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There are many paths to transformation, all of them hard and none superior to any other. I labored industriously as a student, relentlessly as a military officer, and tirelessly as a schoolteacher. But nothing changed me like motherhood.

I recently wrote admiringly about the French approach to mothering that I encountered in Pamela Druckerman’s book Bringing Up Bébé.

Cross-cultural comparisons can wake us up to other ways of living. I would love American mothers to take a page from the French and reclaim their sexiness and have more faith in the ability of babies to sleep and of young children to dine. Not because those things are morally superior, but because I see so many American mothers suffer over them. I suffered over them.

But sometimes suffering isn’t all bad. Mixed in with love, adequate resources, and abundant joy, the endless feedings and exhaustion of early motherhood can be transmuted into a spiritual path that turns you into someone new.

How Can Motherhood Be a Spiritual Path?

Spiritual paths share these characteristics.

Undoing of the Ego. When a religious initiate is received into an order, she sheds the outward appearance of her old life: her hair is shorn, and she relinquishes possessions and social ties. The old dies so the new can be born.

Becoming a mother is similarly disorienting and humbling.  When your baby is born, you leave your old life, little of which prepared you for the work, solitariness, and encompassing responsibility you feel. It can be painful at first to lose your bearings so completely. 

But, like the spiritual novice, the sooner you surrender to the changes, the more clearly you see the beauty of their simplicity. You release your pride and find joy in the next two elements of your practice.

An Inscrutable, Tireless, and Loving Teacher. In religious life, it’s a spiritual master. In motherhood, it’s your baby. 

Our culture teaches us really well how to work hard, mind the clock, and achieve! But babies arrive unsocialized and remind us of our basic nature. Fully present in the body and free from judgment, they ask for what they need – food, comfort, and closeness – without self-consciousness. After those are needs met, insatiable curiosity and desire for mastery lead them to play and play. . . until they need to rest, again, without self-consciousness. 

Their presence in the moment reintroduces us to wonders we have stopped seeing. Their full-body engagement with the world is magnetic and reminds us who we are.

Rigorous Discipline. One aspect of discipline is repetition. The cycles of repetition in mothering can be mind numbing. In spiritual practice, repeated mantras and rote prayers are mind numbing, too. That’s the point. A still mind is a portal to another level of consciousness.

Another aspect of discipline is the surrender of personal choice. You do the work in front of you because it needs to be done and because your teacher tells you to. When the bell rings at 4 a.m. for morning prayers, you get up. When the baby cries at 4 a.m. to be fed, you get up. 

For once in your adult life, you just do, without argument. Like repetition, surrendered doing is a portal to another level of consciousness.

Sacredness in the Mundane. Like the spiritual initiate, you submit to this rigorous discipline not to punish yourself. You do it for love. 

Love infuses with sacredness the mundane that now utterly preoccupies you. Sacredness and your baby’s magnetism combine to pull you into the moment. You’re surprised to discover one day that you look forward to the midnight feedings and diaper changes.

This bewilders people who don’t have children. From the outside it looks like some kind of tedious bondage. On the inside it often feels a lot like bliss.

Becoming a Mother

In a culture where everything associated with the care of children and the home is low-status and poorly paid (when it is paid at all), seeing motherhood as a spiritual practice elevated it for me. It kept me humble and learning, gave me strength when I want to give up, gave context and meaning to the mundane, and testified to the value that I got from being a mother, which was – is – so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Maybe it could do the same for you.

I know that enlightenment is not the primary concern of mothers. Our children are. Nevertheless, love for my children compelled self-sacrifice that has transformed me into someone I like better: a mother. 

I’ll take parenting notes from the French. It’s good to be reminded of forgotten possibilities. But as for the path I’ve already taken, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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