In my mid-20s, my father suffered a serious heart attack. One of the things he was prescribed to help in his recovery and dealing with stress was mindfulness. I didn’t know much about it except that he would make a daily retreat to the basement to lie down and “just breathe.”
It seemed a bit odd and a bit simplistic, but it worked for him so I didn’t question it. I actually didn’t think much about it at all. Until, of course, I needed it.
A few years later I became a mom and things started to fall apart.
For the first 25 years of my life I was the picture of cool, calm and collected. I took things as they came: I didn’t let surprises get me worked up or the bad stuff get me down. I was used to success. Easy-going was all that I knew.
I thought motherhood would follow the same course. It didn’t. From the beginning it was harder than I thought it should be. And the concern that something wasn’t quite right with my son was confirmed when we discovered he had suffered a stroke before birth and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
I didn’t handle it well. At all.
I started to unravel. There were days when I felt I couldn’t breathe. The smallest thing would set me off. I was having anxiety and panic attacks. It was scary and I knew I needed to find some way to regain control if I was going to help my son.
This is when I started to look at mindfulness in a serious way and use it to feel better and be a better parent.
Mindfulness is awareness. It is about learning to breathe and be present in our lives, in the here and now. There are no mantras or affirmations. There is no pressure to do it right. It is not some warm and fuzzy fad.
In the simplest of terms, just learning to breathe—and taking the time to do that—did make my life better. It has helped me out of dark and challenging times and continues to help in many areas of my life.
Part of it is that I take time for myself. Mindfulness was something that I could do in the comfort of my home at a time when I wanted to do it.
We don’t have a budget for me to go to the gym or start a yoga class. I did try those things and it was pressure to get me to go, especially because the best time to go was 4:30 a.m. Then I would feel bad that I hadn’t gone. Counterproductive.
Instead, I got books by mindfulness master Jon Kabat-Zinn and got to work reading. Some of the books are thick and get into the science of mindfulness, but I connected immediately with the concept and practice. Reading case studies of people who’d been helped and understanding the science helped me see its practical use.
I practice mindfulness in two ways. One is a formal practice of mindful meditation, which sees me lying down or sitting for 10- to 45-minutes and focusing on my breathing. I can do this alone or be guided with audio recordings.
The second way I use mindfulness is to integrate it into my everyday activities. I try to be present and aware of myself in the moment.
It may sound easy, but mindfulness takes work and commitment. There are periods when I haven’t taken the time and it shows.
And of course my life still gets stressful and I still have bad days. I do react poorly sometimes, but mindfulness helps me recognize the old reactions and work to change the behaviour.
One area of my life where I’ve benefited from integrating mindfulness is in how I parent. Mindful parenting is something that may seem subtle and simple in practice, but its effects can be profound if you’re putting in the work and paying attention.
I picked up Mindful Blessings: The Inner Workings of Mindful Parenting, a book by Kabat-Zinn and his wife Myla. I was skeptical, even after reading Kabat-Zinn’s other work, because I thought it might be too warm and fuzzy for me.
But this core message was there and made sense:
“…mindfulness—cultivated in periods of stillness and during the day in various things I find myself doing—hones as attentive sensitivity to the present moment that helps me keep my heart at least a tiny bit more open and my mind at least a tiny bit clear, so that I have a chance to see my children for who they are, to remember to give them what they need most from me, and to make plenty of room for them to find their own ways to be in the world.”
I needed to better understand my son to build a relationship with him. I needed to see how my reactions and behaviours affect him deeply and how my role is to be his guide in the storm.
For example, my son babbles a lot, but has few distinct words because the mechanics of his speech have been affected. It’s hard to communicate when someone can’t use words to express all the things they are feeling and thinking. But with patience and taking more time to pay attention, I’ve learned how to pick up what he’s telling me without words. I saw that he was using the same bodily response to say yes, so we revisited teaching him adapted sign and he was immediately in better spirits because he had tools to talk to us. I get down to his level and have a conversation with him so that we don’t get to the point of frustration. He’s a good listener and understands what I’m asking so I can explain things to him. We have learned so much about communication and how it is possible and quite meaningful without words.
I worry a lot less about what others are thinking because I know that their understanding is not mine. Many people don’t know that it’s possible for a child to have a stroke in utero. Their responses to my son can come from not knowing anything about him, or his disability, so I don’t take them personally.
I’m not a bad mother who can’t calm her crying kid down. Many people see a beautiful, happy kid, but some don’t. I used to stare back or get upset. Now I accept it and move on to focus on what is really important in the moment.
My son wears braces, he drools a lot and doesn’t have many words, but he is a kid. He is my kid and I adore his company so I focus on being with him more and worry about what others think less. Besides, his huge smile and wicked sense of fun often soften the hardest stare.
I know that this attitude will be challenged as he gets older and his disability becomes more visible, the gap between him and his peers more apparent. It will be especially hard to lead him to this same understanding as he begins to personally feel the distance, notice the stares and feel the misunderstanding of his disability. But right now I deal with right now.
I take more time in general to just be in the moment. This is a big piece that mindfulness provides. I used to be so tightly wound because every little thing was on my mind all at the same time. Now, when I’m practising mindfulness, I’ve trained my brain to focus on what’s going on right now and cut out the clutter of all the other thoughts in my head. Being in the moment has become such a cliché phrase, but what a revelation it is to live it. I can just focus on being with my son, even if that means reading a book about trains 20 times, and not worry about disability forms that need to be submitted or laundry that is piling up.
And I accept the pace of his progress. It can be fast at times and it can be slow, but overall it is more like a marathon than a sprint. My son might walk, but not in a couple of months or with a couple of blocks of therapy. I have come to appreciate and accept that what mobility looks like for my son may not be what it is for most kids. I must be content to work with him at it a bit each day and see the small, but exciting ways that things are coming together.
Ultimately mindfulness has allowed me to truly understand that my son is just a kid who’s trying to figure out the world around him and isn’t working with the same experience and information that I have. It’s my job to help him understand this world and his place in it. And to be easier on myself while I’m at it.
“’Perfect’ is simply not relevant, whatever that would mean in regard to parenting,” write the Kabat-Zinns in Everyday Blessings. “What is important is that we be authentic, and that we honor our children and ourselves as best we can, and that our intention be to, at the very least, do no harm.”
It’s also important to see the lessons he teaches me. We often have moments together where he’s able to tell me so much without words. For example, he’ll put his left hand on my face, tilt his head and stare into my eyes with big smiling eyes. This is his look of love. This is one of the ways he tells me he loves me, and I savour it. And he takes each challenge and bit of work as it comes, motivated and content to keep on trying because that is all he knows. And he has a fantastic sense of humour, which reminds me to be more joyful everyday.
Mindfulness is a huge part of my life now and it’s helped me believe that life isn’t always easy, but it is good. I just have to look for the opportunities to enjoy the good stuff.