Awe and Awareness in Motherhood: A Mindfulness Interview with Author Leigh Ann Henion

Leigh Ann Henion is the New York Times bestselling author of Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World. The book is about how she chased eclipses, migrations, and other natural phenomena around the globe to reawaken her sense of wonder.  After reading her beautifully written memoir, I reached out to Leigh Ann, who graciously offered to share her insights into mindfulness, motherhood, and what she wishes for us all.


SM: Mindfulness can be defined as deliberately paying attention to the present moment with kindness. You define phenomenal as “that which is amazing” and “directly observable to the senses.” How do you think the two are related?

LH: To me, mindfulness is about being attuned to physical senses. It's about chirping birds, a breeze, the warmth of the sun. It's about being present in space and time. If experienced fully, holding a grasshopper in your palm can be more amazing than watching a video of the most dazzling natural phenomena on YouTube. It's about acknowledging and valuing visceral experiences. I think claiming the directly observable as amazing can be a transformative—and it can happen in your backyard.

SM: Do you deliberately practice mindfulness?

LH: I’ve recently taken up archery, which requires focus and intent. I think that practice has been helpful in terms of honing mindfulness. When I'm shooting a bow, I am—in contrast to much of my daily life—completely in the moment.

SM: Do you meditate? 

LH: Writing is, for me, a form of meditation, especially in the initial stages. The first draft of anything requires an emptying of the conscious mind, a certain level of openness. 

SM: You write that you have, “honed a sense of wonder that will thrive wherever I am, as long as I exercise it.” Have you been able to maintain your sense of wonder now that time has passed? If so, how do you cultivate this?

LH: In Phenomenal, I was standing under the northern lights, seeing vast animal migrations, witnessing the corona of the sun bloom from behind the moon. All those experiences compounded to give me an enduring sense of wonder. Looking back, I'm not sure if wonder is something I'd lost, as much as it had became something I wasn't comfortable talking about or embracing. I think we relegate wonder, as an emotion, to children. Society tends to cynically peer down on people who rattle on about awe and beauty. But the world is full of it. My journey helped me see connections in the natural world, and it made me feel part of something infinitely larger than myself. If I feel distant from the sense of wonder cultivated in my travels, turning stones in a nearby creek to find salamanders has proven enough of a remedy. Once you start looking for wonder, you find it everywhere!

SM: What do you think of the idea of balance in motherhood? What does it mean to you?

LH: I’ve come to think of it in terms of acceptance more than balance. Motherhood, like life, is full of duality. The easy and hard, light and dark, personal and communal. The resulting tension is often painful. But it's constant ebb and flow. That's what I'm continually trying to become more comfortable with—the unrelenting, glorious cycle of it all.

SM: I completely related to your poignantly described struggle post-partum. What advice would you offer expectant/new moms?

LH: Trust yourself.

SM: It seems your first year of motherhood engendered wildly conflicting emotions similar to witnessing phenomena (ecstatic joy, fear, gratitude, helplessness, awe). Would you say that’s true?

LH: The writer Alan DeBotton has said that sublime landscapes "repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces vicariously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves." I think, in this way, becoming a parent is a sublime experience. As a culture, it's something we don't have language to adequately talk about. In hindsight, I can see that my pilgrimage was an attempt to make the outer world match the sublime magnitude of what I was experiencing on an intimate level.

Chasing natural phenomena around the world is a terribly dramatic way to deal with the conflicting emotions that so many women experience. But it was a move in alignment with who I've always been and what I've always done, though it wasn't in alignment with what I thought society expected me to do. I did it anyway. And experiencing ecstatic joy, fear, gratitude, helplessness, and awe in the face of natural-world wonders proved to be the necessary scale needed to help me process the ecstatic joy, fear, gratitude, helplessness, and awe of becoming a mother. 

SM: What has been the most challenging part of motherhood for you? How do/did you cope with it?

LH: The transition into motherhood—the physical, emotional, spiritual metamorphosis of birth and the postpartum experience—was the most challenging part for me. The wonder-seeking journey relayed in Phenomenal was my highly unusual way of wrestling with that.

SM: What has been the best part of motherhood?

LH: The challenges and joys are often the same. Because parenthood requires constant transition. My son is always growing, so I have to grow too. All that physical, emotional, and spiritual metamorphosis experienced early on continues—with each new growth stage, each new challenge. Thankfully, I find them easier to handle now that I'm getting more than three hours of sleep each night!

SM: What inspires your creativity at home? How do you stay in touch with your true self/passions? 

LH: My main creative outlet is writing. Initiating and being immersed in projects that spark my curiosity and enthusiasm help me connect with my passions. I find that, when it comes to staying in touch with my true self, walking in the woods is a great way to clear modern-world static.

SM: How do you recognize when you are on the right path of what you are called to do?

LH: I’m not sure you ever know for sure, because the path forks. Do you take a right or a left? There are always decisions to make. I think, as long as you're pursuing something that makes you feel alive and fully engaged in your life, you're headed in the right direction.

SM: How do you cope with fear? Was this natural or learned?

LH: When I recognize a fear, I try to push through it. But there are plenty of fears that sneak up from behind, things I don't even notice are holding me back until something awakens me to them. Those are hard. I think the ability to be vulnerable is something that was coaxed out of me early on, year-after-year at an adventure-centered summer camp. I was afraid to climb the rock face and the high ropes. I was afraid of a lot of things. But, ultimately, even if I didn't make it to the top of the rock or the most daring high ropes ladder, I tried. And that taught me that trying was enough. When you feel like that, it's a lot easier to be bold. 

SM: What is your wish for others, especially mothers, as they read your book? 

LH: I hope Phenomenal emboldens readers to do whatever it is they feel called to do, no matter how improbable it seems. My wish for them is really the same thing I wish for myself: that we all keep exploring life's infinite possibilities.

SM: What is on the horizon for you now?

LH: I’ve just started my second book. It's a personal narrative that explores archery—in a variety of cultures—as a practice that integrates mind, body, and spirit. In the short term, I hope to spend this summer floating down Appalachian rivers!

SM: Thank you, Leigh Ann, for sharing your contagious enthusiasm and sense of wonder. 

Phenomenal was named an editor's pick by O: The Oprah Magazine, Backpacker, and Barnes & Noble Review. Elizabeth Gilbert called it a "gorgeously written and deeply thoughtful memoir," and The Sydney Morning Herald declared that "even a cynic reading Phenomenal will yearn for a taste of wonder."


Henion's essays and articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and The Washington Post Magazine, among other publications. She has received a variety of accolades for her work, including a Lowell Thomas Award, and her stories have been noted in three editions of The Best American Travel Writing. Henion lives in the mountains of North Carolina.

12 Simple Ways to Teach Mindfulness to Kids

  1. Notice and name body sensations, thoughts, and emotions. “My chest feels warm and I feel so happy when we are playing outside together like this.” “It sounds like you might be nervous about this new situation. What do you notice in your body right now?” The more insight our kids have into their inner experience, the more they are able to choose appropriate responses.
  2. Enlist a guide. Some of my favorites are: Kira Willey—Mindful Moments for Kids CD (30 simple, quick ways to help children de-stress, calm down and focus), and her other fantastic musical yoga for kids CDs. Carla Naumburg—Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family. Eline Snel—Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids. Amy Saltzman—Still Quiet Place CDs for Children and for Teens. Thich Nhat Hanh—Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children
  3. Share a 3-breath hug. Hugging your child, take three deliberate, synchronized, deep breaths together. Drop your shoulders, relaxing any muscles that feel tight. Let go and feel the tension melt away. Use it as you say goodbye in the morning, when you recognize when someone could use a calming hug, or just for the love of it.
  4. Move, stretch, and notice body sensations. Teach your children to observe and appreciate all that our bodies are capable of and do for us.
  5. Stop and be aware of surroundings. Whenever you find yourself waiting with a spare moment— in the grocery check-out line, at a doctor’s appointment, walking to your car—pause, tune into the five senses and share what you notice with one another.
  6. Describe your own process of noticing, naming, and using the breath to calm yourself. “Wow, I am feeling overwhelmed right now. I need to walk away and take a few deep breaths…. Whew, okay, now I feel calmer.”
  7. Eat a mindful snack. If you have a toddler, this may come easily, as toddlers often eat at an excruciatingly slow pace. As kids grow older, they may need a reminder to slow down. Together, use your senses to observe the food. Enjoy the first few bites with careful attention to appearance, scent, feel, and taste.
  8. Count the breaths. Either lying down with a small pillow or stuffed animal on your child’s belly, or sitting up with a hand resting on the belly, notice the inhale and exhale, the rising and falling of the belly. Count the inhales and the exhales, at first out loud, then silently on your own.
  9. Take a mindful nature walk. Move at your child’s speed, which, of course, can vary from sprinting like a cheetah to slugging along at a snail’s pace. Bring your sense of curiosity and adventure and allow your child to lead the way.
  10. Practice belly breathing. Place one hand on the chest and one on the belly. As you inhale, fill up the belly like a balloon and as you exhale, allow the balloon to deflate. This often feels counterintuitive at first, as most of us breathe shallowly into the chest most of the time. Belly breathing automatically turns on the relaxation response in the body.
  11. Let them be. Kids are instinctively more mindful (which is why it can take them so bleeping long to get from point A to point B). Whenever possible, allow them to explore at their own pace. Create open space in your schedule for free time to investigate and be mindful naturally.
  12. Teach by example. You are modeling mindfulness for your children, right? (read more about the importance of your own practice here)

As with all new information, we learn best when we are in a calm state of mind. As Carla Naumburg writes in Ready, Set, Breathe, “You can’t practice crisis meditation.” The more you infuse your lives naturally with mindfulness, the more apt you and your children will be to use it when things get stressful.

Whatever you do, don’t force. As children develop and change, so will the most suitable forms of mindfulness. Be patient and have fun. Take the long, slow road whenever possible. Mindfulness, after all, is a way of being meant to be cultivated over a lifetime. So go ahead and breathe….

Want to teach your kids mindfulness? Here’s how…

As mindfulness makes its way progressively into the mainstream media and the world at large, the wide-ranging researched benefits continue to accrue:
Increased—focused attention, compassion, resilience, creativity, and immune function.
Decreased—anxiety, stress, and avoidance, to name but a few.

Good, good stuff. Exactly the kind of good stuff we parents wish for our children. It comes as no surprise, then, that parents are increasingly curious about how to teach their children more about this invaluable life skill.

I field many inquiries from moms and dads regarding kids and mindfulness: At what age can children begin? How best to teach them? What if they refuse? How much should one push?

There are virtually limitless ways to teach children: explicitly, indirectly, with music, with stories, through guided meditations, with books.

But the single most important, and I would argue beneficial, way for parents to begin is with their own mindfulness practice. For, the more aware we moms and dads are of our own triggers, our habits, and our reactions, the more often we can choose how to parent, how to model healthy behavior, and how to live more mindfully as a whole.

In fact, according to Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, “…Practicing mindfulness doesn’t just lead to decreased stress and increased pleasure in parenting, it brings profound benefits to kids [even if it is only the parents that are practicing]. Parents who practiced mindful parenting skills for a year were dramatically more satisfied with their parenting skills and their interactions with their children, even though no new parenting practices beyond being mindful had been taught to them. Over the course of the year-long study, the behavior of these mindful parents’ kids also changed for the better: they got along better with their siblings and were less aggressive, and their social skills improved. And all their parents did was practice mindfulness. [italics mine]”

I have taught my fourteen-year-old much about mindfulness over the years, while my little guy seems to have soaked it up more by osmosis and by example. At age four, my little guy has no formal daily meditation practice, but nevertheless manages to remind me to breathe at the most fitting of occasions. He recognizes when I have lost my mind(fulness) precisely because he (mostly) knows a mom who aspires to live mindfully.

I did say aspire. Let me share a snapshot from a recent day….

It is an early work day morning and I am feeling especially rushed and frazzled as I haul our various and sundry belongings into the car. My thoughts are scattered, haphazardly running through the assorted checklists occupying what seems to be precious little real estate in my mind—the little guy’s bag, my computer, work papers (oh, and don’t forget to return those emails), purse, lunch, mail to be mailed, bank deposit to be deposited, etc.—check, check, check.

Only after my four-year-old and I are warmly bundled in our winter coats does he tells me of his need to use the potty once more. I let out a forceful, “aaghh!” and unzip his coat as I begin to sweat in mine. There is a good chance I slightly resemble a madwoman, because in some ways, in this moment, I am.

After returning from the bathroom only to witness my frenetic state of mind, the little guy encourages, “Mommy, take five brefs!” (That would be “breaths” for those of you who no longer speak four-year-old.)

For a split second, I nearly ignore his plea with some sort of dismissive directive to hurry up, but fortunately catch myself just in time to hear what he is really saying in that earnest preschooler voice. I hear my own words flooding back at me as he sagely reminds me to pause and breathe.

I smile weakly and tell him I don’t think five breaths will cut it today. Without missing a beat he responds, “okay, take seven brefs.” And I do. Crouching down to his level, I look into those heart-melting brown eyes, step back from the sense of urgency and take seven deep breaths. He begins to inhale and exhale slowly right along with me. And suddenly, it feels as if I have come back to myself. Because I have. With his gentle, mindful guidance.

And so, I am once again humbled by the ease with which I am caught up in a busy, over-scheduled, unmindful world, a seemingly parallel universe. Those seven calming breaths take less than a minute. We are still on time, heading out the door with arms full of bags, slipping shoes onto feet, and hats onto heads. But everything has changed. I can see clearly again—all that is here—the boundless blessings, gratitude, love, and wisdom in the form of my little guy.

The moral of the story, of course, is that our children learn by example.

Teaching our kids mindfulness without practicing ourselves is like never having stepped foot into water, reading about swimming, then teaching our kids to dive in and swim with only second-hand verbal instructions. It could be done, I suppose, but is certainly not the same as when we teach them from direct experience while in the pool right alongside them.

Describing for them how to be more mindful is one thing. Demonstrating by living it is another.

In my next post I will write more about how to directly teach your children mindfulness. But for now, start with yourself. Five minutes a day. If you are unsure how to begin, you can learn more here.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Your actions speak so loudly I can not hear what you are saying.”

What is it you ultimately want your children to hear?

My Big Announcement and the Power of Intention

The new New Year’s trend the past few years has centered around choosing an intentional word for the year, rather than more of those old resolutions we tend to break somewhere mid- to late-January. Last year I wrote a blog post about choosing balance as my word for 2015.

I am slightly behind for 2016 due to some exciting happenings in my world — which I will share with you shortly.

But, first, I wanted to show evidence of how powerful setting intentions can be. If we name the intention, break it down into manageable steps, work hard, and are persistent, things we may never have thought possible can become possible indeed.

One year ago, I was writing about short meditations and mindful breaks as an antidote to busy, stressed-out motherhood. I thought about self-publishing but thought I’d first attempt to have my book published with a traditional publishing house. I first needed to find a literary agent interested in representing me and my work. I decided to give it a go. The worst, I figured, they could say was no.

Around the same time, as part of a class I had enrolled in on the science of happiness, I used the following writing exercise prompt:

Adapting the writing procedure developed by King (2001), you will write for 20 minutes at a time… Here are your specific instructions:
“Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”
Do this for 20 minutes per day for three days in a row.

And this is an excerpt from what I wrote December 2014:

I am so thrilled that I have landed a wonderful agent who is so energetic and believes in my book. Because of her, I have landed a deal with a publisher! I can’t believe this is happening. The book is finished and now just coming back for last-minute edits. I remember last year at this time – how the doubt would arise – should I even finish this book? Something told me to just keep going with it. It feels like all of my hard work is paying off.

Do you sense the foreshadowing?

Now for the Big Announcement:

With the help of that wonderful agent, I have signed a deal with The Experiment, an independent publishing house out of New York City.

My book, Breathe, Mama, Breathe: Five-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms is due out early- to mid-2017!

And so I am now hard at work on the manuscript. I am excited and scared and proud and humbled, often all at once. Thank you to all of you who have encouraged me, offered me feedback, and shared some of your parenting challenges and successes.

I encourage you to take the time to write about your best future self. Just for a little while, set your self-imposed limitations and doubts aside. Dream big and see what arises. Now, how do you get there? Start small, but start now. You never know where it might take you and where you will end up in 2017.

Happy New Year.

Now off to write I go!

Embracing Imperfection: A Tale of Early Morning Sippy Cups and Letting Go of Life as I Once Knew It

  The peaceful once upon a time…

The peaceful once upon a time…

Once upon a time I awoke each morning before my daughter, my husband, and the sun to meditate for thirty continuous, peaceful moments. Only on the rarest of occasions was this time interrupted by the outside world or my little slumbering family.

As is always the case with meditation, my mind drifted off countless times in those thirty minutes, but I could almost guarantee that no one in my home would voluntarily stir at such an ungodly hour. And so for that much-loved half of an hour it was just me, myself, my wandering thoughts, and I.

Then my son was born. Cue the ear-piercing sound of the old record player needle screeching across vinyl.

Goodbye meditation as I once knew it. Hello, new normal.

Take this morning, for example.

  The New Normal

The New Normal

It is a bit after 5 a.m. and I am sitting in the hushed darkness of our living room, the crickets outside and the dog by my side my only companions. As I settle in to notice the steady inhale and exhale of my breath — in, out, in, out — I’m startled to hear a tiny, yet mighty voice yell from the upstairs bedroom, “Hello…?! Hello…?! I’m firsty… I’m firsty!” I sigh as I heave myself up off the floor and my meditation cushion.

My little guy would love to begin his day now, but it is entirely too early. In order to buy myself some time, I move swiftly up the stairs, sit down on his bed, place him tenderly on my lap, and pop the milk-filled sippy cup squarely in his mouth. He relaxes back against my chest, contentedly drinking away.

As a beginning meditator, this interruption would’ve caused me great frustration, as in, “he ruined my precious half-hour!” Likewise, it is common for beginners to think that there is some sought-after perfect meditation. Not so. Never the case. Each meditation is however it is that day — peaceful or anxiety-ridden or sleepy or restless or all of the above, in turn. Always perfect in its imperfection and never more so as when we add children to our lives.

It has taken some time, but I have learned to allow, and even relax into, these imperfect moments. I still prefer the uninterrupted time, but now, instead, this time with my boy becomes my practice.

Meditation is kindly training our minds to repeatedly come back to the present moment, accepting whatever arises. Our children can be our greatest teachers, if we allow it.

Snuggled on the bed with my boy, I gently pull myself out of my thoughts and notice what is (literally) right in front of me. I sense the weight of his muscular little body on my lap. I place my hand on his bird-like ribcage, feeling the strong beat of the heart that has stolen mine. I notice his warmth, the still baby-like softness of the skin as I caress his face. I hold that tiny hand in mine and am in awe of those small, lovely fingers. He gently grips my hand and my heart swells. I notice my breath — in, out, in, out.

 The little heart thief

The little heart thief

I imagine the future when there will be no interruptions, bittersweet in its’ peacefulness. But for now, it is silent. I am here. After all, no meditation is perfect. Some are decidedly less so. And some, my friends, are downright heavenly.

So, whether it is meditation, eating healthier, or taking time for yourself, don’t wait for the perfect conditions to begin. Start small and start now. Let go of expectations and preconceived notions. Embrace the messiness of this life, in all its imperfection.Sometimes that is precisely where the biggest gifts reside.

What I’ve Learned From Having My Kids Ten Years Apart

With autumn upon us, I am now Mom to a high schooler and a preschooler. This is what I have learned (so far) from having my children a decade apart:

  1. People assume the little guy was a surprise. In actuality, my husband was satisfied with one, but I wished for two. After much lobbying on my part we struck a deal. He got kayaks, I got #2. If only most negotiations were so mutually profitable!
  2. Despite a decade-long age difference, siblings still instigate and bicker like a pair of toddlers. Sigh.
  3. Everything evens out in the end. Most milestones happen when they happen and do happen eventually: potty training, biking sans training wheels, learning to read.  
  4. The seemingly insignificant moments are the most relished. One of my sweetest memories is sitting on the deck of a ferry, looking out at the ocean, cradling my little girl close to my heart as the steady din lulled her to sleep in my arms.
  5. Habits often become rituals. Choose wisely and adjust accordingly.
  6. It really does go so fast. Although inconceivable while in the trenches of new motherhood, it seems I blinked and my preschooler morphed into a high schooler.
  7. A little bit of our full attention goes a long way. With my daughter, I believed I needed to spend so much of my time on the floor playing with her. I have since learned the value of independent play interspersed with periodic play time with mom.
  8. Kids hear, retain, and repeat everything we say. Until age twelve or so. Then they (mostly) only hear what you wish they hadn’t.
  9. Listening with your full attention is a gift. Talk less, listen more.
  10. Don’t sweat the small stuff. I worried way too much about the little things with the older — the TV she shouldn’t watch, the foods she shouldn’t eat, which school to attend. The second one eats frozen waffles while watching TV before preschool.
  11. Slow down. Smell the roses and his sweet head of hair. You won’t regret it. (See #6).
  12. Most often it is best to just rip the band aid off quickly.Dropping my older at preschool ten years ago, I lingered guiltily, prolonging the anxiety of separation. This time around, I knew to get the heck out of Dodge as soon as humanly possible.
  13. There is no ideal way to time the birth of your kids, should you be fortunate enough to choose how to do so. There are pros and cons to any age span.
  14. Chronological age often has little to do with it. Sometimes they want to be babied and sometimes they crave independence — take their cues when possible.
  15. This, too, shall pass. For better or worse, it always does.
  16. Trust yourself to make educated guesses. You know your kids, yourself, your family. It’s not necessary to have all of the answers all of the time.
  17. Ultimately, the basics are the same at any age — hugs (unlimited), words (not too many), structure (with balance), restraint (often), and love.

 

My husband likes to joke that we should produce one child per decade.

I say fine, but this time around it will be his turn.

I’m pretty confident that stipulation will bring a swift halt to the negotiations, which is fine by me.

I already have the kayaks.

Is Your Life on Autopilot?

Have you ever gotten in your car and arrived at a destination with little recollection of actually driving there? Offered your child only partial attention, thereby absorbing very little of what was actually said? If so, you are not alone. These are common examples of your mind operating on autopilot — distracted, only partially aware, and with a chronic sense of missing the moment.

Mindfulness, essentially the opposite of autopilot, means deliberately bringing our attention to the present moment with kindness. It is a way of being in, and perceiving, the world. Rather than ruminating about the past (either recent or long ago) or imagining the future (worrying or what-iffing), mindfulness encourages us to be present for our lives, better able to cope with the difficulties while more readily savoring the good.

The beauty of mindfulness is that we can take what I call aMindful Break anytime, anywhere. By recognizing that we are not completely present for this moment, we can gently pull ourselves out of autopilot. Like any practice, the more we remember to bring our attention to the moment, the easier it becomes.

Mindful Breaks are strategies acting as life lines for when the moments feel tough and life enhancers for the ordinary, beautiful moments we often miss when we are operating on autopilot. Used to infuse your life with more calm and energy, they offer a multitude of ways to step off the treadmill of busyness while remaining efficient and productive.

Be on the lookout for opportunities to take a Mindful Break throughout your day.

The following are two examples to get you started:
WAKING WITH GRATITUDE:

For years after becoming a mom, waking up in the morning, for me, would typically go something like this: Thought #1: What is that hideous noise? Thought #2:Damn. Alarm. Already? #3: I am so tired. I hate being tired. Never enough sleep… #4: Imagine how terrible it was going to feel slogging through my day in a sleepy haze.

These days, depending upon the circumstances, thoughts #1-3 may still arise. After all, as moms we certainly don’t always have control of our sleep. We also don’t have control over which thoughts show up, only what we choose to do with those thoughts. With mindfulness practice, I have now learned to notice those thoughts then choose, instead, to shift my focus and wake with gratitude, appreciating the positive tone it sets for the day.

The Mindful Break:

As soon as you are conscious enough to realize you are awake(ish), pause and take a deep breath. (At first, this may not be until you have stumbled out of bed to attend to a child or poured your first cup of coffee. That’s fine, pause wherever you are. After practicing for a bit, you will catch yourself sooner, before you make your way out of bed.) Bring to mind those things for which you are grateful. Perhaps it is your health, your children, your partner, friends, coffee, birds singing, sun shining, or rain falling. Keep it simple and keep it positive.

 

THE 3-BREATH HUG:

I learned this practice when my daughter was a preschooler and taught it to her with the intention of using it as a sweet way to calm her emotional outbursts. As is often the case with parenting, I mistakenly thought I was the wise one offering something for her benefit until she astutely reversed the plan, reminding me just how much I learn from her.

One particularly stressful evening I had retreated to the bathroom for a much-needed mommy time-out, closing my eyes and taking a number of deep breaths. Hearing a scuffling sound outside the door, I opened my eyes to see a folded piece of paper slid under the door. Unfolding it, my heart warmed with love as I read the message written in that adorable five-year-old scrawl: meet me in my room for a 3-breath hug.

The Mindful Break:

Hugging your child, take three deliberate, synchronized, deep breaths together. Drop your shoulders, relaxing any muscles that feel tight. Let go and feel the tension melt away. Teach the hug to your kids and your partner. Little ones love it and teenagers secretly do, too. Use it as you say goodbye in the morning, when you recognize someone could use a calming hug, or just for the love of it. You never know when they will surprise you and offer a much-needed 3-Breath Hug to dear old Mom.

4 Steps to “Do You” in the Midst of Mommyhood

Definition: Do what you feel is best for you, in short, do you. ~urban dictionary

 Evil little guy, no?

Evil little guy, no?

Don’t tell my three-year old,but I have a strong aversion to Thomas the Train. And Legos. And driving matchboxes over random pieces of furniture while making car noises out of the corner of my mouth. Same goes for most boardgames, video games, and huge amusement parks.

But pillow fights while blaring seventies rock on my ancient clock radio? Now that’s another story. Love it. Snuggling up close to read a huge pile of books? Tossing the ball back and forth? A game of Memory? Running races in the back yard? Tickle fights? Love it, love it, love it.

There was a time earlier in my mothering career when I thought I should like to do all of the things my kids enjoyed. Am I a bad mom for not delighting in these moments, I would wonder? How ungrateful are you? Be happy they are here and healthy, I would chastise myself.

Buckling down and playing along, I would will myself to enjoy it, all the while bored out of my mind and counting the seconds until I could pop up and get onto something else. “Wouldn’t you rather (fill in the blank with something less tedious),” I would implore. “Nope,” my child would resolutely reply.

Oh, how I wished I loved these things. The reality is, I just didn’t. Still don’t. Learning to admit and accept this has been remarkably liberating. Over the past thirteen years, I have learned to “do me,” by offering myself permission to not play certain things with my kids, at least some of the time. By tuning into and honoring what I find fun, I bring more genuine joy to our interactions.

4 Steps to “Do You”:

  1. Be aware of what you do and don’t truly enjoy. Is your smile natural or forced? Are you lost in the flow of play or counting the moments?
  2. Consciously notice what you choose willingly or purely out of mommy guilt (see previous post).
  3. Offer yourself permission to not like what you don’t.
  4. Experiment with saying no to the guilt-driven times and create more true yes-moments.

When my little guy is in the mood to play with his cars or my daughter is jonesing for a game of monopoly, they have learned to (mostly) not ask mom. I will occasionally acquiesce. However, when I do, I am consciously choosing to play because it makes them happy, rather than being driven by mommy guilt. This is a subtle, but important, distinction and our children feel the difference. The contrast in my demeanor when my little guy and I are engaged in a belly-laugh-filled pillow fight versus playing trains is obvious to even a three-year-old. They notice when we are slogging along for their benefit, because we think we should, or because we worry we are a bad mom if we don’t.

  This face has been known to induce the Mommy Guilt.

This face has been known to induce the Mommy Guilt.

I am not suggesting, of course, that we always put our own needs before our children’s. There are many things I do for my kiddos that I consider taking one for the team. I spent my daughter’s thirteenth birthday at a Philadelphia concert where we were surrounded by screaming young teens. Not my idea of a great Saturday night, but a thrill for her. I cheerfully purchased the tickets, a large box of earplugs (making lots of friends by passing them out to the other middle-aged moms), and delighted in my daughter’s night of bliss — not because the mommy guilt was in full force, but because I willingly chose it.

So, go ahead, “do you.” Like what you like and accept what you don’t. Notice when a smile appears automatically on your face versus one that is forced. Give yourself permission to engage less in what bores you and more of what you love. You will feel the difference and your kids will, too.

25 Lessons I Have Learned: A Letter to my 25-year-old Self on my 45th Birthday

  1. You can survive with much less sleep than you will care to know. Enjoy it now, for it will not be fully under your control for years.
  2. You are right – love is what matters most. Congratulations for figuring that one out so early.
  3. There will come a time when you will barely remember what it feels like to be bored, to be lonely, or to have too much free time on your hands.
  4. Having children will be like holding a mirror up to yourself. They will bring out the best and the worst in you and push you to grow in ways you cannot imagine. The love you will feel for them is indescribable. I am so excited for you to know it.
  5. No one else is critiquing you half as much as you do yourself. It feels so much better to be kind to yourself.
  6. The more compassion you have for yourself, the more you have to offer others.
  7. You think your body needs improvement now? Take a look at it after twenty years and two kids. Things will shift and, believe it or not, this will be okay. You will learn to appreciate your body for how it serves you, rather than how it looks. What a relief.
  8. You are stronger than you realize.
  9. You already know to follow your bliss. Make sure you also follow your curiosity.
  10. Don’t listen to the people who caution you that you can’t. They mean well, but you can.
  11. You will learn to meditate. It will infuse your life with a calmness, a strength and a stillness upon which you can rely.
  12. Value and nurture your friendships. This becomes challenging as life becomes full. Make it a priority.
  13. I know you love him, but for God’s sake, get rid of the boyfriend who does not treat you as well as he should.
  14. You will find a wonderful man to marry and with whom you share your life. You will learn to grow together, challenge each other, and love. Tenacity, forgiveness and a sense of humor will be required.
  15. You will be a grown-up but will never completely feel like one.
  16. You will look in the mirror and expect to see that 25-year-old face gazing back. The reflection will alternately appall and reward, depending on the day (and how much you have slept. See #1).
  17. Forty-five is not old!!
  18. It is okay to like what you like and dislike what you don’t.
  19. You are not your accomplishments, but challenge yourself whenever possible.
  20. You are wise. Trust yourself. When you are true to yourself, most everything falls into place eventually.
  21. Listen to your body. It is always guiding you. When you don’t pay attention, you will get sick, you will get anxious, you will learn.
  22. Everything changes. You will resist. You will cling. Do your best to accept and go with the flow.
  23. You will appreciate your parents more than you can imagine. As you raise your kids, you will be bowled over by the realization of how much your parents have given of themselves.
  24. You will be happy. And grateful. And blessed.
  25. Happy Birthday, young friend.
  This face has been known to induce the Mommy Guilt.

This face has been known to induce the Mommy Guilt.

How I Became a Middle-aged Mom YouTube Fan

Dear Famous YouTuber Andrea Russett:

For the past year I simply could not wrap my head around why, in God’s name, my smart, discerning thirteen-year-old thinks you are the bomb, claiming if she ever gets to meet you she will die happy. I wanted to understand, I really did, if only to provide insight into the inner workings of my daughter, whose burgeoning teenagerhoodness leaves me feeling unmoored on a regular basis.

What was I missing? Was I that out of touch? You don’t sing, you don’t act. You are a young woman who has become famous posting random topics on YouTube. Sure, you seem nice enough. Yes, you are beautiful, but my teen has never been one to be highly impressed by looks alone.

Whenever I questioned her infatuation, my daughter would offer a generic, slightly annoyed response. “She inspires me. She cares. She speaks her mind. She is a great role model.”

Huh. Huh?

As the two of us sat together the other night discussing fame and teen YouTubers, I tried once again to understand. What has this Andrea Russett done to earn your complete adoration?

What followed took my breath away:

My girl looked at me with those big green eyes and said,

“Mom. She has given me the courage to be myself. If I am being put down or feeling insecure, I remember her encouraging words to be strong, be confident, to be happy with and proud of who you are. She is not afraid to stand up for what is right. I have gotten a lot of my self-confidence from watching her.

Oh. Wow. Speechless. How can I possibly argue with that?

 

So, thank you, Andrea Russett. You have now earned yourself a middle-aged mom fan as well.

May you continue to live with such courageous, compassionate values. We parents need more of you in our village.

You have never met my daughter, but you have shown her how to stay strong, love, and stay true to herself. A mom cannot ask for a better gift than that.

The Connection Intention

Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard and valued- when they can give and receive without judgment.” ~ Brene Brown

In my last post, I wrote about balance and connection as my guiding words of 2015.  Crafting a flexible plan to bring me closer to my intentions, I divided up the areas of connection into categories where I had been lacking: self, husband, and friends.

Connection with self.

If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. I would add — when Mama’s been meditating, the peace is increased.  Mood is infectious and the benefits of meditation are as well.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, it is vital to start here — with the need to get quiet in order to foster wisdom and clarity.  Call it prayer, meditation, or simply sitting in silence for a few minutes. Without it, awareness of our inner thoughts and experience is much more difficult to assess.

Although I currently meditate daily, I recommitted to 5-30 minutes of practice a day.  This also means offering myself compassion and honoring my need for sleep, rest, fun, and balance.

Connection with my husband – Love is a verb.

Love requires tenacity and grit.  It’s work.  It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.  So when people say, ‘Love shouldn’t be this hard,’ I think, Why not?  We get so much from our most important relationships – it makes sense that we have to invest a lot of time, effort, and some serious self-reflection into them.”  Brene Brown

Time — My husband and I are blessed to have two healthy kiddos, the three-year old who wakes before dawn and the teenager whose bedtime has shifted increasingly later.  The combination does not allow much alone time for the hubby and me.  At the end of a long day, one or both of us may be too spent to want to chat for long, let alone curl up on the couch in deep discussion.  We have resorted to setting the alarm a bit earlier some mornings in order to find real alone time.  Certainly not our ideal, but, for now, it is a flexible, viable solution.

Fun — Between scheduling and sitters, date nights are a bit more infrequent than I’d ideally like.  I take solace in knowing that our young teen will soon be old enough to babysit while we head out for a leisurely dinner.  We have begun leaving her home with the little guy for short periods of time, heading out for a brief run together, which, between huffing and puffing, is a great time for conversation.  My intention is to spend more light-hearted time with my husband joking and laughing and to schedule at least one date night a month.

Talk — It is about quality, not necessarily quantity, of time that my husband and I strive for at this stage in the game.  I know one day the kids will have flown the coop and we will have nothing but time.  For now, it is about a few minutes of putting down the phone, stepping away from the computer, sitting down together with the mutual gift of full attention, discussing the day, our plans, and our dreams.

Gratitude – After sixteen years of marriage, my husband and I share a wonderful partnership.  For the most part we have found our groove when it comes to the division of household labor, each offering equal amounts of time and energy in order to keep the family thriving.  Although I believe I offer frequent thanks for the little things, I am trying to be more deliberate in expressing gratitude for the bigger picture – good for my husband to hear, good for me to remember, good for our marriage bond overall.

Connection with friends.

People with many social connections are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping, and are more likely to experience life positively.” Christine Carter, The Sweet Spot

When our family moved into our rural-suburban home nearly four years ago, we hit the neighborhood jackpot — great people, great kids.  A dozen or so families periodically get together for parties, book club, crafting, and an annual beach weekend.  There are some families we know better than others, due mostly to our kids’ ages and mutual activities.  Whenever I would consider hosting a neighborhood party, however, the thought of mingling with fifty people, regardless of their awesomeness, was daunting and I never followed through.

We decided to host a monthly dinner party, inviting two or three families at a time, allowing us to spend time together in a more (for me) relaxed way.  By the end of the year, we should have had the chance to spend some quality time with everyone in the ‘hood.

So, this is my plan.  For now.  It will morph and change and that is a good thing, as it is simply a flexible framework meant to guide the balance in my life, driven by my very conscious intention for connection – one of the things that, for me, when all is said and done, matters most.

How Joni Mitchell Reminded Me to Enjoy the Ride

And the seasons they go round and round.  And the painted ponies go up and down.  We’re captive on the carousel of time.  We can’t return we can only look.  Behind from where we came.  And go round and round and round.  In the circle game.  ~ Joni Mitchell

I blinked and January came and went.  I’m not sure if the warp speed was due to perception of time as I grow older, to the fullness of life these days, or some combination of the two.  Whatever the case, it only reinforced my word of intention for 2015 –balance.                                                                                                                                                                Let me explain…

  I did manage to pause and capture the beautiful January snow

I did manage to pause and capture the beautiful January snow

I like the recent social media trend of carefully selecting one word to represent the year’s intention rather than embarking upon a number of New Year’s resolutions. Choosing one word can help guide us as we are faced with countless smaller choices throughout the year, a sort of litmus test of what matters most.  Do I say yes to this commitment?  How shall I spend a free afternoon?  Does this decision move me in the direction of my chosen intention?

As the New Year rolled around and I reflected on intention, the word that initially arose for me was connection.  Between work, family, and a bit of self-care, a month can pass before I realize I have not had much interaction with friends and that it’s been six weeks since my husband and I had dinner out sans kids.  Although an important piece of how I view my ideal balanced life, connection often seems to unwittingly fall to the bottom of the priority list.  Attention to connection felt important and true.

When I pondered a bit longer, though, I recognized that balancewas the more fitting, overarching intentional word.  Balance, to me, means a constant, fluid readjustment of my time, my priorities, and my commitments as I strive to allow the fullness in my life to remain full without overflowing and overwhelming me. Connection is my focus, a subheading under the overarching intention of balance.  As I focus on increasing connection, balance keeps it all in check.

  January Sunset – a sight to behold.

January Sunset – a sight to behold.

I knew that if I didn’t devise some sort of structure for my intention to connect, time would fly by much like the month of January and I might find myself in the same imbalanced place next year.  And so I created a plan to bring me closer to my intention to connect.  I will share more specifically in my next post how I am doing this and how it is going.

When it comes to intention, it is important to see it not as rigid, but as a helpful framework to create more of the life we want.  The point is not to feel hemmed in by the habits, but to feel supported by them.  If the framework does begin to feel restrictive or pressured, step back and reassess your intention word.  Does it still resonate?  What is the resistance about?  Change is often uncomfortable.  Don’t mistake healthy growing pains as a sign that you are on the wrong track.  Perhaps the structure needs some re-tweaking.  Perhaps the word does, too.  And sometimes it is most helpful to not press for an answer.  If we create a bit of quiet, simply posing the question often allows an answer to eventually present itself.

Time still moves quickly, but rather than being surprised by the rapidity, it feels more like gliding along on the carousel at a pace that, thankfully, does not nauseate, and, hopefully, allows for more awareness and joy.

So, go ahead, if you haven’t already, choose a word for 2015 that speaks to you, one that rings true in your ears. 

Be deliberate in your days.  Take care to enjoy the ride.

“Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?”

Balanced Motherhood was essentially born the day I gave birth to my son, although it took a few months for it to take shape and for me to recognize it. As a second-time mom, I had no delusions about the impending intensity of adding a newborn to our family.

After the first few harrowing weeks with a newborn, once the haze of brutal sleep deprivation subsided, it became clear that a daily thirty minutes was not in my near future. I needed to find a way to stay connected to mindfulness and meditation in a more flexible, manageable way.  As the months ticked on, my daily meditation time increased slowly and incrementally, with many stops and starts along the way.

What really sustained me through this time, though, was unearthing small ways to infuse my life with mindfulness.  Not only was it was a lifeline when things felt overwhelming, but an approach used to savor the beautiful moments that arose within even the most monotonous of days with a newborn.

Whether first-timers or well-seasoned, moms juggle so many roles – that of mother, daughter, partner, employee, manager outside of or inside the home, friend, nurse, playmate, etc. It is easy to lose sight of ourselves as women and quite challenging to balance all of the roles and expectations placed upon us.  Regardless of the unique combination of roles we play, we all are faced with the delicate, often precarious, balance of it all.

Balanced Motherhood is my answer to an ongoing search of how to, as best I can, stay true to my deepest held values while juggling my many roles along the way.

Combining over fifteen years as a therapist, the science and research of Positive Psychology (the science of happiness and well-being) and mindfulness, along with what I have experienced to be true in my own lifeBalanced Motherhood offers simple, 5-minute mindfulness practices designed with Busy Moms in mind.

We have all of the answers inside if we simply allow ourselves a bit of time to get quiet, listen, and reconnect to ourselves.

My aim is to teach Busy Moms simple ways to live more mindfully and with increased energy and peace.

As Brene Brown proposes in Daring Greatly, “…the question isn’t so much, ‘Are you parenting the right way?’ as it is: ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?’” (p. 217).

When we are feeling balanced, our families reap the benefits of moms who are thriving and modeling how to live with more presence, gratitude and joy.  We need to ask ourselves – what more could we genuinely wish for our children, our families, and ourselves?

Balanced Motherhood: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms Workshop

Sat, Nov. 15th9am- noon      $50.   Register atmindful.talk@yahoo.com

Join us or forward this to the Busy Moms in your life.