by Amy Didden
I am a social worker and a mom, which is how I got into the business of maternal mental health. After staying home with my kids for five years, I figured I knew something about the demands of parenthood. I could empathize with the day-in and day-out struggles of what it is like to care for small human beings. I sought out trainings specific to the treatment of maternal depression, anxiety, and loss and opened my practice. My children are now elementary school aged and their specific needs have changed since the days of diapers and binkies, but I find some themes of parenthood don’t change much at all. The moms who come to see me often talk about a shortage of time to themselves, a shortage of energy, and a seemingly never-ending list of tasks. It is all too easy to get stressed out and frazzled. We all need an approach for self-care. I will tell you about mine with a story.
The other night, when I was putting my nine-year-old to bed (which involves sitting on the floor while he quiets himself enough to fall asleep), I started thinking about going downstairs to turn on HGTV and have a snack. I was feeling tired and impatient, and I was longing for “me time.” You know that time of day when you are just done? I was done. Then I remembered this article I was supposed to write about mindfulness and motherhood and it helped me to switch gears. I shifted my focus to “mindfulness” of the experience of sitting on the floor in my son’s room with the lights off. I felt my son’s bureau pressing against my back and the hard floor where it touched my legs. I listened for the sounds in the room: the whirl of the fan, the blankets rustling as my son tossed around. I tuned in to my breathing and watched that, too, for a little while. Without trying to rid myself of frustration, I felt less frustrated. On good days, in good moments, I remember to tune in to the experience of ‘here and now.’ I don’t always remember. The trick is remembering.
“Mindfulness” is the decision to tune in to your bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings in the present moment without judgment for what is there. It is like becoming a scientist who makes observations about what you are sensing in this exact moment. Most of the time what drags us down is the story we are telling ourselves about our experience, not the experience itself (Emotional Chaos to Clarity, Moffitt, 2013). I spend a lot of time in therapy sessions trying to help moms figure out what their unhelpful stories are. For example, one mom I worked with could not tolerate her baby crying and fussing when she changed the baby’s diaper. We discovered that the story she told herself each time was, “I am a failure for not being able to handle this.” We worked on paying less attention to the unhelpful story, and more attention to the direct experience: how her baby’s cries changed in volume and pitch, the sensation of skin touching skin, even the smell could be a way to focus on the present moment.
If you are a mom struggling with depression or anxiety, you will probably find yourself getting caught up in past or future thinking, with a lot of evaluations and judgments. It might sound something like this: “Since the day my baby was born, I haven’t been a good mom. I had trouble breastfeeding. I couldn’t figure out how to calm her down. I haven’t enjoyed being a mom. I am a real failure!” Or, “I just keep worrying about my baby. I worry that he is going to get sick. I worry that he is going to stop breathing. I worry that I am going to mess him up!” Mindfulness is a natural antidote to your criticisms about the past and your worries about the future. It brings you back to right now without all the judging. This can be a lifesaver in the biggest of storms. Imagine a boat tossed around by turbulent waves, ready to capsize, and then imagine that boat dropping anchor in a safe harbor. Mindfulness won’t stop the stressors from happening, but it can be the anchor you put down so that you can harbor safely from the storm of your emotions (ACT with LOVE, Harris, 2009).
I am going to suggest a few ways to drop anchor in your own peaceful harbor. Whatever the “storm” is, you can center yourself with these strategies, even for two or three minutes, before you decide how you want to handle a situation:
- Simply breathe: Become aware of your breath like an ocean wave coming and going. Watch it. Where do you feel it most? Breathe in peace, breathe out stress.
- Body awareness: Feel your body where it touches the chair, and your feet on the floor. What are you seeing? Hearing? Touching? If your baby is crying, you might become a curious observer of the fluctuations in sound, the feel of your baby in your arms, the movement of your body as you try to soothe him. Focus on the physical experience of what you are doing (not your usual “story” about the experience).
- Soothe your body: Pay careful attention to the sight, sound, smell, and feel of an activity that feels good to your body. Slowly drink some tea. Focus on the hot water in your shower. Take your baby for a walk and take in the sights and sounds of your neighborhood.
These are just a few ways you can use mindfulness to calm and center yourself. You might also look into a relaxation app (i.e. Qi Gong Meditation Relaxation), try a two-minute mindfulness exercise on YouTube (the STOP Practice by Elisha Goldstein) or check out a yoga class (i.e. Dover’s Higher Power Yoga). One of my favorite books is called “Buddhism for Mothers” by Sarah Napthali. (You don’t need to be Buddhist to appreciate the wisdom in this book.) Finally, if you want to explore mindfulness with a group, you can check out Mindfulness Meditation in Dover, which is free at Heather’s Holistic. You might see me there because mindfulness has become an important way that I care for myself as a busy mom.
I wish you well on your journey of motherhood. May you be filled with compassion toward yourself and others, and may you be peaceful despite the changing weather of your life.