Q: I love my daughter, but I’ve had a lot of anxiety since she’s been born. I’m busy day and night, and yet I feel unproductive. I can’t keep up with the house, which I feel bad about, though people tell me not to. Then I feel guilty that I’m thinking about the dirty dishes when I’m supposed to be “enjoying every minute” with her. How do you balance the two?
A: I totally could have written this question when my first born was little.
In fact, it’s probably why I became a life coach: to learn how to be happy in the life I had — needy children, endless chores, my own restless ambition, and all.
I think the first thing to know is that this period of your life is actually finite. That’s what those people who tell you to “enjoy every minute” really mean. They know it because they’ve lived it: their children grew up. When things turn out well – when children become independent and likable – it’s human nature to minimize the hard times and remember mostly the good.
The trouble is, you don’t know that yet. You haven’t lived it, and – try as we might – it just isn’t possible to learn from someone else’s experience. You don’t know how you’re going to get through it and how it will end. That’s where your anxiety is coming from.
The second thing, then, is to acknowledge the truth of your experience: you cannot in early motherhood think and plan and do the way you did before you had your baby. It’s one of the biggest, most disorienting, and least anticipated transitions thrust on new mothers.
In your pre-baby life, you realize now, you had almost total freedom and were surrounded by other free people. After the birth, however, your life revolves around the tiny (adorable) creature of ever-refreshing, urgent need. Your freedom is gone.
Or is it? You cannot change the circumstances: your baby really does need you most of the time and there really are chores to do to maintain your life.
But there are ways to change how you think about your circumstances, and that makes all the difference to your sense of well-being.
I want to share with you one way, mindfulness, and a few suggestions to implement it in your life right now, to ease your anxiety and increase your feelings of enjoyment.
What is Mindfulness and Why Do I Want to Practice It?
Mindfulness is the full-sensory non-judgmental observation of life.
Scientific studies show that mindfulness is associated with decreased stress and increased feelings of peace and connection – something that experienced meditators have known for centuries.
We achieve this state easily when encountering something novel and powerful, such as a spectacular sunset, the first bite of a delicious dish, and romantic attraction.
Our body and our minds are efficiency experts and novelty-seekers, however. When we are in familiar surroundings, doing familiar tasks, around familiar people, we slip out of mindfulness and onto autopilot instead. We leave the present and drift into a review of the past or imagining the future.
This can be a breeding ground for anxiety, however, as your question indicates. The trick is to find the novel in the familiar.
Easy Mindfulness Moments for Busy Parents
Here are a few suggestions for incorporating mindfulness into your day.
It seems sometimes that feeding your children, whether from breast, bottle, or bowl, is just about all you do. Let it be a time – like the meditation bell or call to prayer – to be present, if just for five minutes, each time you sit down. Breastfeeding releases powerful feel-good hormones, creating a positive addiction that bonds you and baby together. Pay attention and take advantage! If you have an older child, do you pop up and start cleaning up as soon as you put food in front of him? Why not sit with him a few minutes and watch – without judgment – how he enjoys his food with all his senses. Notice his pincer grasp or spoon work. What difference does that make?
When your child wakes from a nap or walks in the room
Someone once told me that your face when you see your child is how your child will see himself. Allow yourself to be delighted at the sight of her. Notice how delighted she is by the sight of you. Take two minutes to take her in with all your senses.
Dressing, including putting on shoes and coats to go out
These events can be chronic pains if you try to rush them, or daily delights if you allow them to be on child time and led by your child. (I wrote about this last week).
Experiment with dropping your agenda about how these things should be accomplished. For baby and child these tasks are novel and full of practices to be mastered. Notice your child’s choices and what she’s able to do for herself. (Is she like this spunky girl, who I cannot stop watching?)
Watching baby play
When my firstborn was little, I usually rushed away the minute she was happily playing by herself, so I could get things done. But when my son was born, I was tethered to the living room sofa breastfeeding him, and I finally noticed my daughter play.
To watch her curiosity at work, to see how absorbed she was, to really listen to her little voice in self-chat and song, took my breath away. They were timeless, precious moments, among the happiest of my life. I’m so grateful I was forced to discover them.
Reflection and planning are certainly important in adult life, and I’m not advocating that you abandon them. However, if you’re feeling more stressed out than joyful, it may be a sign that the balance between planning and presence is off.
Mindfulness can help restore it.