Before having children, I thought it’d be a breeze to parent mindfully.
I imagined myself calm as a cucumber, confident in my instincts, and, above all, lovingly connected.
Then, reality hit as I arrived home from the hospital broken and depleted from a 44-hour labor. The fog of tiredness so thick I could barely feel a connection to our sweet baby boy.
Wrought with anxiety, I questioned whether I had the skills and ability to keep this tiny, vulnerable being alive.
And as far as the instantaneous, heartbreaking joy everyone raves about, it was confusingly absent at times.
As weeks turned into months in those blurry postpartum days, I slowly began to find my groove as a mother, witnessing with satisfaction as our baby boy grew and developed in positive, healthy ways.
But even then, I grappled to understand the person I was now that I had a child.
What parts of my previous life (and self) made sense to hold onto? What parts no longer fit, and therefore did I need to let go? How did my practice and profession as a mindfulness teacher fit with my new role as a parent? Furthermore, since calm and present – two words commonly related to mindfulness – didn’t come naturally in the early months and years of being a parent, what did this mean: Did I need to work harder? Cut myself some slack? Adjust my expectations?
What Is Mindful Parenting Not?
One of the things I discovered is that I unconsciously created expectations that were impossible to live up to as a naïve, new parent. For example, I thought I needed to be exquisitely present and attuned to my child at all times in order to pass the mindful parent test. Secondly, I put myself on a pedestal as a mindfulness teacher, thinking that I should always be engaged and playful. Then, I’d feel horribly guilty when I had other, equally important things, to focus on. And if that wasn’t enough, I’d berate myself when I lost my patience or raised my voice because I didn’t think a “mindful parent” did this.
What had I done to myself!?
How about you, have you ever put excessive pressure on yourself to parent a certain way, only to realize it’s impossible to achieve, maybe even misaligned with what you – or your children – need?
Another unfortunate issue about the popularized version of mindful parenting is that it can give parents the impression that they’re doing something wrong when they don’t always interact with their children calmly, compassionately, or non judgmentally, causing them to feel guilt and shame when they don’t live up to certain standards or ideals.
Don’t get me wrong, these qualities are generative and important on their own, and when applied in the right context, but it’s unfair to present them as the end-all be-all way to parent. There’s a time and place for firmness and directness in your parenting approach, and you shouldn’t have to explain yourself when you assert yourself as the person who’s in charge – because you are, and your kids need to know that you are!
There’s also something to be said about all the other responsibilities on your plate (including the time you must make for yourself to stay sane!), which makes it impossible to connect with your children all the time.
Even with the best of intentions, you — and we — will miss the mark over and over again. This is why you have to keep your eye on the big picture, knowing that, as Winnicott said, good enough parenting, or a parent who willingly makes – and learns from – mistakes is crucial, both for your sanity and your child’s emotional resilience. Yes, they need to see you stumble in order to learn they don’t have to be perfect!
A Realistic, Empowering View on Mindful Parenting
After lots of missteps and misconceptions, I finally gave up on a perfect version of mindful parenting.
I’m convinced that parents don’t need another approach that pressures them to parent a certain way. Instead, they – ahem, you – need a way to harness and trust the amazingly unique parent – and person – you already are.
In case that sounds too lofty or abstract, I’ll give a practical example.
As a half extrovert, half introvert, I take great pleasure in connecting with others. At the same time, it’s a balm to my soul to spend time by myself, writing, reflecting, just being. When I make a point to honor both of these needs, I’m hands-down a better parent. I worry less about trivial things like messes and noise. I relax into a sillier version of myself. And, I ‘m able to turn mundane moments of connection into sweet, joyful ones that leave a mark on my heart.
Of course, it’s not that seamless all the time because, well, that’s not true of any aspect of parenthood, but, generally speaking, the more time you spend discovering who you are and what you want, the easier it’ll be to navigate challenging situations and connect in a way that rings true to your heart.
Awaken Your Authentic Self with Mindfulness
Mindfulness offers you a way to slow down and look inward. Getting to know yourself, and coming to terms with all you are, not only your imperfections or wounds, but also your brilliance. Clarifying and embracing your values and needs. Giving yourself permission to let go of popular ways to parent if they don’t fit you or your family. Find your way. Be wholeheartedly, unapologetically yourself in the way you parent — and live.
As you do this inner work, you can’t help but be a mirror for your children’s unique and limitless potential.
I’m not sure there’s any greater gift you can offer them!
Parenting educator, postpartum support group facilitator, and advocate for mothers. She has a Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and extensive training in mindfulness and self-compassion from Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the Center for Mindfulness at U Mass Medical. Her mission is to support, empower, and connect mothers through 1:1 coaching and group experiences.
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