By Anne Meneakis, LCSW
Wouldn’t it be marvelously healthy and wonderful to have monthly national “unplug” days, where our phones are shut down, email and all electronic devices are turned off, and our maternal “to do” lists transform into a mother’s single-item “to be” list? And the hugely important question, “How do I want to be with my children?” would be given its due honoring, time and space.
If fans of Shakespeare would pardon me, how “to be,” really does seem to capture the crucial question of those of us parenting in this decade. How to be with our children as we work so hard to nurture and raise them as we truly wish to; how to be with our children when moments of normal parenting stress or challenges arise and our humanness gets in the way of being the kind of parents we long to be; how to be with our children as we juggle vast and distracting schedule demands in an overpaced culture; how to be with our children, so that they may learn to be with others – empathetic and kind. These to be moments, moments of be-ing, are all moments with the potential for mindfulness, for mothering mindfully.
“Mindfulness is at the heart of nurturing relationships. When we are mindful, we live in the present moment and are aware of our own thoughts and feelings and also are open to those of our children.” –in “Parenting from the Inside Out,” by attachment expert and child psychiatrist, Daniel L. Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.
Even if we don’t get a day of unplugged time, one of the wonderful things about the practice of mindfulness is that it can be practiced for as little as 5-10 minutes a day with a resulting shift in our interactions with our children and loved ones, a shift towards greater awareness of what is happening inside ourselves and inside our children’s minds and hearts. Our interactions with our children then have a more abundant loving intentionality of how we wish to be with them. Mindfulness can be practiced in sitting meditation, or while walking, brushing our teeth or chopping broccoli.
There are so many of those “I wish moments” in parenting. “Oh, I wish I had kept calmer and more patient when trying to get my son to school on time;” “I wish I had been less distracted when my daughter wanted to play with me,” or “I wish I had reserved that afternoon for just my children and my myself.” Even in our better parenting moments, mis-attunement is a natural phenomenon. As we integrate mindfulness into our daily lives, such “I wish” moments happen less often. We are more able to set limits on schedules that take away from relationship-building with our children. Our awareness and attunement increase, and our relationship with our children deepens.
“When we are being fully present as parents, when we are mindful, it enables our children to fully experience themselves in the moment….“It is within our children’s emotional connections with us that they develop a deeper sense of themselves and a capacity for relating.” Daniel L. Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.
What about the moments where we are more than mildly mis-attuned with our children? When parenthood presents moments of more difficult challenge from our own stress, or when a child’s behavior presses buttons we didn’t know we had, parenting strategies or child development theories alone are not helpful.
“When tired, hungry, frustrated, disappointed, or angered, we can lose the ability to be reflective and become limited in our capacity to choose our behaviors. We may be swept up in our own emotions and lose perspective. At these times, we can no longer think clearly and are at high risk of overreacting… It is so important that we try to be aware of our own emotional processes and respect their central role in both our internal and interpersonal lives…When we are [mindful and thus] flexible, we have a choice about what behaviors to enact and what parental approach and values to support.” – (Siegel & Hartzell)
The practice of mindfulness can be so very helpful in these moments. It helps decrease our moments of unregulated and unmindful speaking to our children, and helps us stop and pause and re-direct ourselves more quickly when such human and unskillful moments arise. When we are able to stay present in the moment, we create a neurological capacity in the brain, a flexibility of mind to pause, and become aware of our emotions and internal experiences and states. We become more aware of and able to consider the emotions and internal experiences of others, of our children. We can then thoughtfully and intentionally follow through on the strategies or parent-child interactions which belong not to reactive irritability or distracted absence of mind, but to our values of how we wish to mother our children – our best of mothering intentions which arise in our calmer, wiser, reflective moments.
Mindful and loving parent-child interactions that teach and nourish our children, and raise them to be resilient, thriving adults, can be a part of parenting for any of us, even if our memories of our own childhood were not particularly happy ones. The neuroscience research outlined in Dr. Susan Smalley’s book, “Fully Present,” and Dr. Siegel’s “Parenting from the Inside Out,” demonstrates the brain’s ability to grow new neuronal pathways, which make possible a new capacity to reduce old stress responses and increase our resiliency in stressful moments. We are thus able to create new, mindful, attuned ways responding to our children in times of stress, or difficult emotions.
In practicing the non-judgmental noting of what arises within us, and responding with acceptance, mindfulness enables us to cultivate a more compassionate understanding with ourselves. As we become more mindful and compassionate with ourselves, we not only create a deeper, more meaningful life for ourselves, we role-model such awareness and self-compassion for our children. As our children receive non-judgmental compassion from us, our children can learn to create that compassion in their relationship with themselves and with others.
“It is within our children’s emotional connections with us that they develop a deeper sense of themselves and a capacity for relating….” – (Siegel and Hartzell)
So the gift of this parenting art of mindfulness, with its practice of compassion and awareness, becomes for us a gift of a deeper understanding of ourselves and a deeper relationship with our children. And that gift of deeper, richer connection between our selves and our children becomes the gift of a step towards a more mindful, more connected world.
Anne Meneakis, LCSW, is a counselor in private practice in SE and NE Portland. She will be offering a Mindful Mothering Workshop at Zenana Spa on Saturday, October 1st from 2-5p, which will include a blend of mindfulness meditation instruction, as well as journal writing and affirming, supportive group discussions – all on mothering mindfully. We will unplug, and create and share our “to be” list. No prior meditation experience is required. The workshop is equally fitting for new moms as well as moms with older children.
Anne has worked in the mental health/counseling field for nearly 24 years. She provides couples counseling, parent coaching and individual counseling with an emphasis on women’s relationship, parenting and emotional wellness concerns. You can reach Anne at 503-349-6152. For more information about Anne you may also click on http://www.vitalhealthpdx.com/about/anne_meneakis.html.
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