I am standing at the kitchen sink and I sigh at the pile of unwashed dishes. I start rinsing and jamming them into the dishwasher as fast as I can because my mind is already racing to the next five things I have to do and I feel like it’s insurmountable. I’m stressed. My son runs by screaming in some made up game about dragons and I tense up at the noise and snap at him to not run in the kitchen. Why is this taking forever?!?
I’ve felt like that a million times. But there is a different way. There is a way to be a mindful, intentional parent, one who is less stressed and less reactive.
My journey in mindfulness and being present began back in graduate school. I signed up for a class in transpersonal psychology — or the psychology ‘beyond the self.’ It was taught by a professor who blended eastern philosophical orientations with western psychological approaches.
Other students talked about the professor in hushed tones in the hallways — he was known as being intense. Some investigation into this on my part uncovered the fact that the reason for the intensity was how good of a listener he was — yes, he listened, really listened when you spoke. He was 100% present in the conversation — to the point that it seemed he didn’t even blink.
When you meet someone who truly gives you their full attention it does feel intense and you realize how rare it is that we really, truly engage with those around us.
It was an amazing class. We meditated. We read Ram Dass & Paul Gorman. These heavily dog-eared books are still on my bookshelves having survived the purges of many moves.
The highlight of the semester was when a group of Tibetian Monks came to visit our class. They didn’t lecture or even really talk that much. They taught by example. They spent most of their time with us creating a Mandala from colored sand. It is extremely intricate work that painstakingly sculpted into an extremely detailed piece of art. The construction of the mandala is a form of mindfulness meditation in itself.
It is an exercise in task immersion, simply for the sake of creating and being dedicated to something in the moment. Because once it is complete, the monks ceremoniously destroy their work.
The mandala represents the impermanence of life. The intricate beauty of all us — colored pieces of sand — each of us a small speck in the universe of existence, how we only really have but a moment in time, to make a beautiful and meaningful life.
While these lessons from years ago have stayed with me, I fell in and out of my meditation practice. And when I became a mother, it was the furthermost thing from my mind. Yet, as a parent, I needed centering and calmness more than ever. As a parent, the most meaningful, fulfilling, and beautiful part of my life is raising a child. And yet, I was in a place where my parenting was reactionary, impulsive — not intentional or mindful.
I wasn’t creating the life I wanted in our home or setting the tone of our family the way I imagined.
Over time, I have found my way back to mindfulness and as a parent and it’s taken on new meaning and role in my life. It is a journey I am still traveling, never striving for perfection or an end goal, but instead a process learning and growing. Using mindfulness as a part of my parenting has helped me find my stride as a parent in a way that nothing else has.
Parenting and Mindfulness: Changes in the Adult Brain
As an adult, our brains are less plastic, less changeable than our children’s. We are developed and mature — set in our ways so to speak. Yet, the adult brain is not rigid. It is still plastic, although less so. There are two things in particular that can cause quite significant changes in the adult brain:
Having a child.
Learning and practicing meditation.
How Having a Child Changes the Brain
Research shows that there are increases in gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, and midbrain areas in mothers postpartum. This newly developed “parental” brain is thought to help mothers respond to infant cues. The changes in the brain are located in areas associated with emotional and self-control, perhaps to prepare parents to be able to handle the increase in emotion regulation you need to deal with an infant.
Simply having a child causes changes in the brain. And there is evidence that changes happen in dad’s brains too, so it isn’t completely explained by the hormonal changes of pregnancy and birth.
When we become a parent, our brains change.
When our child is born, we are born as parents.
This is a new role and with it comes newly developed parts of our brain.
With change and development comes challenge. It is difficult to learn how to regulate ourselves in the face of a little being who cannot yet regulate themselves. It is hard.
With development also comes a sensitive period for change. In other words, our brains as parents are more open to learning new things related to self-regulation — so it’s the perfect time to start a mindfulness practice — which can bolster our own emotion-regulation, stress resilience, and empathy, making us better able to handle the thing called parenthood.
How Meditating Changes the Brain
Research suggests that practicing mindfulness for just 8 weeks is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking in adults.
What do these changes mean?
Mindfulness training (compared to relaxation) in adults dissipates stress, causing a reduction in inflammatory biomarkers. It makes you more stress resilient.
Better stress resilience and increases in emotion-regulation helps you handle the ups and downs, the meltdowns, messes, and tantrums of parenthood (yours and your kids!).
There are also increases in empathy and compassion in adults who practice mindfulness meditation, which means that while your kid may still annoy you — you’ll sympathize. You’ll see that their emotions are bigger than they are. You’ll be able to help them navigate their emotions and give them the gift of emotional intelligence that they will use in relationships throughout there whole life.
My favorite easy way to get started meditating is to use an app. My current favorite is headspace, but there are several out there. Sure, taking a class is amazing if you have time and resources, but if you don’t, start easy.
The Mindful Parent
So, if we all start meditating all day it’s all hunky dory?
Benefits for children were not necessarily seen for parents who meditated, but for those whose parents used mindfulness as part of their parenting — as a parenting tool.
Mindfulness in parenting is harnessing the power of the parent brain in conjunction with the mindful brain — using your newfound skills and abilities to their fullest. Reaching your potential as a parent.
So, what is mindful parenting exactly?
A Shift in Perspective
Really it all comes down to a shift in perspective. From being harried and rushed to being present and engaged in the moment. To being self-aware of your own state of mind so you can detect the early symptoms of stress and stop the cycle. To go from trying to do it all, to being here right now.
So that you can…
- intentionally and mindfully respond to your child instead of automatically reacting
- recognize that your child’s behavior is unformed communication
- mindfully listen to what your child is trying to tell you in words, in emotions, and in behavior
- identify your own emotional triggers as they first start to bubble up
- see that your child’s emotions are bigger than they are
- Pause, breathe, and think before you respond
Mindful Parenting in Action
Being a mindful parent is intense in the same way my professor was intense. It is being fully engaged and aware. Proactive rather than reactive. The easiest way to start is to simply pause and reflect before you react.
Researchers who study mindful parenting use it as an intervention aimed at reducing self-judgment, especially as it comes to our own judgment of our parenting. They have found that practicing mindful parenting leads to less depressive, anxious, and stress-symptoms in mothers.
We are growing and changing as parents. Parenthood is a journey — an amazing journey in which we ourselves are developing and changing right alongside our kids. Our milestones cannot be captured on growth charts or speaking first words, but rather in our emotional and cognitive world. We will have growth spurts and awkward phases too — that is part of our growth.
We aim for patience and kindness. Parenting without harsh words or loud voices. But we are all human. Part of being a mindful parent is having self-compassion.
Raising a child — giving them tools for life — watching them grow and then letting them go — it’s emotional, it fills us with joy and sorrow all at once.
It’s an amazing, soulful journey that we are on.
One of the things I remember most from the visit with the Tibetian Monks all those years ago is how happy they were. We all commented on it because it took us a little by surprise. We had expected the monks to be serious, perhaps solemn. We had prepared ourselves to be presentable by being straight and stiff — yet as soon as we met them we felt their non-judgmental compassion and our guards came tumbling down.
We found ourselves cheerful and joyous. And I realize now — this is how I want to be as a parent.
As a parent, I found mindfulness again. I’d like to meditate more consistently. I’d like to be less anxious and worried. I’d like my son to look back and remember a light-hearted mother who was there, engaged, who listened with compassion. It’s a self-compassionate journey.
Here I am again, washing the dishes. I feel the stress start to bubble up and I stop it. I look out the window — there are a few cardinals and a wren eating at the feeder. I exhale slowly. I notice the smell of the ginger-yuzu dish soap (my favorite) as I scrub the pan clean. Yes, it will get dirty again soon, but for now, I feel satisfaction that it is sparkling clean. I breathe.
And when my son runs by on his imaginary dragon — I smile — I tell him there are birds outside and I tell him not to run by the dishwasher when it’s open. He smiles and races around the table while I start piling dishes into the dishwater.
It sounds hokey, but the only real difference is — I’m present.
I still have 10 — no 20 more things to do. My son is still screaming. But I’m different.
I am choosing to be different. I am choosing to be here — to see my son — to smile at his imagination.
Because one day — all those brightly colored pieces of sand will be swept away.
All I really have is now.
It’s not time that makes life meaningful. Time is an illusion, time makes us busy and sad.
It’s the connections we make — how we listen to each other — being present in the moment — that makes life meaningful.
There is a place for memories and there is a place for planning. But if you spend all your time in the past or in the future, you miss today.
If you engage and connect with your child in the moment, the rest of it fades away and you find yourself enjoying this time.
This mundane moment washing dishes as he runs around with dragons.