Mindfulness for Moms: The Basics

As mother's day approaches, some mindfulness basics for moms

Posted May 02, 2011

I'm working on a Mindful Motherhood online course, and was asked to come up with a list of "frequently asked questions" about how mindfulness relates to pregnancy and motherhood. Luckily, I'd been interviewed a while back and found that the answers made up a nice little primer on Mindful Motherhood, especially as Mother's Day approaches...enjoy!

Why is Pregnancy and Early Motherhood a Good Time to Learn Mindfulness?

There could not be a better time to learn mindfulness than during pregnancy and early motherhood. For one thing, this is a time when most people have a strong motivation to become the best person they can be in a relatively short period of time. When you realize the full enormity of the responsibility you have taken on by becoming a mom, the primary source of care for another whole human being, not to mention one that you love more than you thought you could ever love, there is a really high level of motivation to try your best to get yourself into the best mental and emotional shape possible. I've talked to so many pregnant women who have for the first time in their lives encountered within themselves a deep and very sweet drive to learn new ways of being-quick! They don't want to pass on negative patterns to their child, and want to do everything possible to transmit a healthy foundation for the rest of their child's life.

Also, this is a great time to learn mindfulness because you are already open and somewhat vulnerable. The downside of this can be feeling off-balance or a little exposed, needing more help from others than usual and being at the mercy of your body's functions and your baby's needs. The upside is that this state of being provides a sort of malleability-some of your defenses are down, you may be feeling more sensitive than usual, and this is a great time to learn new skills! It makes you open-minded in a way that perhaps you are not when you've got everything under control. Since mindfulness has a lot to do with being in touch with the sensations in your body, and being aware, new moms are in a prime state to learn it! In fact, pregnancy and early motherhood, nursing and sleep disturbance, weight gain and weight loss-these all in some way force you to be in your body. For those of us who live most of our lives above our necks, this can actually be a great blessing.

What Inspired You to Start Mindful Motherhood?

My own interest in mindfulness started in my early twenties, before I had a child. I'd had a rough time of it as a teenager, encountering frequent bouts of depressive and anxious moods, ups and downs with addictive substances, and floods of negative thought patterns. While I had many potential resources to draw from for help, none seemed to strike home for me. Even when things evened out and I went to college to become a psychologist, I couldn't explain what the source of my suffering was. An awakening came for me when I took a class on Buddhism. 

In Buddhism, psychology is intermingled with spirituality-the two are inseparable. The psychology and philosophy of Buddhism is in large part directed toward identifying the causes and solutions to human suffering. From this perspective, pain, imperfection, injury, impermanence, and eventually death, are all parts of life.  Suffering comes from not really accepting this fact. Mindfulness trains us to accept whatever is happening in the moment, without judging it good or bad. It just is what it is. Mindful motherhood, as a way of being, encourages you to attend more fully to what is already present, to who you already are, to what is right in front of you, rather than striving to make things different. 

Increasingly, a mindful approach to my experiences helped me through graduate school, through the initial stages of my career, and it informed my research and clinical work-particularly with respect to finding new ways that people might deal with addictions, mood disorders, and behavioral problems. I began to study mindfulness in my work, and received grants to develop mindfulness-based approaches to treating addiction. Then, I had a baby! 

Mindful awareness practices helped me so much during the adventure of pregnancy and early motherhood that I began to turn my professional interest toward how mindfulness might help reduce stress and improve mood among pregnant women and early moms, enhance their connection with their babies, and really thrive through the transformation of motherhood. Personally, since motherhood leaves very little room for taking time away for self-care practices, motherhood taught me a more embodied form of mindfulness practice-forcing me to find ways to incorporate mindfulness more into each day-both as a mom and in the rest of my life.

How Does Mindful Motherhood Incorporate Yoga?

Yoga changes for many women during pregnancy. Your degree of flexibility changes, breathing patterns change, posture changes, and some women experience more or less vitality than they did before. Also, while you are pregnant, one thing that is physically different is that your placenta is causing the hormone relaxin to course through your body. Relaxin softens the connective tissue and ligaments in your body, making yoga a perfect accompaniment to pregnancy. This suppleness of the body is at its peak in pregnancy, but this can allow you to overstretch. 

For most women, yoga becomes more restorative during pregnancy. The strengthening component is still there, but this is a time to slow down and connect with your breath, your body, and the baby. In Mindful Motherhood, the focus of the yoga series is not so much physical prowess, but instead is a practice of cultivating mindfulness while moving. All of the ways we can bring attention to our breathing and our body in sitting meditation, can also be brought to this moving meditation. And since you are moving a lot when you are a new mom, it's good to be able to stay mindful while your eyes are open and you are moving.

Practicing mindful movement makes you into an explorer. With your ever-changing pregnant and postpartum body, there is a vast arena available for exploration. Every day is different; your belly expanding or contracting, "mystery" pains, shifting or gaining weight-all of these changes are an invitation to connect with your new self and your baby.

What Does it Mean to End Our Argument With Reality?

Mindfulness is grounded in the awareness that things are always exactly as they are. This may seem very obvious or even philosophical. But when you take some time to explore the idea, it becomes clear that a whole lot of struggling in life comes from not settling in to this fact. Things are the way they are.

When you argue with reality, who usually wins? Reality always wins. What is, actually is as it is, despite how much we want it to be not that way, or more, or less, or slightly different. 

This might seem like bad news, or may sound a bit harsh. In fact, it's the good news. It gives each of us permission to let go of the struggle-to give up the tiring and essentially futile project of trying to wrestle reality into what we want it to be, and suffering quite a bit when it refuses to be tamed.

So much of our time and energy is spent trying to get things to be the way we want them to be. We do this in conscious awareness, but we also do it unconsciously. We attack a problem in our minds like a dog wrestling with a rope, pulling it this way and that. And our behaviors, especially in relationships, can become dominated by attempts to control or modify the person or situation rather than moving into each situation as it is and responding from that place.

Acceptance, the way I use it here, is not approval. It does not mean you decide to like the way things are or that you accept the situation in the sense of it being good, right, or even okay. It means that you recognize that things are they way they are, and no amount of resisting, struggling, thinking about, or wishing they were different will change that.

It's meeting each moment with an attitude of "This is, as it is." Only from that place can you make real choices about how to respond. 

Can You Explain the Balloon in the Breadbox

The breadbox is a metaphor for the way you hold your experiences. Overwhelming thoughts and emotions can be like blowing up a balloon in a breadbox-they fill up every single bit of your consciousness. During pregnancy in particular, and in the sleep-deprived months of early motherhood, emotions can seem to blow up and out of control. Mindful awareness does not keep the balloon from blowing up; instead, it's focused on making the breadbox into the size of a large room, there's enough space around that balloon so that you can both experience your emotions and witness them in the moment. You still have the thoughts, feelings, or sensations. But-and this is key-there are other things happening in your awareness as well. 

When you've got space around the balloon, when the breadbox gets bigger, you can be aware of all of the other things that are also part of your consciousness, like your goals for how you want to treat yourself or your baby, or positive experiences that are occurring simultaneously. You can be aware of lots of other stuff that would usually be crowded out by the "louder" experiences. And more important, you become aware of the space itself-that deep, quiet ground of being from which everything arises and passes away. While peace of mind can be hard to come by, this space in which all things appear and disappear is by its very nature already peaceful, accepting, nonjudging, and allowing, without you having to do anything but rest into it.

I've provided exercises in the book to enlarge your field of awareness, to bring yourself into noticing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. There is a specific exercise designed to help you enlarge the breadbox and strengthen your observing self. It teaches you that you are more than this collection of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You are the awareness in which they are occurring. This practice helps you begin to spend more time in your observing self, in that part of you that is aware of everything that is happening. As you begin to spend more time in that witnessing part of your consciousness, you begin to have more space around the balloon. The breadbox begins to get bigger. Your container begins to stretch, just like the belly during pregnancy. But in some ways, this container has no limits. As you begin to explore this realm of awareness more, you may find that, like the sky, it's difficult to find any edges. 

As your container stretches to be able to hold many experiences at once, you begin to be able to better tolerate distressing or uncomfortable experiences. You can even begin to approach them with curiosity and compassion, because you have more room for them. A big, loud experience still might feel really overwhelming and huge; but even then, there is a little bit of space around it in which you can maneuver. You can be involved in a huge bummer of an experience and still have a fairly good day because that challenging experience doesn't take up every inch of your attention. Other parts of your day get equal playing time.

What is Beginner's Mind, and How Does it Apply to Motherhood?

"Beginner's mind" means approaching experiences with interest and curiosity, almost as though they were happening for the first time. In fact, each experience we encounter is happening for the first time! Even if you've done a thousand diaper changes, the one you are doing now is the first time this particular diaper change has happened. Our tendency is to go on autopilot when we assess the situation and say to ourselves, "Oh, I know what this is. I've done this a million times." When driving to work along a route we've taken for years, we take advantage of the opportunity to go on autopilot so that we can-you guessed it-think, plan, ruminate, strategize, and so on.

Curiosity is examination with interest. What is this thought pattern? Why is it happening now? Wow, look at how my mind does flips around that particular person. Wow, check out that leg cramp! Oooh, when I feel guilty, my stomach gets upset. Look at this unbelievably long line. Curiosity entails approaching experiences as though they are happening for the first time, even if they may be well-worn grooves in your psyche.

Mindful awareness is comfortable with not knowing-with uncertainty. Most of us think we should know the answers to everything, and if we don't, we should apply ourselves to figuring them out as quickly as possible. But, many of our "answers" are in fact just beliefs, stories, or "shoulds" that we have been conditioned or programmed to believe over the course of our upbringing in our families and in our society. We think that knowing the answers is a source of security and comfort, when, in fact, much of what we think causes unnecessary suffering.

As you are learning, thoughts and beliefs are not facts. They are just thoughts and beliefs-stories the mind tells us to help us understand our world. And sometimes those thoughts, stories, or beliefs are not accurate or not relevant to the current situation.

Being able to approach each situation with beginner's mind allows you to approach your life as if you had a wide open field of choices about what to do (which you do). You can decide how to interpret each situation you encounter independently, because you are fully present, awake, and aware and have a lot more information available to you from all your senses, not only your thinking mind. Comfort with uncertainty allows for intuitive parenting, which really just means being responsive to each situation as it arises.

Childbirth is probably one of the most intense moments of a woman's life- can a woman still be mindful and present during an experience like that?  

In some ways, intense experiences like childbirth are the most mindful and present we ever are-mostly because we have no choice! Certainly, there is no doubt that cultivation of mindfulness can have a very beneficial effect during labor and childbirth. It can allow you to have greater pain tolerance, stay with your experience, stay aware and awake despite what can be intense discomfort, and fully enjoy the awesome and amazing parts of the experience.

But, I caution against thinking that learning mindfulness will necessarily allow you to have a calm, natural, or intervention-free birth. Recall that mindfulness is about greeting things as they are, and bringing as much compassion and curiosity, as much wakefulness, to each experience, as you can. My childbirthing experience was difficult, and there was a point where "mindfulness" as a concept or a practice was quite possibly the furthest thing from my mind. But when my awareness returned, mindfulness as a practice and as a way of seeing the world allowed me to settle deeply into those magical first few days with my baby at home, and to be present for my own recovery.

Pregnancy and childbirth are great crash-courses for motherhood. For nine months, you are increasingly required to be in your body. Labor and childbirth may be the time when you are most in touch with your body-the most embodied any of us will ever be-though not necessarily in a very comfortable way. This doesn't end when the baby is born. Learning how to be present and grounded in your body even in the face of discomfort is a great skill to cultivate now and for the rest of your life as a mother.

So, it may be that childbirth informs your mindfulness practice at least as much as your mindfulness practice informs your childbirth!

What is the Most Important Part of Mindful Motherhood

If I could choose only one tool you would take with you from the Mindful Motherhood book and practice, it would be the capacity to be present. Being present forms the foundation for mindful motherhood. It's the key to being a mindful mom. If being nonjudgmental, accepting, curious, and compassionate, and observing your experience and letting it be as it is without struggling against it are some of the rooms that make up the house of mindful motherhood, being in the present moment is the foundation of the house.

Mindful motherhood, above all, is a way of approaching your experiences during pregnancy and early motherhood with gentleness and friendliness. It is more and more often being in the present moment, in your body, and in nurturing connection with your baby, regardless of what is happening. It's viewing whatever is happening in your thoughts, feelings, and sensations with less judgment about whether they are right or wrong or good or bad. It's approaching the situations that make up pregnancy, childbirth, and early motherhood-the good, the bad, and the ugly-with a willingness to meet them just as they are. 

From this platform of presence, awareness, connection, and willingness to meet things as they are, you will find yourself more often able to respond to situations as they are rather than reacting to your stories about them or your desire for them to be different. You will increasingly make decisions and take actions that are in alignment with your values and reflect the kind of mother you want to be.

Attend a Mindful Motherhood Training with Cassandra Vieten. The next training is June 22, 2011 in the high desert of New Mexico.