How To Make Mindfulness Happen In Real Life Motherhood
BY MAYA UPPALURU, GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
When my daughter reached the age of “Big Emotions” - otherwise known as tantrums that were becoming more frequent and greater in intensity - I bought her a book called Calm-Down Time. It encourages toddlers to take deep breaths and find a quiet space to take a break, hopefully learning the process of mindfulness and emotional self-regulation. After several reads, she’ll now sometimes say, “Vivi needs calm down time!” when the Big Emotions are rising, and start taking deep breaths or give herself a hug as depicted in the book.
Hilariously, she will even occasionally give me a Look and suggest, “Mama needs calm-down time.” Pretty astute for a 2.5 year old, and fair enough. Plenty of adults struggle with regulating their emotions, too. There have been many moments in parenting when I’ve needed, and taken, my own calm-down time.
Mindfulness wasn’t new to me when I became a mother, but it took on new meaning within the context of parenting. Children are constantly living in the present. On our walk to daycare each morning, my daughter will point out everything I would ordinarily pass right by: a red truck, a butterfly, a flower, an ant on the concrete. They pull you into the moment through their engagement and interaction with the smallest details of the world around them. Their delight in the most ordinary things allows us to feel that innocent wonder ourselves, which is a gift in an adult world that seems overrun by multitasking and distraction.
But it’s hard to be mindful in all situations. For a mother dealing with a colicky baby, or a tantrum at the grocery store, or an overtired and bored child on an airplane, mindfulness can seem like a distant concept given the crisis in front of us. Keeping my cool in these scenarios does not come naturally to me! So I consulted several experts on how we can apply mindfulness in our daily lives, both for ourselves as we grow in this parenting journey, and to hopefully give our kids the tools they need as well.
What exactly is mindfulness, and how does it relate to our parenting?
According to Dr. Alexandra Sacks, mindfulness is “getting out of your head and into your senses.” You can think about it as enhancing your ability to be aware of the moment, including your physical presence and experience, a skill that is often honed through meditation.
Dr. Sacks is the author of What No One Tells You, a book about navigating the emotional ups and downs of new motherhood, and host of the podcast Motherhood Sessions. She educated me on the changes that mindfulness can have on your brain. “Deep breathing massages the vagus nerve, which runs down the back of your throat, connects to the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates and balances your fight or flight sympathetic nervous system. The act of deep breathing releases neurotransmitters that help relax the body and the mind.”
And you can do it anywhere: while driving, while walking your baby up and down the hallway at 4am, or wherever you’re feeling stress or panic symptoms rising.
What does mindfulness look like in the moment - especially those really stressful moments?
I wanted to collect a few practical examples of how parents can practice more mindfulness in stressful situations. Cheryl Brause is a mindfulness teacher on the Journey LIVE app, a community bringing people together to meditate through live, group meditation classes. She shared a step-by-step process for incorporating a “mindful pause” during more challenging moments, to allow yourself the space to make “calmer, wiser, and more heartfelt choices” in your response:
How to S.T.O.P. and take a “Mindful Pause”:
S - Stop before you respond.
T - Take a Deep Breath or a moment to feel your feet firmly planted on the floor. This step creates the pause.
O - Observe what you are feeling, such as anger, fear, or aggravation. Feel it in your body, then take another deep breath.
P - Proceed in a way that works best for you and those around you. Examples include taking a walk, excusing yourself from the situation, speaking from a place of calm and wisdom, or noting that it may be best to wait and let emotions pass through before talking about it with others.
Another practical tip is the “check-in.” Psychotherapist and mindfulness expert Tasha Lansbury described this technique on the Unruffled podcast (a favorite of mine). First, you check in with your body: are there areas that are tense, uncomfortable, sore? Or are the sensations more loose, relaxed or light? Second, you check in with your breath: is it shallow or deep? Where in the body is it coming from? Third, you check in with your feelings. What emotions are you experiencing in this moment? Are there other emotions beneath that? Finally, you check in with your mind. Are you worrying or planning for the future? Dwelling on a negative event from the past?
After this series of check-ins, you’re in a much more informed place to assess how you’re doing overall, and can make a more concrete plan about how to move forward.
Jennifer Prokhorov, mother to four kids ages five to 14, is also the founder of a mindfulness app, Stillpoint, which offers guided meditations and content focused on parenting. I asked her how she’s incorporated mindfulness in her own parenting. “My five year old pretty much throws a tantrum every time we enter a store that has toys in it. One time I had to carry him out of the store, he’s literally screaming bloody murder for ten to fifteen minutes. I had to quickly pay and then get out. The biggest thing mindfulness can do for you is help you to feel aware of what’s going on inside of you. What emotions are coming up? Then you’re not just reacting on autopilot. You’re allowing space for the emotions, recognizing it, and then allowing the logical brain to come back and say okay, how can I respond to this problem in the best way possible?”
She points out that this awareness of emotions can also help model awareness and regulation for your kids, because they look to us as a guide for how to handle these situations where we don’t get exactly what we want.
It’s natural to hold onto the idea that we can control a situation or fix our kids’ unhappiness. But I’m learning that our job as parents isn’t necessarily to keep my daughter happy one hundred percent of the time; nor should she grow up expecting to be happy all the time. My husband and I also need to show her how to handle the moments when things don’t go her way. And in learning to help her navigate her anger, frustration, or sadness, I’m also becoming better equipped to deal with those emotions with more balance and perspective.
Maya Uppaluru is a health care attorney living in Washington DC with her husband and their (almost) 2 year old daughter. She has written on health care policy, motherhood, and parenting for publications including The Lily and Harvard Business Review.
A note from Neha: There is nothing like motherhood to compel more personal growth. I’ve been wanting to maintain a daily meditation practice for years but finally feel motivated to as I, like Maya, am working on teaching emotional regulation to my son. I’m using the month of June to kickstart my daily meditation habit and would love for you to join me using whichever tools and platforms feel right for you. For a free month of the Stillpoint app, download the app here and use promo code MUMAMA. To enjoy Journey LIVE Meditation use the promo code MOTHERUNTITLED to get a free trial through the end of June.