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An honest guide to mindful parenting

Before I became a parent, I was pretty mindful. I meditated each morning for as long as I wanted, and I maintained my practice throughout the day. My colleagues would remark on how calm I was; how unruffled in stressful situations. I didn’t look at my phone too much and did not indulge myself with social media or other unhelpful content. I abjured the temptations of sugary treats. And I was compassionate – with great joy I spread the gospel of mindfulness to anyone who would listen.


I was insufferable, presumably. But the universe was about to set me straight, by delivering my son, who quickly demolished my practice and my deluded idea of myself as halfway to enlightenment.


This is the first thing that parenting will do for your practice of mindfulness and meditation: make you much more humble about it, and about yourself more generally. Because, honestly, it is hard to practice mindfulness as a parent, or indeed do anything other than stumble from moment to moment in a fog of tiredness and barely-controlled fury.


Which is a shame, because mindfulness is just what you need as a parent. But do not despair. You can still practise it, despite the difficulties, and my aim is to tell you how.


When to start to practising


My number one tip for prospective mindful parents is: take up mindfulness when you are still a prospective parent. Get your practice solid and bedded down before children arrive and set about trying to demolish it. If you are expecting a baby, you have 9 months to start practising. So, get to it. You could read books specifically targeted at expectant parents (like Andy Puddicombe’s “A Mindful Pregnancy”) but it’s not really necessary, because most of the time mindfulness is mindfulness is mindfulness, so you could learn it from any decent resource.


But if you didn’t get round to starting your practice before the baby came, along with decorating its room, buying a nightlight, and moving to a bigger flat, again, do not despair. You can still make a start, and however much practice you manage to do, every little helps, and you are planting a seed that might grow into a mighty oak of mindfulness further down the line.


Starting to practise when it’s the last thing that you feel like doing


Starting to practise as a parent is hard for two main reasons: you haven’t got time and you can’t be bothered. These are also the main obstacles for non-parents, but they cause more trouble once you’re a parent, because you still have all the stuff to do that you had before parenthood, plus many hours each day of exhausting childcare, which saps your time, energy, and resolve. But ideally, you are going to want a consistent practice of both meditation (often called “formal” practice) and on-the-go mindfulness, which is to say mindfulness in the course of your usual activities (or “informal” practice).


(i) Meditation


Many people will tell you that you don’t need to meditate to be mindful, as you can instead just practise mindfulness on the go. In my experience, that’s not really the case. In order to practise mindfulness while doing other things, you have to remember to do it, which is to say, you need mindfulness. So, if you try to just practise in that way, you’re trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps: you’re trying to be mindful of the need to be mindful, in order to develop mindfulness. Daily meditation solves that problem. You get a decent dose of mindfulness each day, which then fuels your practice through the rest of the day.


But parenting tends to hit formal meditation practice particularly hard, because formal practice needs exactly the time, energy, and resolve that you are lacking as a parent. You might not have 10 minutes to spare for meditation, and when you finally do, the last thing you feel like doing is meditating. So, again, don’t ask too much of yourself. Eventually, you want a consistent daily practice. But right now, with a baby strapped to you or a toddler screaming at you, just do what you can.


And be creative. Maybe you won’t get 10 minutes away from your baby, but perhaps you can meditate with your baby. If it likes to sleep on top of you, then that’s your meditation time. If it likes to sleep in a sling while you walk up and down the hallway, then that’s a time for walking meditation. And, with or without your baby, when you get a chance to sleep, you can meditate your way into it. As you lie there, focus on your breath, or scan through the body, and wait for sleep to come. You can’t lose: if the meditation puts you to sleep, then great, and if it doesn’t, then you just get longer to meditate.


(ii) Practising on the go


While practising on the go might not be sufficient for an effective practice, it is necessary. Everyone should be doing it, no matter how much formal meditation they do. And the advice for on-the-go practice as a parent is no different than for anyone else: make a plan to focus on one or more of your five senses as much as you can. Planning is key, because, as I’ve said above, the big challenge with this kind of practice is remembering to do it. If you say to yourself, “I’ll be mindful in one way or another at some point or other in the day”, it isn’t going to happen. Whereas if you say, “I’ll focus on this while I’m doing that”, then you might just remember to do it.


So, as you read this, reflect on how you could incorporate mindfulness into your day. Which of your five senses might you focus on? Body sensations and sounds are the most popular, but it’s up to you. And when will you focus on them? Will you feel your breath while you rock the baby? Will you tune into the sounds around you as you walk with the baby in the park? Or will you bring full awareness to all five of your senses as you engage in some particular activity, such as getting dressed (if you manage to get dressed), brushing your teeth (if you manage to brush your teeth), or making the baby’s bottle?


And finally, let’s not forget the most obvious and appealing object of mindfulness: the baby! Babies are naturally fascinating and rewarding – this is how evolution persuades us to sacrifice so much for them. So, leverage that fact for your mindfulness practice. When you are looking after the baby (or older child – it works at any age), find and follow your inclination to really look at the cherubic little face, to really smell the delicious scent, to really feel the soft skin. Explore your baby like the raisin in that mindfulness practice where you look at the raisin, touch the raisin, listen to the raisin, smell the raisin, and finally eat the raisin. Don’t eat the baby, but by all means give its lovely chubby cheek a gentle nip, if that helps you to connect with the raw sensory delight of it. (Although be careful not to wake it by doing so and invite your spouse’s ire, as I once did.)


So that’s how to start up your practice. In my next few posts, I’ll explore how you can use mindfulness and related practices to deal with specific aspects of parenting.

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