bossy sisters. “My nerves! The stress!” he’d holler, and a volcanic temper would let loose.
When the crazy gets going with my own three kids, I strive to channel my chill mother. Often, I can hang on to the cliff edge of rationality. But sometimes the echo of “My nerves! The stress!” flips me into free fall, and I lose touch with the best-self parent I thought I’d always be.
I’ve learned that when my blood starts to boil, I’ve got work to do to show up for my kids with the warm authority I wish I’d come up with. Mindfulness has been a great help. I’m learning to catch the simmer before the boil, take a breath, and make a degree of peace with the moment. Mindfulness pulls me from the reactive autopilot that too often has won the day, helping me realize – in the heat of family chaos – that I have a range of responses to choose from.
Mindfulness is a well-researched approach to working with the challenges of living. Programs for stress reduction, chronic pain, addictions, and depression are flourishing. Mindfulness apps are booming. Mindfulness is in our schools. My third-grader learns mindfulness-based coping strategies for when she feels upset or can’t focus. My teens get extra credit for attending mindfulness seminars.
But mindfulness for the already over-stretched parenting set? Who has the time?
Well, actually, we all do. As Andrew Olenski, author of Unlimiting Mind, said at a recent talk at the New York Insight Center, “The practice is won or lost in the moment.” And Lordy, do we parents have moments! Turns out we can practice right in the middle of it all.
I meditate most every day. For 15 years I’ve taught mindfulness to couples preparing to work with the intensity of labor. But I doubt I’ll ever be an elite meditator, logging the tens of thousands of hours that can affect profound psychological transformation with astounding changes in the brain. And I’m okay with that. Instead, I aim for the applied version, the micro-victories. I’m a parent. It’s what I can do. And, actually, research has shown that even short periods of mindfulness, can alter the brain for the better.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing attention to the present moment, with a non-judgemental quality of curiosity and acceptance. It is an acknowledgment that, “Yes, this is how it is right now. It will change, but right now, pleasant or unpleasant, things are as they are.” With this simple reorientation, an intriguing calm can descend.
“Okay, fine,” you say, “just adopt an attitude of peaceful equanimity to all that comes my way? No problem! Why didn’t I think of that?”
Well, mindfulness is more than an idea. It is an authentic mind-body practice.
In fact, a foundational aspect of mindfulness is the practice of focusing awareness on the body as a way to anchor the mind to the present. Attempting to do so usually pretty quickly reveals the mental chatter and endless judgements that filter our relationship to how things are. Slowing down to pay attention to the moment, we hear the internal noise that is so often busily wishing things were other than they are and, well, causing us suffering.
Mindfulness doesn’t mean we passively accept all that comes our way, but by acknowledging how things are, we’ve got a shot at stepping out of habits of reactivity and choosing how to best respond freshly to the moment in front of us. Here are the basics of a handy mindfulness practice for parents.
3-Step Mindfulness Practice for Busy Parents
Step 1 – Body
Check-in with yourself by way of your body. Ask yourself, “How am I right now?” But rather than thinking your way to a response, look to your body. The body knows how you are doing, often before the conscious mind is aware of what’s going on.
Furthermore, with mindfulness, we like to be specific. So instead of concluding, say, I am overwhelmed and leave it at that, can you inquire further? This overwhelm, where do I feel it? Are my toes overwhelmed? No. My feet? My legs? My back? Yes. My whole back? No, today, right now, it is my shoulders. My entire shoulder area? No. It is a tightness on the top of both shoulders. A pulling sensation.
With this step, the project is simply to notice, not to change anything.
Step 2 – Breath
Start by observing your breath as it is. Short or long? Deep or shallow? Loose or constricted? Now that you’ve got a read on your breathing as it is, set an intention to focus your awareness on breathing for one minute. I find chunking into threes really helpful. Three breaths. And then three more. And then three more. Three sets of three. And if you only get through one set of three, you are doing great.
Step 3 – Body and Breath as a Whole; Things as They are Now
The final step is to expand awareness to the entire body. Observe your breathing body as a whole. And here’s the kicker. Bring in a touch of warmth, an attitude of acceptance, or gratitude. It doesn’t have to be forced or elaborate. A simple sense of yes, this is how it is right now. This breathing body. Observe with a calm gaze, a touch of compassion.
Starting this practice when the kids are pushing every button may not work so well. Rather, begin when you have a moment of relative stillness. When you wake up. Before falling asleep. Sitting on the train. I’d suggest three times a day. Next, practice with the kids around while all is relatively quiet. Then, and only then, apply it to family life when things are stressful, as often as you can!
On a recent morning after I’d commandeered screens in the hopes of a quiet day of kids reading, my children whipped up a game of floor hockey in the living room using baseball bats and a stuffed animal. I mean, really! Baseball bats? The dog was in a frenzy.
From my computer, I overheard my oldest refusing to let the others win at all, ever. Autopilot was kicking in: he gets the younger ones going; they reach a pitch of fury; I get revved, and suddenly we are a chaotic mess, looped into patterns set long ago. I was losing contact with chill mother and listing toward reactive-father vibe. I did a fast 3-step practice.
I noticed my stomach clenching, and a kind of body feeling that made me think of a snake winding up for a strike. I took three breaths, following each one all the way in and all the way out. Then, I expanded my awareness to my whole body, humming with tension but now a notch lighter. I dug deep and said to myself, yes, this isn’t how I thought the morning would go. I felt something soften inside. And somehow, it suddenly seemed funny.
I poked my head into the wrecked living room. My beautiful children amid a crazy, creative battle. I smiled. I saw the younger ones teaming up to take on the big guy. They were figuring it out. There was no need to shout. I wasn’t happy about the living room, but I walked back to my computer thinking that if next they were to stage The Nutcracker, perhaps I’d join in.
Mary Esther Malloy, M.A., writes frequently about birth and parenting. She is a childbirth educator, doula, parenting coach and owner of Mindful Birth NY.