As my kids grew and multiplied, so did my anger. Exponentially. Having a toddler and a baby was fantastically hard. I had zero control over my days and I wasn’t remotely comfortable or accepting of this new reality. I would try to stay cool while the critters pulled their tricks, but I’d inevitably lose my head multiple times a day. And while exploding into ferocious flames felt spectacular mid-eruption, my heady adrenalin highs would quickly give way to remorse and regret.
I was desperate to find a way of parenting that involved fewer explosions and less guilt, so I hit the books. I read and read and eventually cobbled together an approach that felt good to me – fair boundaries and consistent consequences delivered with consideration and compassion. Hell yeah!
I called a family meeting to share the auspicious news.
Me: “OK, family. Good news! I’ve done a truckload of research and I think I’ve got this peaceful parenting thing sorted. I’ve pulled together some strategies to deal with your behavior, which means there’ll be no more yelling or motherly tantrums from me, and everyone will be happier. What say you?”
This is how we rolled the following day: Calm, calm, calm, KABOOOOM.
And it was only 1p.m.
I just couldn’t keep myself calm long enough to be the peaceful parent I wanted to be.
I’d make it over a few hurdles calmly and then, having apparently exhausted my meagre quota of calm for the day, I’d burst into flames. To add fuel to the fire, I’d replay each explosion again and again, analyzing and rehashing, trying to figure out where I went wrong and telling myself all the while that I was a crappy failure of a mom.
It took a long time before I finally figured it out. I didn’t need a way to manage the kids’ emotions and behavior, I needed a way to manage my own.
Hello, mindfulness. Here’s how it works for me as a mom.
1. Mindfulness breeds self-compassion
Mindfulness teaches you that you’re not fused with your thoughts – they’re not who you are. You have a choice as to what lingers in your mind, so why not choose the good stuff? Mindfulness meditation deepens this understanding and strengthens your ability to remain present and accept your experiences exactly as they are.
First up for me was learning to notice and let go of my parenting self-doubt. If you have a snarky wench residing in your head like I did, slap her in the face! (Not exactly Zen, but effective.) Instead, talk to yourself as you would your best friend. Choose to support and encourage yourself, and forgive, forgive, forgive – immediately and unequivocally. Even if you’ve had a total blowout, forgive yourself straight away and let the guilt/embarrassment/worry/regret float away. In the words of Queen Elsa, “The past is in the paaaast. Let it goooo, let it go.” (Wise beyond her years, that one.)
2. Mindfulness shows you the full picture
Motherly fury erupts when the raging rhinos of emotion stampede. By learning to focus my attention on what’s happening in the present moment I’m able to see past the rhinos rather than being smothered by them. I’m more able to notice the quieter parts of my experiences – the unseen factors contributing to my anger: tiredness (my nemesis), worries, memories, or the fact that I haven’t had any time to myself in days. It has also become easier to see past my kids’ behavior to what is really causing them to act up. With everything laid out clearly, it’s much easier to take considered, compassionate action, first to tend to my own suffering and then to that of my children.
3. Mindfulness helps you reset and refocus
Rather than operating on autopilot, mindfulness helps me treat each moment as if it were brand new. Which of course it is. This moment, and this moment, and this moment. Each a brand new “now”, each a chance to start afresh.
So in the middle of a maddening discussion with my three year old about a broken banana (never break the banana!) and the millions of malnourished children who would devour said banana in a heartbeat, I can see my frustration rising. I take a deep breath and stop for a second. It’s then that I’ll notice my son’s tired eyes and realize that he’s exhausted after an action-packed weekend. Once I’ve refocused, I can choose to hit the reset button, throw the habitual lecture out the window and grab another bloody banana (never, ever revealing that the offending fruit would find its way into his smoothie the next day). By all accounts a more favorable course of action than arguing with a dog-tired threenager.
So what’s happening in your brain when you approach parenting challenges mindfully?
From a physiological perspective, mindfulness helps reduce activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center responsible for fear and stress reactions. It also increases the activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is where we make decisions and plan.
So mindfulness helps you stay calm and figure stuff out. A winning combination right there! And holy frijoles it works.
As for me, I still get fired up (mostly when I’m tired), but my eruptions are few and far between and much less ferocious.
And the unexpected by-product of less yelling?
Even-better-behaved kids! Children thrive when they know where they stand, and I’m now able to stick to my guns without piling even more crappy guilt on my already sagging shoulders. Now that I’m not yelling one minute and then trying to make up for my explosions by ignoring bad behavior the next, my kids know what’s expected and what the consequences are if they choose to disregard the family rules.
In the end, it’s simple.
Mindfulness helps moms become calmer and better behaved through emotional self-regulation. As our kids mirror our behavior, better-behaved moms inspire better-behaved kids.