I am not a meditative type. I think deeply, I ponder, I self reflect, I might even journal from time to time, but I do not practice meditation on purpose. I write letters to my children for when they are grown. I don’t shy away (too much) from the realities of my own baggage. I apologize a lot, and then contemplate how nice it would be to not do the things that need apologizing for, but figure it’s better than not noticing I did it. I get better at it as I age. But if there could be such a thing as forced mindfulness practice, the day-to-day of parenting would be it, and then some.
My mother in law once told me the most useful advice she’d ever gotten about how to handle children’s injuries was to sit down and have a cup of tea before making any big decisions. I love this and am pretty good at it for the myriad physical injuries my kids get. But what about everything else?
With children everything is raw and enormous. I spend 90% of my time as an emotional sponge-slash-therapist for my children, a state of constant immersion in what my mother calls a F.O.G.
(Another) F**king Opportunity for Growth.
They just keep on coming. Some knock the wind out of you, some make you feel briefly like a super-heroine. It’s constant. It’s intense. It’s so much better than life before these amazing little people. It’s also terrifying and exhausting. It’s easy to have your adrenal glands gushing 24-7 unless you have tools take a step back, to zoom out.
Here is where the forced mindfulness practice comes in. Some things just take time, and for parents the question is how to stay engaged, stay vigilant in order to not miss important opportunities to be protagonists in helping ourselves and our children navigate the frightening unknowns of childhood, while also not driving everyone batshit crazy with stress over whether things *should* be different than they actually are.
This is the dance. With what grace will we weather the storm and what can we do to improve the chances of everyone coming out relatively unscathed? There are two components to this (un)balancing act: stepping back to reassess what’s not working, taking a new tack if necessary, and stepping back to view the present parenting challenge in its own broader context. Zooming out.
There are so many reasons zooming out is hard. Lately I’ve felt like I am constantly failing. There’s no counterfactual–how can you ever know what this moment would look like had something gone differently in the past? In science ideally you conduct experiments in which a process is repeated with only one change from the control, so that any change in outcome can be attributed to that one difference. But in real life no moment can be replicated. The number of confounding variables is enormous. How can one ever tease out what to change in order to improve something challenging with a child when they are different people today than yesterday? Is it you? Is it their diet? Is it their social group? Their school? Is it normal developmental behavior?
And the stakes feel dauntingly high. It’s not idle curiosity. Sometimes whatever is happening really needs changing. I mean seriously.
It’s also hard because you are tired. It doesn’t matter whether your kid sleeps well or not, or what the struggles are. There are struggles. You are tired, even if the baby doesn’t nurse all night, the toddler doesn’t wet the bed, or the six year old doesn’t wake you at 5am with existential concerns about their own mortality.
At the moment we are deep in it, and my partner and I finish up every night wrung out and exhausted, emotionally and physically. Stepping back and zooming out helps. One of my favorites lately is to ask myself: “what was hard not that long ago that is not hard anymore?” You have these. You probably have many. Snatch them up and savor them. Here is one of ours.
I vaguely remember the agonizing months when my older child stopped napping but the baby napped for several hours on my lap in the middle of the day. It was the only place he’d sleep more than 30 minutes and his night sleeping was so bad I couldn’t afford to ruin the naps. My first born was jealous and attached and equated the notion of quiet time on his own with punishment, with being sent away. The simultaneous nap bought us all a respite, but it was gone, overnight, like a warm little candle flame being snuffed out (sound melodramatic? that’s how it felt).
All my friend’s children did quiet time and they shrugged with empathy when I asked how they got their children to accept it. I bet a few of them told me there was a transition period, that it took some time, but it’s all a blur now. I knew quiet time was what we were “supposed” to be doing. Lord knows I needed it. But he just looked for ways to wake the baby up and was unwilling or incapable of doing something quiet in our company, so I needed him to be elsewhere. Watching me hold the sleeping baby was torture for him, but he couldn’t stay away. It didn’t matter if I set up a project, or was sweet to him when he poked his head into the living room. He was angry about the state of the world and did not want to be alone with those feelings. I understood, but that made no difference when the problem was structural. I quickly began to dread nap time.
That was 6 months ago. I had to look it up because I couldn’t remember. So much has changed. Well, the baby is still a horrible sleeper. Our first born is still attached. But six months is a lifetime for a little one, and it is so easy to drown in the present challenges and completely forget how much harder some of the hard stuff was, not long ago.
Now, when the baby takes his marathon midday nap, his brother takes his lunch and his audiobook upstairs and builds forts, does art, makes wild creations with his glue gun and cardboard boxes. He’ll say “see you in a few hours mom!” (literally) and take off.
Much of the rest of the afternoon and into the witching hours involves conflict, but these midday quiet hours are precious downtime for both of us now.
So that first step was remembering not to take for granted how much this child has grown in a few short months, and how hard he has worked to get there. But as a social scientist my very next thought was “what caused the change?” Here’s what I’d done:
- I pulled in my support network. I talked to my mother, my partner, my friends about what to do. My husband and I came up with the idea of getting him started with audiobooks. We downloaded our software onto an old smart phone, then put it on airplane mode and let him carry it around with headphones to listen to Magic Treehouse books. Part of the problem was that he was lonely. Audiobooks have been like magic. If I hadn’t bounced ideas off the people I trusted, I would have continued running in circles.
- I threw out the old routines and started from scratch. For a while he was still tired midday but wouldn’t fall asleep upstairs in the bed. I’d make a nest for him on the couch and he’d put on his headphones and doze off. He just wanted to be with me. But first I had to realize it wasn’t all or nothing and just go with what worked.
- A close friend told me that when her kids were making the transition, she always had new materials ready for quiet time to make it special. For us that turned into making a pretty lunch with something a little extra since he usually ended up eating on his own upstairs, a new audiobook, or a new art supply. Not everyday, but regularly enough that it’s become something he thinks of as special time.
Going over the list of what we did that made things better reinforced in my mind that it had been a successful strategy to reach out to my family and friends for help, to step back and reconsider the patterns we had developed, to look for new ideas that might create opportunities for improvement. Just remembering that I did that successfully makes it come quicker to mind when I get stuck. Now, I reach for my network earlier and rejigger the mechanics of our everyday routine before I become desperate.
The first step was just to take a deep breath and treasure what had become easier rather than focusing on what was hard. Even just remembering the morning instead of the miserable hours before bed reset my mental stage.
We are all in the trenches at different moments, but all parents understand this in their bones. It creates a special fodder for social connection that you sort of have to laugh-cry about. It’s not bad, it’s not even close to bad (ok, sometimes it’s bad), but it is hard. Parenting is a huge mirror slammed up in your face of everything you thought you had figured out about yourself, your own insecurities, your own drama. I am grateful in a way I never imagined for the friends who are in this with us. Who love me when I trip up. Who love my kids. Who give us millions of second chances. Who are standing there waiting when we finally get up, dust ourselves off, wipe away the blood (let’s be honest, sometimes there’s blood) and get ready to keep going. Or who leave us be when we just need to hide at home for a few days. When I zoom out enough to remember I’m not alone, it does get better, and we can always change what we are doing if it doesn’t work, there is space to feel good about this wild ride.