It was hot and humid so I was already cranky when I noticed I was out of baby wipes. Also toilet paper… and paper towels. It was the triad of missing goods that requires the unavoidable—a trek to Costco.
Like any rational human being, I’d prefer to do Costco trips unencumbered by the small people. But I have obstinately refused to sacrifice precious weekend time for that errand. So, with a silent prayer to the wholesale warehouse gods, I packed my 7-month-old, 4-year-old, and 7-year-old into the car.
Arriving in the parking lot, I attached the baby carrier and baby to my body and gave strict instructions to my big kids to stay close. I went as quickly as I could through the aisles not allowing myself to pause in front of items I don’t really need (ok I paused, but only just briefly).
The best laid plans…
As we moved towards the checkout area, my 4-year-old suddenly started to clutch at his stomach crying that his tummy hurt. He needed to go potty. Now. As in the if-you-don’t-get-me-to-the-bathroom-in-a-minute-flat-there-will-be-a-hot-stinky-mess-on-your-hands kind of now.
If you’re a parent, you’ve certainly had your share of these delightful moments. You know something gross is about to happen and that no matter how skillfully you handle it, it’s going to get unpleasant. This is what in-the-trenches parenting looks and feels like.
You can hate on those moments and do everything you can to avoid them, but even the best of intentions cannot prevent the unavoidable. Moreover, trying to avoid these kinds of moments sometimes makes the experience of those moments that much worse.
Psychological science has gotten behind an ancient Buddhist notion that suggests that when we attempt to avoid discomfort, we land ourselves in a place of greater suffering. In other words, avoidance of discomfort often leads to a pain much worse than the one you were initially trying to avoid. For example, anxiously prepping for Costco to avoid disaster can make a parent pretty tightly wound, short-fused, and likely to want to pull his or her hair out when things go awry.
In contrast, being willing to make space for the discomfort can allow you to be effective and get through the discomfort with greater ease. Openness to discomfort makes the preparation for said shopping trip a little more relaxed, for one. And then when things start to get messy, you can also move through whatever excitement—or excrement—that comes up with a lot less anxiety, anger, or self-judgment.
Yet the fact is that accepting that discomfort is no fun at all.
Nevertheless, the choice is rarely between having discomfort and having no discomfort. In a warehouse with three children and one upset tummy, things are likely to get rough. You will need to take some action, most likely by abandoning that cart and herding the kids toward the bathroom. And then you’ll have to try keep the baby from licking the bathroom walls while the tummy ache gets resolved.
But here’s where the optional and artful part comes into play: You can allow yourself to get caught up in a narrative of how freaking hard parenting is and how much you wish you had just waited for the weekend so you could do the trip solo; you could even let yourself internally rail on the absentee partner who “should” have taken the load off your shoulders when they had the chance to buy all those goods this past weekend... or wish fervently that you were smart enough to put in an order on Amazon Prime before your paper goods stockpile evaporated... or think resentful thoughts about American culture for enabling your addiction to bulk goods.
Or you can focus your attention on breathing (no, not through the nose) into the difficult moment with an acceptance of the discomfort of where you are now.
The truth about parenting, and really about life, is that some moments are excruciatingly uncomfortable. But if you sustain a willingness to tolerate the discomfort, you are sometimes greeted with joy, satisfaction, or a sense of pride on the other side. Such is the gift of a willingness to be available to whatever the present moment brings.
So it’s no surprise that a vast scientific literature supports the application of mindfulness practices to real life, even the stinkier parts of real life. Mindfulness practice—that is, a willingness practice being in touch with the present moment and willingly accept the emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations that accompany that moment—are known to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress.
And guess what? Since parenting can be depressing, anxiety-provoking, and stressful, applying mindfulness techniques can be pretty useful here, too.
So the next time you are required to run an unpleasant errand with kids in tow, take the opportunity to practice your mindfulness skills. Stay in the present moment with a willingness to tolerate the discomfort of a pants-off tantrum in the cereal aisle or a Tourette’s-style freak-out at the diner.
And when those difficult moments pass, take a moment to sink yourself into the moments that follow. Often enough, those moments may be joyful. Exiting that bathroom, you might find a cool little hand reach for yours and earnestly tell you that the tummy feels better. Or you may get a sweet coo from the baby strapped to your chest. Best of all, you might have the opportunity to mindfully feel a sense of satisfaction and pride in getting through a difficult moment with three small people and one bad tummy. You are one tough parent who has earned the right to buy an oversized diet coke, the size of which can only be found in a wholesale warehouse.