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Voices of New Parents: Your Baby, Your Mindfulness Teacher
Over the years, many parents have shared with me specific ways they have continued to use the mindfulness skills they learned during pregnancy after their baby is born. Some of what they have shared is below. You might want to experiment with some of these practices yourself or use these examples to stimulate your own creativity, finding ways to remind yourself to come back to the present moment.
Remember, it takes intention and gentle, ongoing, persistent commitment to be present for ourselves, our baby, our child or children and our partner. However, if you make this commitment to practice as best you can, you may find that over time you have cultivated a way to reduce stress and bring greater connectedness, kindness and harmony into your parenting and family life.
“I really use the practice when the baby cries. In the beginning, when Mia was first born, I would get so anxious and upset every time she cried. And I could see that the more anxious I would get, the more upset Mia would get. But when I could remember to come back to the breath, it was so much better. I could calm myself down and then she would calm down. Now I see that the best thing I can do when she cries is to just be there and take care of myself with the breath while I take care of her. It keeps us both more calm. It’s not easy, but I’m sure it would be a lot harder without mindfulness practice!”
“I find that breastfeeding is a perfect time to practice mindfulness. Rather than stressing about all the things I should be doing, like the dishes or the laundry, I use the time to just be with my baby. I look at how beautiful he is; really see the color of his skin and his long eyelashes and the way his hair curls. Sometimes I just feel overwhelmed by how much I love him. That feels lot better than worrying about the sink full of dishes. And then when he is asleep and I can put him down, I go to the kitchen and wash the sink full of dishes. Mindfully, of course!”
“I try to be present with all the routine tasks of taking care of my baby. Like diaper changing. When I change a diaper, I try to really notice the temperature and softness of her skin as I touch her. I really look at the expressions on her face and make eye contact if she wants. We do “baby cooing” back and forth to each other. I notice how I am feeling about changing the diapers—resentful or grateful that my baby’s body is functioning normally or anything else I’m feeling. Every diaper change can be an inner discovery, if I remember to be present.”
“When the baby wakes up in the middle of the night “for no good reason”…rather than worrying about how tired I’ll be the next day or get frustrated that he isn’t sleeping through the night, I choose to practice my “middle of the night” walking meditation. I swaddle him up in his baby carrier and do my special bouncy-walk around the room, focusing on my breath, his breath and the special moments of being awake in the wee hours with my precious baby. Usually he is asleep within a short time and I can get right back to sleep because I’m not all upset that I had to get up.”
“My husband and I use the practice to deal with some stressful aspects of parenting. Our daughter has gotten many colds and each time she gets another runny nose we can get all stressed out about the future, like how long the cold will last or whether we will have to take time off work. Or we can get worked up and feel guilty that she is in daycare. Usually one of us reminds the other to just be here now. It’s just a runny nose, not the end of the world.”
“Countless times during the day I consciously breathe and remember this moment is here only this once—this carrot, this sand castle, this raucous cuddle with the two kids. And when they are sick, or sad, or need me and I’m exhausted, I also am able to go to the heart of something and be present with it. That’s not to say I don’t get grumpy or feel overwhelmed and resentful sometimes. I do. But it’s just that I am able to recognize it and choose to go to my breath and usually find a calmer place.”
“I find that many times during the day I connect to the state of being truly present with my son and my husband. I see and hear and feel what is happening right now and can often let go of my action plan and do what needs to be done in the present moment. I stop and really listen to Jared and see what it is he is communicating—he actually always has something to share or is needing something. He’s not just fussing or cranky for no reason.”
“Whenever I lie down in bed and am feeling tense, I take a deep breath and, as I release it, I do a quick body scan practice like we learned in class. I just scan my body from head to toe and notice what is going on in my body. I find the tension usually melts away in a matter of seconds and I am able to drift off to sleep.”
“My husband and I find that we use the practice a lot to support each other. When we feel overwhelmed we remind each other to be compassionate to ourselves for not being perfect. Usually it has to do with one of us just being physically exhausted…and then we try and do something about that and figure out how we can help each other take care of our own needs.”
With eyes closed and paying gentle attention to the breath, eight pregnant women and their partners sit silently in the Oakland, California, living room of certified nurse midwife Nancy Bardacke. For a few moments, they let go of the anticipation of labor, delivery, and their babies to sample the present moment.
These expectant parents are preparing for childbirth, mindfully. Drawing on Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique and her own yoga and meditation experience, Bardacke offers meditation instruction along with birthing biology in her eight-week course (called Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting Education). Participants practice various pain-coping techniques—meditation, partner massage, saying "ah" or other easy sounds—and breath awareness.
"By staying with my breath and not moving beyond the very moment at hand, I was able to have the most amazing birth experience," says Victoria Tyra, a course graduate. "Now I use the techniques when my kids are screaming or when I'm caught in traffic. It has done great things for my marriage too." Clearly, such results are Bardacke's intent. "The work not only teaches you how to deal with the contractions of labor," she says, "it teaches you how to handle the contractions of life."
Classes based on Kabat-Zinn's mindfulness technique are offered in a variety of formats all over the world. To search for a program in your area, visit http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mbsr/.
Linda Knittel is a nutritional anthropologist and freelance writer in Portland. She is the author of Soy Sensation (McGraw Hill, 2001).
Nancy Bardacke, CNM, MA
Seventeen people, sitting in a circle with their eyes closed, focus attention on their breath. The group includes seven couples pregnant with their first baby, one couple pregnant with their second baby and me, a nurse-midwife, mother, and instructor for the class. From the outside, we probably look a bit odd, sitting here in silence, appearing as if we are doing nothing. In fact, what we are doing is far from nothing.
Stress or anxiety can also be triggered by the many uncertainties about the future that are a normal part of becoming a parent. Parents-to-be wonder: How will I manage the pain of labor? How can I truly support my partner during childbirth? Will the baby be healthy? What kind of parent will I be? How will the baby affect my relationship with my partner? Can we handle this change financially? Will I really be able to love another child? Through mindfulness we cultivate the inner resources to be able to work with whatever arises in each moment, helping us to maintain or restore balance and calm.
In addition to learning how to work with pain and the unknown, participants find that the practice of mindfulness helps them to work more effectively with the many stresses of daily life. This is particularly helpful for partners, who also learn a valuable skill for managing stress and their own transition to parenthood. As one participant commented, “I am generally much calmer now, not only in my attitude toward childbirth. I have various tools to use that I wasn’t aware of before.”
Whatever the birth experience, the days and weeks postpartum can be incredibly challenging. Here again mindfulness can hold us, even when a situation seems overwhelming. Just remembering to pay attention to the breath can change a situation dramatically. As one new mother who was having breastfeeding difficulties put it: “I was able to use the mindfulness practice to get me and the baby through some really difficult times. I don’t know what I would have done without knowing how to be in the present moment.”
The practice yields different insights for each participant. A father-to-be felt he “found the emotional tools that would help him be truly present with his new child in a way that his own father was never able to be with him.” One pregnant mother found that the training in being with her breath during meditation helped her develop a deep self-confidence for labor that made the birth of her 9 lb.11oz baby a surprisingly easy, positive experience. Another stated, “In all honesty, I thought childbirth was going to be a lot more painful that it really was. By being able to stay in the moment, breath by breath, I found the entire experience extremely tolerable.” And a pregnant mother of two reported an unexpected benefit: “I never knew how much parenting was about being in the present moment. It’s so simple, but boy, it sure isn’t easy!”
Nancy Bardacke is a Certified Nurse-Midwife who has worked with birthing families since 1971. In addition to her Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting Education Program, Nancy has taught Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, CA and Kaiser in Oakland, CA. She has attended professional trainings with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. and his colleagues from UMass Medical Center.