Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Let me tell you a secret about motherhood. It’s harder than it looks. I spent much of my pregnancy reading books and preparing for what I thought was to come. I felt I was being realistic; I knew that life as I knew it was all but over, and I wasn’t blinded by a rose-tinted vision of motherhood. But even though I went into it with ‘eyes open’, no amount of mental preparation could prepare me for the reality of new motherhood. The highs are so very high, but the lows can be very low. And the journey can be lonely at times…
Exciting, bewildering and exhausting are a few words I could use to describe my experience of becoming a mum, but if I had to just pick one, that word would be RELENTLESS. I was suddenly and completely responsible for a tiny human being for the indefinite future. This took a lot of getting used to. And mothers have to rise to this enormous and constant challenge while feeling wiped out physically and mentally from birth and those first sleepless weeks.
My biggest mistake was to stop the daily yoga & mindfulness practice that had kept me balanced for the past few years. Without it, I was lost. As I strayed from my yoga path, I found myself more reactive and less able to ride the waves of the storm of early motherhood. It took eight months of insomnia and increasing exhaustion to teach me that something had to change. I re-started my short daily asana (physical yoga) and meditation practice and I made this a priority. It was - and still is - the first thing I do when my daughter sleeps; before the hundred other things on the list. Is this self-indulgent? Absolutely not! A bit of time to myself has been key to being a balanced and happier mum. I also reached out to my GP for support with the insomnia as I realised I needed additional help. As I re-discovered my path, I realised just how useful mindfulness is for parents. Being a parent is so full of distractions, it’s the ultimate opportunity to practice!
So what is mindfulness? I think writer Diana Winston says it best, “Mindfulness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is”. Meditation is an important part of mindfulness but finding time to learn to meditate may not be a new parent’s top priority! However, we can cultivate a different level of awareness in daily life and the eight mindful attitudes below are a good place to start.
Please note that I am not in any way pretending that I have this all sorted; I’ve been practicing mindfulness for some time but have only been a parent for a short while. I am not able to cultivate these attitudes all of the time – far from it! Mindfulness is simple in principle but requires patience and commitment in practice. However, I do try on a daily basis to live by these principles and since I recommitted to this path, I feel that I am (often) a more balanced and compassionate parent than I was before.
Please also note that mindfulness is not a panacea or cure-all. Some new mums suffer with post-natal depression, often caused by hormonal changes and exhaustion, and you may need more help than mindfulness alone can give. If you are feeling particularly low, it is important to get help as soon as possible. There is no shame in this; it is a brave step to take charge of your wellbeing. There is plenty of help out there & mindfulness is one of many effective tools you can use to help you recover.
I am writing this from a new mother’s perspective, but the Eight Attitudes of Mindfulness apply to any parent (and everyone else!) New parents, trust me when I say that that there will be countless opportunities to practice these attitudes every day…
It makes no difference what preparation and research you’ve done beforehand. The moment your child is born, you become a complete beginner. If you’re a thirty-something mum, this can be particularly difficult to accept. We have spent our twenties getting the hang of things, developing careers and feeling that we have it sorted. We don't. We have no qualifications or experience for this and we’re in at the deep end. Suddenly another (tiny) person is ruling the roost. I read books and tried routines – desperate to regain control and not feel like a beginner, but I’ve grown to understand the control I thought I had was merely an illusion in the first place (this is actually a very liberating place to be). Approaching motherhood with this sense of ‘beginner’s mind’ curiosity can bring an openness and sense of wonder to these new experiences.
I've found new motherhood to be a place full of judgements; mainly self-judgements. Mindfulness teaches us to approach our thoughts, feelings and experiences with non-judgemental awareness. We simply take a moment to step back and take note of our thoughts, feelings and sensations in each moment. We can learn to stop taking it all so seriously. This is easier said than done but it is important to apply it to other people’s judgements too. I know I’m not alone when I say that opinions can become heated when parenting is the subject.
This quality allows us to kindly acknowledge thoughts and feelings as they are in this moment. Early motherhood is filled with a multitude of thoughts and feelings. Trying to resist the ‘bad’ ones very often causes more pain. As Carl Jung says, “what you resist persists.” Acknowledgement is not the same as acceptance. We are simply observing and opening to what is happening for us – opening to the experience with kindness without censorship. Acknowledging to yourself how you’re feeling is the beginning, and developing this into honest communication can strengthen relationships and support networks. No need to push difficult feelings aside – allow yourself to be vulnerable and ask for support if you need it.
Non-Striving means not trying to get anywhere other than where you are. This can be very challenging when you’re up for the fifth time in the night with a screaming baby! It means not clinging too hard to the good moments or trying to avoid the bad. This pull between attachment and avoidance is also central to yoga philosophy and is considered to be one of the root causes of unhappiness.
Equanimity means balanced awareness and acceptance of the changing nature of all things. As the old saying goes, ‘this too shall pass’. This can be comforting to remember during those sleepless nights! Of course, this is a double-edged sword as the precious moments are equally fleeting. However, understanding this can help us to appreciate all the moments of parenthood, whether beautiful, stressful or downright disgusting (I’m not quite at the stage where I can appreciate car-sickness and dirty nappies…)
Letting be means being able to be with thoughts and sensations in the moment with an open curiosity. We are often told to ‘let things go’ but this is not always as easy as it seems and can cause frustration. Learning to ‘let things be’ means acknowledging how we’re feeling & giving these sensations space to go wherever they need to. As we learn to go with whatever’s happening, rather than resisting it, frustration & suffering lessen.
As new parents, we are adapting to extraordinary challenges and it’s vital to give ourselves some compassion. We cannot be compassionate to our children if we have no compassion for ourselves. We are very often our own worst enemies, full of self-doubt and criticism. We need to learn to speak to ourselves as we’d speak to our best friend; with kindness, compassion and understanding.
Perhaps the most important for new parents! Even though we are learning to savour all these fleeting moments, periods of unrelenting screaming, constant chaos and stomach bugs can cause patience to wear a bit thin. Like every other skill, it needs to be cultivated (with a healthy dose of self-compassion when you lose it.)
The most important lesson I have learned since becoming a mum is to take time out for yourself and ask for support when you need it. Along with many others, I have no local family. I cannot stress strongly enough the value of developing a support network of other parents. If you need support, acknowledge this and ask for it (I found this difficult in the beginning). If you don’t have local family, organise occasional childcare. If finances don’t run to childcare, there are local support groups and charities such as Home-Start here in the UK that can help.
Despite the relentless nature of parenthood, I wouldn’t change it for the world. While there may be challenges and low points, the last six years of watching my daughter and son blossom have been incredibly rewarding. My daily practice has helped me to get into the swing of things and learn to appreciate the highs, lows and ordinary little bits in between. It’s a cliché, but time with little children really does go by so fast and mindfulness is helping me to make the most of these fleeting moments. I hope this beautiful practice is helpful for you too.
Also published by Everyday Mindfulness
Amy McMillan is a mindfulness & yoga teacher, mum & ex-primary school teacher. She has first-hand experience of the power of mindfulness & yoga to calm anxiety & enhance well-being. She has a well-established daily meditation practice and she combines teaching mindfulness and yoga to help others find balance in their lives. Find out more at breathecalm.org or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.