- Equanimity is calmness and composure in the face of difficult circumstances.
- Equanimity is a trainable skill.
- Self-care and self-compassion are essential to one's well-being.
A Mother’s Day Lesson in Equanimity and Caregiving
I have a burning desire to call my mother every day but more so on Mother’s Day. Our home phone rested on the counter in the kitchen, and Mom was always close by, usually sitting at her command post on a chair in the kitchen, muddling through a word puzzle or prepping a meal. I don’t remember Mom before she was slowed down and changed by multiple sclerosis. She died 36 years ago when she was 55, but her many lessons informed me.
She taught me to love bird watching and kept a list, carefully written in pencil, of the species she’d seen at her feeder and in the backyard from her perch in the kitchen. She marveled at the occasional bald eagle soaring above the tall maple trees and out over the lake. An avid gardener, she grew a cascade of fragrant and colorful flowers. She gifted me with a love of cooking and kept her best recipes tucked away in a box full of 3x5 index cards I now own. Mom was my first caregiver, a skill she passed on to me and one I now freely share with others.
I’ve learned to respect Mom’s many gifts, to admire her more deeply, and to be more curious about who she was before she had kids and before her diagnosis. Finding her journal buried in a storage container from a trip she took between her junior and senior year at Pembroke College (the women’s division of Brown University) in 1952 told more of her premarital story. In careful cursive handwriting, she wrote about needing to be awake for the first sighting of land from their ocean liner at dawn and about not wanting to miss the chance to hike up a glacier in Norway even though her only footwear was a pair of leather penny-loafers. She wrote about the men she danced with at the gala party onboard. She wrote about her dreams.
I wondered about the color and style of the dress she wore to the dance or if she kissed her dance partner. I wondered if she felt awe at the beauty of the Arctic glacier. I never knew that version of her, but reading her brief account of her journey in her own words brought me closer.
Finding and Training Equanimity
Recently I’ve learned that her biggest gift was less tangible but more powerful. It was her ability to meet the challenge of and accept living with a chronic, incurable, and unpredictable illness. Mom suffered privately, but her gentle outward composure is what I recall most and what I lean into during times of stress. This capacity helped me as an elite athlete at the starting line of the Olympic Games—once in speed skating and once in cycling. It helped me in the doctor’s office when my husband was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s Disease. And it helps me today.
Mom found equanimity as a way of being in the changing, dynamic landscape of her life. Equanimity is a noun describing calm composure in the face of adversity. I didn’t realize mine until I listened to the meditation teacher and author Jeff Warren speak about equanimity through his Daily Trip series on the Calm meditation app. I understood intuitively that I had been leaning into this for a very long time.
In his blog on the Core Skills of Meditation and Practice, Warren writes, "Equanimity is the skill of non-interference, of allowing self and world to be exactly what they are in a given moment." The skill is trainable, and requires practice. Letting our thoughts exist without judgement or resistance is the goal. I’ve seen first-hand how equanimity plays into acceptance of—and living with—the hard stuff. Perhaps it was Mom’s Quaker upbringing that granted her this capacity, or it was a survival tactic borne out of the disabilities wrought by the uncontrollable disease, but I understand now how Mom’s equanimity helped her manage suffering by finding grace in good and bad times.
As an elite endurance athlete, I relied on my breath to fill my lungs and provide oxygen to hard-working muscles. My internal drive pushed me to endure the suffering I brought on myself to be a successful athlete. No longer competitive, I still find observing my breath to be a reliable tool in quieting my overactive mind, and it helps me cultivate what sometimes feels like infinite patience as a care partner. When I speak to other caregivers, I invite them to join me in taking a breath, to bring us together in our shared labor. This simple act of taking a calming moment reminds us, too, of the eloquent simplicity of self-care and puts us on the road to self-compassion.
Parents are the ultimate original caregivers. As the second of four children, I was on the receiving end of years of care. Caring for our children required enormous time and energy and was often frustrating and frightening. Our kids are grown adults and now close friends and allies, who have found their center of calm when stressed through their own practice. Now, during times of personal stress, those same kids are the ones who ask me to take a breathe, to stay calm. Sometimes they ask me to reconsider my word choices, to help modulate my reaction to events beyond my control. It’s their way of caring for me, and when they do, I’m reminded of my role in caring for them and how much we care for each other.
Caring is the essence of who we are as humans. I can’t call Mom on Mother’s Day, but I’ll call on her many lessons and continue to care as best I can for myself and others.