5 Mindfulness Practices for Surviving New Parenthood
How to find peace and well-being as a new parent by integrating mindful living into your everyday life
Before you dismiss this as another ridiculous, inaccessible parenting article to make you feel like a failure and add to your ever-growing sense of overwhelm, hear me out. Being a new parent is crazy hard. There is no avoiding it. Plenty of people talk about the “joys and struggles” of parenting, but I’m telling you that in my first several months of being a mom, struggle was the name of the game. My sweet little bundle of joy was also a bundle of poop, tears, and sleep deprivation. And I pretty regularly felt like I was barely keeping my head above water.
And here enters mindfulness. No, you are probably not going to start a new meditation practice while you are in the throws of midnight feedings and mountains of laundry. That’s not what mindfulness is about, really. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded mindfulness-based stress reduction, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness is landing in the present moment with openness, curiosity, and lots of self-compassion through just noticing. The benefits of mindfulness in reducing stress, alleviating depression and anxiety, supporting physical health, promoting overall wellbeing, enhancing sleep quality, and a myriad other awesome things have been repeatedly shown through research. What new parent couldn’t use some of those magical powers?
And actually, being a new parent is the perfect time to practice mindfulness. Without adding anything to your to-do list. Because much of mindfulness is connecting to the body, to the physical sensations, and new parenting may be the absolute best time to do this, since you’re pretty much just feeding and holding and burping and changing this tiny creature and trying to keep yourself alive as well, day in and day out. So here are five ways to incorporate mindfulness into things you are already doing as a new parent.
- Breathing. Yep, you’re already doing that. Check. And most likely, if you’re anything like me, you are obsessing over your baby’s breathing as well. You walk to her crib, repeatedly risking that the creak of your footsteps will wake her up, just to make sure her chest is still rising and falling. I will never forget running full throttle home with my baby tied to me in an Ergo carrier from a winter walk because she started making weird gasping, choking noises that I later learned happened anytime she felt the wind. I mean, who prepares you for these things? She was fine. But still. We are hyper attuned to breathing in those early days of parenting. So use this time, mamas and papas, to just watch your own breath as well. You can match your baby’s breath if you want, syncing your inhale and exhale with his. Or you can ebb and flow your awareness between hers and yours, feeling your own chest or belly rise and fall, the sensation of air at the tip of your nose. Your breath is always there for you, nourishing you and sustaining you without much effort on your part, and you can always come back to it. You don’t need to change it, no need to take a deep breath, and you don’t need to fix it, you can just observe it. Just notice it. Kindly. Maybe you want to extend a little gratitude to your exhausted, healing body for its ability to keep breathing on its own. There. You’re doing mindfulness.
- Walking. For the first three months of my daughter’s life, she was only happy a) latched onto one or the other of my boobs, or b) hoisted high over my husband’s shoulder while he paced the floors of our home. Sometimes playing a recording of the hair dryer from his iPhone. No joke. Most babies like to be walked or rocked or bounced in those early months. The movement lets them pretend they’re still cozy inside a jostling uterus. So as you’re walking that baby up and down the halls at 3 AM, just notice your feet. Feel the connection of your feet to the ground, feel the earth holding you. Notice the beginning of your step, the middle, and the end, and the little pause between steps while your next foot starts moving. Play with walking faster or slower, heavier or lighter if you want. Or don’t. Just bring your awareness to your feet. Your awareness will drift — to the baby in your arms, to the millions of other things you need to do, to the fear that you will never, ever sleep through the night again. Okay. So notice those thoughts. Let them float by like clouds in the sky. Then come back to your feet. The earth is holding you without you even noticing. Rest in that.
- Eating/showering/brushing your teeth (or a myriad of other mundane tasks that are required to stay relatively clean and functional). Again, the name of the game is to notice. You DO need to eat, please remember. So when you have a minute and a spare hand to stuff your face with something nutritious (or maybe just a bunch of cookies; “lactation cookies” were my delicious and rationalized way of eating pretty much only sweets for days), just notice what it’s like to put it in your mouth. Notice how many times you have to chew before you swallow, the textures and tastes. When you shower, even if it’s just once a week, feel the water on your skin, breathe the scent of the soap. When you brush your teeth, feel your toothbrush in your mouth, taste the toothpaste. What does it feel like to do this thing that you do every day? Most of us aren’t sure how to answer that. So let’s find out. Bringing our awareness to each of these tasks instead of letting our minds continue to race with all that is still left undone will help ground us.
- Beginner’s mind. This concept comes from Zen Buddhism and is a beautiful extension of mindfulness practice. The idea is to cultivate a beginner’s mind, to practice not knowing and to bring that curiosity and openness to every situation. Well, shoot. Not knowing is the land I live in as a parent. Caring for a tiny human is a crash course in humility, and I am constantly reminded of how little I know. Babies teach us just how little control we have, and this can be either terrifying or freeing. Every day is different, and as soon as I think I know how to manage caring for my daughter, something changes and I’m back to not knowing. How do I get her to nurse? To sleep? To stop screaming? To succumb to the infant snot sucking torture device known as the NoseFrida? And not only is my daughter a mystery to me, but I too feel like a beginner in my own body and life. Who am I now as a mother? How do I balance my relationships, my work, my sense of meaning and purpose, with parenting this baby? How do I get my boobs to stop leaking? And other existential questions, of course. But what if, instead of struggling against the unknown and allowing it to spin into a narrative of self-doubt and failure, we welcomed it? We have so much to learn; wonderful! (A sense of self-compassion and humor helps here, as well.) Openness to not knowing, to being a beginner, can give us permission to learn, not just about caring for a baby but about ourselves. As the Buddhist teacher said to a student on pilgrimage who said he did not know the purpose of pilgrimage, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
- Mantra. Yes, a mantra sure sounds pretty woo-woo to me, too. What even is a mantra? The word comes from Sanskrit and literally means “an instrument of thought.” Often, a mantra is a word, prayer, something repeated as an object of concentration or focus. It does not have to be spiritual. And actually, many of already have mantras going through our heads all day long; they just may not be helping us very much. Things like, “I’m exhausted.” Or, “I don’t think I can do this.” Or, “I’m a bad parent.” For me, it was a consistent dread of the nighttime, when my daughter would need me to hold and nurse her and my body would ache with exhaustion. The thought ran through my mind, “I don’t know if I can make it tonight.” We all have negative internal chatter, thoughts that go through our minds without much awareness that reflect beliefs or fears we may hold. I’m not sure what your inner critical mantras may be, but take a moment to identify them. And then, decide what positive mantra you’d like to swap in. Here is a mantra list for parents. Or come up with your own. Something as simple as “let go,” or “this too shall pass” or “good enough” are some of my favorites. Often pairing a mantra with a deep breath will help silence a racing mind and bring some peace in the present moment.
Parenting shows us the best and worst of ourselves and stretches us beyond where we thought we could go. Just as we nourish our babies, we must also nourish ourselves. Self-care is a word too easy to throw around and too often too difficult to access for a new parent. My hope for you is that these small practices can be nourishing to you in the daily grind of parenthood. Mindfulness can help our racing minds and our need to control. Just like there will always be another dirty diaper to change or load of laundry to switch, so there is always another opportunity to show up to this moment with a deep breath and a lot of kindness. In. Out.