When I found out that I was expecting my first child I knew that life would change radically, I also appreciated that being thousands of miles from home, with no maternity leave or health insurance and a small support network and parents not able to visit, that I needed to look after my own wellbeing to ensure I was psychologically strong for what could be a challenging time. As a long-standing meditation practitioner, as well as a trained mindfulness teacher, I also saw this as an opportunity to strengthen and well as count on, my personal mediation practice.
Mindfulness meditation is increasingly in the public arena as an approach to develop present moment awareness, being fully awake to where we are and what we’re doing. This prevents us from becoming overly reactive or overwhelmed, helping us cope more effectively with negative thoughts and emotions, as well as being more awake to the good times in life. Fifty-eight percent of the time we are thinking about the past (making us more prone to depression) and the future (making us more vulnerable to anxiety). When our mind is somewhere else we are not really ever getting value out of life. After a history of being told I couldnt have children I wanted to be fully alive on this journey of becoming a mother.
My experience of incorporating mindfulness was guided by my intuition developed through years of practising and teaching mindfulness, tailoring it to the different phases I encountered. Regularly I invited myself to think how the attitudinal foundations of being non judgemental, trusting and patient, without striving and encouraging a sense of acceptance and letting go; qualities that were well suited to the unknown path to parenthood.
I was aware that having 30 minutes for ‘formal’ seated meditations may soon be a luxury. However during pregnancy I relished this time. It provided me a valuable space to tap into how I was feeling, noticing if I had allowed myself to become overtired or had aches or tightness, and whatever I noticed I encouraged myself not to judge, instead greeting it with a wry smile. Like my friend said, those varicose veins are your babies way to say hello!
Formal mindfulness practices often involve bringing the focus back on the breath each time the mind wanders. I really felt all this time strengthening my attention and recharging my mindfulness battery for birth.
The Metta Bhavana, or love and kindness meditation, is a popular practice to encourage self compassion. During pregnancy I changed the start of the mantra from ‘May I’ to ‘May we’, repeating the words “may we be well, may we be free from suffering…”. I felt this helped me start to bond with my baby before they were born, as well as seeing us as a unit. Interestingly after birth I naturally went back to saying ‘I’ when I felt it important to reclaim a little of my own identity!
Mindfulness in Labour:
Like every other first time mum I’ve met, the birth was totally unfathomable beforehand, apart from the clips from movies and television showing how terrifying it can be. My mindfulness practice encouraged me to, as much as I could, be open to the direct experiences, rather than think “this is a contraction, this should be painful!”. I kept asking myself questions to keep me curious about the sensations, such as “where are the edges of the feelings?” “what happens when I breathe into it?” “ how do feelings change over time?”. I am pleased that I didn’t know at the time that it would go on for over 30 hours, but at least a mindful attitude allowed me to deal with it stage by stage. And when it didn’t go to plan at the end I was able to let go of their being a ‘right’ way to give birth and accept the decisions that were made ensuring the wellbeing of my baby and myself.
Mindfulness with a newborn baby:
The biggest surprise for me was just how much mindfulness helped me in those first few months looking after my newborn alone. Everyone kept saying how quick they grow, and I wanted to be as fully conscious of her as possible.
Out went my formal mindfulness practices when sleep became too precious to get up early and meditate. Instead I adapted my mindfulness practice to when I was nursing her, being as present as possible to the changing sensations from her as she moved and sucked, and coming back to my breath in between to anchor me. I was conscious not to use feeding as phone or TV time, rather saw it as a chance to regroup during the day.
Of course there nights when I had to walk and rock her to sleep, when my mind could easily get hooked in negative thoughts about how exhausted. These would become opportunities for walking meditations, rather than focusing on the panic of how long I would be up for I focused the cold tiles on my feet and shifting weight as I walked. This really helped me see these midnight walks as replenishing rather than detrimental to my wellbeing.
I noticed a pull towards rushing when I did get time to do things during naps, trying to cram as much in as I didnt know how long I would get. However quite quickly I realised how counterproductive this became, rushing meant I took no pleasure in these activities that were potential for me time, so rather than the quantity I achieved I focused on the quality of the experience. Having a shower, cleaning my teeth, even washing the dishes, I slowed down and used it as a chance to restore a little of me!
What got me into mindfulness meditation over a decade ago was to compensate for a natural tendency for busyness; that I knew wasn’t healthy long term. It is often say that rather than being ‘human beings’ we should actually being called ‘human doings’, with our preference for achieving. I knew that my days could not be measured by ‘to do’ lists anymore, instead I focused on “to be” lists, thinking about the qualities that I wanted to bring to the day; humour, patients, self compassion. My reflections at the end of the day would check in with how much I acted in line with these qualities. I also continued with my gratitude list, reflecting on 5 things each day that I was grateful for. This encourages me to remember some highlights of the day that I may have missed otherwise, whilst focusing on the day to day a little more.
And when I had the days of existential navel gazing and self doubt, I was able to step back a bit and watch the waves of emotion, with a little objectivity as well as compassion towards myself, and every other mum for what a roller coaster becoming a parent is.
The roles that I have, including mindfulness meditator, mother and partner, are life long ones that require patience, commitment and a full heart to myself and others. I know that there will be many challenges ahead that will test my practice, however I am pretty sure I have given myself, and daughter a good foundation to approach what’s in store, as they say:
“you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf”