Did you ever notice how pregnant women and parents with little kids seem to naturally attract all kinds of unsolicited advice?
When I was pregnant, so many people told me, “Try to enjoy your child. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the time goes.”
What exactly does that even mean?
I wondered for a bit, but ultimately like so much other unwarranted wisdom sent my way in those long months of pregnancy, I cast it aside.
And, for the first three months of her life, I did think that I was enjoying my daughter.
It’s true, I was a bit anxious to get back to work and to taming the garden, and the holidays were just around the corner, and… well, there was always something.
Sometimes, I would even think to myself, how exactly does one enjoy the 3 a.m. shrieking that never ends, the explosive diapers, the teething that gets worse with every tooth?
However, I remember clearly the moment when everything changed.
My mom had come up for the weekend to help with Christmas shopping. It had been a fun day, although as usual I felt mentally exhausted having to arrange every outing around my 4-month-old daughter’s demanding feeding schedule. By that Saturday evening I was, as usual, out of breath, picking up dirty bibs and toys and wondering how a child who could barely move on her own could leave such a mess in her wake.
Walking past the nursery door I saw my mom rocking her granddaughter. Madison was already long asleep and so I asked my mom if she wanted a hand moving the baby to the crib or a book to read while she sat.
Mom shook her head. “I’m happy,” she whispered. Then she closed her eyes, tucked her nose against Madison’s head, and smiled.
Out of nowhere, I felt a vicious clawing at my heart.
That smile, that peaceful look of complete contentment, was what I had signed on for. That was supposed to be my bliss. Why was I standing in the doorway with a handful of dirty laundry battling the most intense jealousy I’d ever felt?
That was the moment I took that unsolicited advice and put a priority on enjoying my child.
What Does It Mean To Be Present?
Without putting a name to it, I began striving that day to be more “present” in the moments I spent with my daughter. I didn’t realize at the time that mindful parenting was my goal. Psychology Today describes mindfulness as
a state of active, open attention on the present… Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
Like so many people, I’ve spent my entire life looking forward to something, scheduling things in for the future, that I’ve forgotten how to enjoy the here and now.
Even with the goal of being a better parent, mindfulness has been a tougher journey than I ever imagined.
For me, this has come in several steps:
- Accepting that kids discover the world by being messy.
- Stopping to help when it matters.
- Accepting that tantrums and arguments are brief moments in time.
- Using technology on my time, not her time.
- Taking every opportunity to talk or listen.
- Writing what I want to remember.
1. Mindfulness Can Be Messy
I have found that being more present as a parent has made me more forgiving of major messes. The more I focus on being present with my daughter, the more I appreciate her delight in the squish of soft mud between her fingers or the tornado of toys that litter our living room.
Among other things, Madison and I spend a great deal of time in the garden together. Planting is a meditative activity for me and a world of wonder for her. At first it was difficult for me to watch her sink into the dirt and gently spread it over her legs like it was suntan lotion. The laundry! The washing!
But mindfulness means focusing on now—not an hour from now when it’s time to shake the dirt out of her pants or the grass from her hair. Mindfulness, for me, has meant taking a deep breath and watching the small smile on her face as she experienced a new tactile sensation and for possibly the first time brought something to her nose to explore rather than her mouth.
Somehow, laundry and cleaning always sorts itself out easily enough even without me worrying about it in advance.
2. Help When Asked
At one-year-old, Madison already gives off the impression that she knows everything there is to know about life. So when she comes tugging at my pants leg as I make dinner, holding up a doll who needs her bottle, I put down what I’m doing and fix what needs to be fixed.
Who knows how much longer she’ll believe I can fix everything?
Of course it’s not always reasonable for me to stop what I’m doing to attend to my daughter. And there are definitely times when I think she benefits more from me saying “no” or “wait.”
But acknowledging her problems and offering solutions for her crises forces me to stop and recognize the things that are important to her now. It’s a good habit to build for the future when the crises are much more significant.
3. Accept the Bad Times
There are definitely times that are harder to enjoy than others and when I’d rather be anywhere else.
For example, diaper changing is a chore that I dread because it’s an activity that Madison hates. On the days when I’m doing a better job of enjoying myself, I find that it’s easier to accept her changing-time contortions as her reminder to me that she hates to be confined. Recognizing that she’s acting out as a way to express herself, not simply to upset me, makes its easier to brainstorm a way to distract us both with a song or game rather than simply wishing I were somewhere else.
Viewing the worst tantrums as a way of testing limits—one that every child goes through—has made it easier to accept the bad times and remain focused on what my daughter is accomplishing by acting out.
4. Put Away the Toys
It was seductively easy to feed my child with a smartphone in one hand, watching the world outside through the screen and ignoring the world beginning in my arms. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one with this problem; the Wall Street Journal once posed the question: “Is high-tech gadgetry diminishing the ability of adults to give proper supervision to very young children?”
I’m not going to claim I’ve given up entirely the habit of reading the news or blogs like this one. But I have tried to become more selective of when I glance at the phone. It doesn’t come out until we’ve finished studying one another’s faces and she has fallen into a restful sleep. It’s never touched during dinner or the half hour before bath when the entire family is most relaxed.
And if I must use the phone for some other purpose, I try to explain to her what I’m doing and involving her in the action: “See the picture, Madison? It looks like it will rain today so we’ll go to the library instead of the park.”
I don’t want to send the message that the screen is more important to me than her in that moment in time.
5. Keep the Conversation Going
Experts agree that talking to your child is one of the best ways to build vocabulary, social skills and even shape their ability to learn.
It was easy to do this at home, playing a favorite game and talking or singing nonstop. But the first time Madison was able to ride in the cart in the grocery store, I was embarrassed at how many heads we turned by my steady stream of descriptions of produce and colors. Finally an older woman stopped me and said, “What a beautiful little girl you have.”
I smiled, realizing that nobody but Madison thought twice about the one-sided conversation. While I know it’s a benefit to her, I’ve found it to be a tremendous benefit for me as well. Every errand speeds by more quickly when done with my little companion and every trip to the bank or gas station becomes an adventure of “who will we meet next?”
6. Relive It Through Writing
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on my journey toward being a more mindful parent came from a conversation with a stranger.
I was sitting on a bench outside, bouncing my nearly-walking child on my lap, when a friendly grandmother of two came and sat next to me. As we talked about children, the woman sighed and said if she had to do it all over again, she’d follow the advice a friend had given her and write down one sentence every day, that one thing that made her laugh or made her think or even that made her angry. So many of those moments, she said, had been lost in time.
There’s something about the act of writing that helps us to relive a moment and file it more securely in our memory banks. By planning this contemplation period each evening, during the course of the day I find myself more frequently thinking, “This is a moment I want to remember forever.”
Recognizing that at the time actually helps me to keep myself in the present.
So, yes. Back in the day when I was still pregnant and had a very different idea of what parenting was, I received a lot of unsolicited advice and rolled my eyes about it (like “Sleep plenty now since you won’t be able to later” — because I can totally store sleep like a camel stores food).
But there’s one I’ve decided to take — to be present and to “enjoy” my child the best I can.
The 2-Minute Action Plan
Are you ready to be a more mindful parent? Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is one activity or part of your day that you wish you could find a way to enjoy? After taking a step back, is there a way to involve your child in this activity that could make it more enjoyable for you?
- When you start an activity with your child, are you thinking about the mess you’ll have to clean up? The tantrum that hasn’t yet started? The activities you should be doing instead? Or are you focused only on the activity at hand?
- Do you feel you’re missing out on your son’s or daughter’s childhood? Or that you miss the time behind you more than you’re excited for this instant that you are with your kids?
There aren’t any right or wrong answers to these questions. They’re simple ways to determine where you are and if you’re ready to build new habits. Good luck with being a more mindful parent!
The Long-Term Action Plan
To begin/continue on your path toward being a more mindful parent, consider taking the following easy steps this week:
- Set a half hour block each day where all technology (remotes, telephones, tablets) go on a shelf or in a basket and instead spend that time committed to taking part in whatever you are doing with your kids.
- On your next errand, make a point of talking to your kids about what you are doing and everything you see around you. Listen to their feedback.
- Pick your least favorite activity—diaper changes, homework time, an argument about dessert—and see if there’s a new way to approach it. What causes this distress? Is it something that can be changed by paying closer attention to the cause or being more present in the solution?
Find a notepad and write down one sentence each night before bed about something that happened that day that made you smile.
[Sumitha’s Note: I can’t vouch for this enough – we have a nightly routine of saying a prayer of gratitude for what we love the most on any given day, and from what I can tell, this is the spark that triggered all the major changes and transformation in our family.]