Peace of mind
If you find yourself feeling frazzled, guilty and emotional, then applying mindfulness techniques to your parenting could help. Jai Breitnauer consults the experts on how to do it.
We all know that parenting is full-on, even on the good days. Most people would instantly forgive any new mum who feels a bit stressed and vulnerable, but we’re not always so easy on ourselves.
“So many of us have such high expectations – that baby will be happy all the time, that parenting will be great every single day – we’re unprepared and unwilling to accept reality”, says Dr Chantal Hofstee, a clinical psychologist and mindfulness expert. “Having a new baby in the house is an intense, stressful period – I should know, my second daughter was born in August. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Unrealistic expectations lead to feelings of guilt and shame.”
It’s hard when you’ve got the baby book to fill in, social media to update, and eager friends wanting to know how wonderful motherhood is, to be honest even with yourself. But practicing mindfulness is about being kind to yourself and others, about living in the present, and accepting your reality for what it is.
Hofstee says new parents are often stuck in their ‘red brain’. “This is all about stress, being reactive, feeling overwhelmed and multitasking,” she says. “When you’re in that mode you are disconnected from yourself, the moment and your child.” Mindfulness can help you switch to ‘green brain’, which is responsive, calm and connected to the present. “It’s not always happy though,” Hofstee explains. “That’s a misconception. Mindfulness isn’t about being happy, it’s about being kind and present in the moment, and how that helps you respond to the challenges of life in a more accepting way.”
Mindfulness practitioner Glenda Irwin agrees. “Mindfulness will help you accept the situation, and your child, for what it is. That does not make you any less in love with your child – it’s about finding your normality, and knowing it’s okay.” Irwin and her partner teach over 200 adults a week how to live in a more mindful way, and she notes an important skill for parents is to be able to relinquish expectations.
“Mindful parenting is about matching your expectations to the development of your child”, says psychologist and mindfulness expert Monique Lubberink. “But it’s also about being kind and accepting to yourself”. Lubberink helps parents to trust themselves, and to be assertive around the boundaries they set for other people. Self care is essential to this. “Your baby will always come first, but that is enabled by looking after yourself, your sleep and healthcare – and not being afraid to ask for help.”
Here are three common scenarios and ways you can respond mindfully:
Baby won’t stop crying
You’ve established breastfeeding and got into such a good routine, you’ve made arrangements to have coffee with a friend. But today your baby just won’t settle. She’s been feeding all morning, the jobs are building up and you can’t put baby down. You have to cancel coffee and feel like having a bit of a cry yourself.
“It would be almost impossible to expect a mum in this position to do some sort of meditation or breathing exercise, she would be far too overwrought,” says Glenda Irwin. “But she could have a shower – that’s great informal practice.” First things first, make sure baby is safe in her cot then give yourself a few minutes to try this.
“Notice the intention to have a shower,” says Irwin “This isn’t the unconscious, fall out of bed and into the shower you might have in the morning, this is a conscious choice. You could go as far as to say out loud, ‘I’m going to have a shower.’ Notice what happens as you take
the steps you need to take to get to the shower. Is the bathroom floor warm or cold? Do you need to step into the shower? What muscles do you use? How do you turn the shower on? Feel the lever or tap, its shape and size.” Irwin says that after testing the water temperature, really feel the way it hits your skin; how does it run down your body? Is the pressure hard or soft?
“At all times keep your thoughts on what is happening now. Find some relief in the present moment, this will sustain you when you return to your baby, helping you to respond with more focus and compassion.”
The missed milestone
Your little boy is 14 months old and you’re loving this amazing phase in his development and celebrating every milestone. You’re proud of his achievements and excited about showing him off at a family gathering but soon find yourself caught up in a long conversation with someone. Then a well-meaning relative comes rushing over to tell you your son just took his first few independent steps. That news hits you like a sledgehammer – your little guy walked, and you missed it.
“Mindfulness is about processing emotions,” says Hofstee. “Before you react, give yourself the chance to register and understand what you are feeling.”She suggests the following steps:
Acknowledge - “Whatever you feel, accept it. Say, ‘hello guilt’, or ‘hello sadness, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to be here right now’”.
Link - “Connect that emotion to its trigger. Say, ‘I’m feeling sad because I just missed my son’s first steps’. To verbalise helps the brain to process.”
Let go - “Take a few really deep breaths, drop your shoulders, breathe out and say, ‘I let it go’. After all, there will be more milestones. Now you should find that emotion you felt is much smaller, and you’re ready to respond with kindness and acceptance toward yourself and others.”
You’ve had a lovely afternoon messy-painting with your two year old on the deck. She’s made some great pictures, and you’re just thinking about tidying up when the phone rings. You ask her to stay put, telling her clearly not to go inside. But when you come back you find that your daughter has followed you, wiping paint on the wall and sofa, and is making patterns against the glass ranch slider.
“This is such a recognisable situation for all parents,” says Monique Lubberink. “Toddlers feel and act at the same time and have a limited ability to be reasoned with, as the cortex, the thinking part of the brain is the last part to develop. This curiosity and disruptiveness gives us the best challenge to learn to be mindful.” Lubberink suggests that the age-old advice of counting to 10 is useful here.
“Focus on your breathing. Just follow your breathing and count ‘one’ as you breath in, ‘two’ as you breath out and so on until you are at 10,” she says. “This will calm your body down and stop your thoughts from making a situation worse than it actually is.”Once you are calm, reach deep and find your sense of humour.
“Having a good laugh, making fun memories with your children, is the best response,” says Lubberink. “After all, there are a lot worse things that could have happened instead of some paint on the wall. Kindly explain that painting is for paper and not for walls, doors and floors. You could even make it into an activity by cleaning up together.” ′