Mindful mothering

On Wednesday I gave a presentation on Nonviolent Parenting to the Morris County (West) Chapter of the Holistic Moms Network.  I’ve been working on developing this workshop for awhile and was excited to finally take it out for a test drive, and I’m pleased to report that it went great!  We had an open and enthusiastic group of moms who were really receptive and willing to put themselves out there.

One exercise that went particularly well was when I asked each mom to think of her least favorite household chore, preferably a task she does at least once daily.  (Personally, I can’t stand laundry because unless you do it naked, it’s never done!)  For example, one of the moms said that she dislikes emptying the dishwasher.  Then, I asked them to think of a way they could turn that chore into a mindfulness practice and we all brainstormed ideas for turning that into a moment of calm focus.  Some of our ideas were:

  • Take the dishes out early and notice how they are still warm
  • Notice the weight of the different dishes as you take them out and put them away
  • Listen to the sound the dishes make when they clink together, and notice if different dishes make different sounds
  • Look at each dish and notice how it is clean (or not!) before putting it away

What daily drudgery can you transform into a moment of mindfulness?

On compromise

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

Image courtesy of hiking artist.com

As part of my Certificate in Nonviolent Studies, I’ve been studying the conflicts going on in places like Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.  In almost every radio and podcast interview I’ve heard, the following question is asked:

What will it take for the two sides to reach a compromise?

I have studied the Ukraine conflict most closely, so I’ll use that as an example.  Naturally these things are always much more complicated than what you hear on the news, but in a nutshell the problem is this: ethnic Ukranians want to become more closely allied with the EU, while ethnic Russians living in Ukraine want to maintain close ties with the Kremlin.

Within this context, what would a “settlement of differences by mutual concessions” look like?   Either you are of Ukranian heritage or you are ethnically Russian.  Either you are from the city in the west or from the countryside in the east.  Either you think the economic future of Ukraine lies with the EU or you think security will come from Russia.  These things are mutually exclusive and stable.  Concessions may lead to a cease-fire, but they are unlikely to lead to a decrease in hostility.

As long as we frame this issue in such either-or terms, compromise seems impossible.  But maybe it’s all about perspective.  Looked at in a different way, maybe the chasm isn’t quite so wide.

Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing.  All Ukranians, whatever their ethnic heritage, want economic security, freedom and self-determination.  While they may have differing opinions as to how this can best be accomplished, the dispute is in the details.

What is true writ large on the global stage is also true in the microcosm of our personal relationships.  We all want the same thing out of life.  We want to feel cherished, important, worthwhile, safe, happy.

While we may choose to employ vastly different strategies for getting these needs met and we may not understand the choices other people make, we ultimately aren’t so different.

I have this conversation with my 8-year-old daughter all the time.  There is one girl at school who really rubs her the wrong way.  This girl always wants to be the center of attention, always has to one-up the other children, always has to be an expert on everything.  While I understand why Bess finds this annoying, and I don’t expect them to be BFFs, my daughter has to learn how to get along with all kinds of people.

So we talk about it.  We discuss how, just like Bess, just like all of us, this girl wants to feel special and loved.  Obviously she has decided or learned that the way to get her emotional needs met is to seek attention and approval from others by any means necessary.  We may not like or understand the behavior, but certainly we can understand the motivation.  That’s not to say that one must be willing to be a doormat.  If this girl is doing things that are hurtful or dishonest then it is okay, even necessary, to speak up.  But even though she is frustrating, doesn’t she also deserve our compassion?

And after having had this conversation eleventy thousand times, gradually, my daughter is gaining the skills she needs to compassionately deal with difficult people while demanding respect from them.

The world isn’t made up of right and wrong, me and you.  As long as we think it is, we will continue to have all sorts of unresolvable conflicts.

But when we see that the world is actually made up of 7 billion other people who are just like me these conflicts become manageable and compromise becomes truly possible.  Maybe all those people don’t look, talk, act, eat, or worship like me, but they are just like me in the ways that count

What we’re reading: What Does It Mean To Be Present?

presentI’m a day late on Children’s Book Week but I hope you will forgive me!

I work in the school library on Fridays, and the best thing about that is that I get to peruse the shelves and get an idea of what is new and popular in the world of children’s literature. If I knew when I was starting out in my adult life what I know now I would have been a children’s librarian. Ah, well, there’s still time for that….

Anyway, a few weeks ago there was a new series on the shelf by Rana DiOrio, “What does it mean to be….?” and the one that particularly caught my eye was What Does It Mean To Be Present? Usually I am underwhelmed by books that try to teach children lofty concepts like presence and environmentalism (a notable exception, The Peace Book by Todd Parr, is one of my favorite children’s books ever written ever). I find that they are usually very preachy and over-simplify things to the point of missing the real truth of their subject. I usually prefer story books that get at these lessons in a more oblique way, like The Forgiveness Garden or Max’s Words.

But this one I love. The illustrations by Eliza Wheeler are and adorable and pleasingly understated while profoundly enhancing the concepts for young children. Harry spent a long time studying the page about “focusing on what’s happening now, instead of thinking about what’s next”, noticing how the girl in the picture was half-heartedly working on her school work while gazing longingly at the playground outside. The book shows instead of tells, presenting examples of presence that are meaningful and doable for children such as listening carefully, tasting your food while you eat slowly, practicing gratitude, and enjoying the feel of your dog’s fur. The book is intended for children, but I know plenty of adults – myself included! – who would benefit from the lessons it contains.

We purchased the NOOK Kids Read-to-Me version of the book and my kids love listening to the child narrator whose voice makes the concepts all that much more accessible for them. And if you need one more thing to love about this book, the publisher, Little Pickle Press (founded and run by Rana DiOrio) is a Certified B Corporation with a commitment to social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. (If you were looking to buy a dead tree copy of the book you can order directly from the publisher, or my favorite book seller, Better World Books, which is a Certified B Corporation as well.)

The future of the world passes through the family

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

The future of the world…passes through the family. ~ Pope John Paul II

Actually the full quote is, “The future of the world and the church passes through the family.” Though I’m not concerned with the future of the church (all due respect to those who are), the recognition that the future is determined by what goes on in our homes is extremely compelling.

Compelling, and a little intimidating.

I chose parenthood and entered into it with the benefit of personal, marital and financial stability. I actively prepared for it and continue to make it my priority. Still, I feel unequal to the task of nurturing two future changemakers. I make mistakes every day. I lose my temper and raise my voice. I work more than I should, and spend less time with my kids than they deserve. I don’t feed them enough fruits and veggies, and sometimes we have pizza three times in a week.

But at least I have a road map when it comes to my own family; I have an idea of what I want to accomplish. My obligation to my own family is clear to the extent that my goals are clear. What is significantly less clear to me is my obligation to the community at large. It is not my responsibility – indeed, not my right – to tell others how to live. Yet I have a deep conviction that our world would be a much better place if people developed a more peaceful approach to life, and I want to facilitate that shift.

If I want to see non-violence in the world, how can I support other families as well as my own?

I work hard to practice non-violence as I understand it. I encourage my own children to do the same. But we are just one small family, and while our family is important I want to do more.

On my home altar, I have the above message from Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace in oneself, peace in the world. On the one surface it seems obvious, hardly worth stating even, that peace on a large scale begins with individual people making individual choices that support peace. But this is one of those teachings that has layers of meaning that are peeled away the more you sit with it. Taken to a deeper level, peace is more than the absence of overt violence, and cultivating a peaceful heart has more subtle and more profound effect than simply refraining from causing obvious injury to another.

Recently I was listening to a lecture by MIchael Nagler on non-violence and mirror neurons. Neuroscientists have found that we have neurons that behave the same way when we do something as when we watch someone else do it, which helps explain why we feel nervous when someone checks out the strange noise in a horror movie and we cry when we see a Kleenex commercial.

I understand this as an anatomical or physiological underpinning of “vibes”. When I am around someone who is stressed out, I feel stressed. Spending time around someone who is angry leaves me feeling a bit angry myself. But when I am with someone who is peaceful and centered, I take a bit of that with me. My own state of mind is impacted by the people around me.

But it works the other way, too: we impact the states of mind of others. In this way, we can promote peace with everyone we meet without saying a word. If we walk in the world with peace in our hearts and minds, others people’s mirror neurons will reflect that and they will feel a bit more peaceful than they otherwise would have. The more we elevate the level of peace in ourselves, the more it is elevated in the people around us, and around them, and around the world.

How will you boost the peace factor in the world today?

The $64,000 Question of Attachment Parenting

courtesy of flickr user kenleyneufeld

courtesy of flickr user kenleyneufeld

I talk about Attachment Parenting a lot. I lead an API support group, and I’ve given talks to numbers of moms’ groups locally and internationally.

I’ve noticed that when I give my talks, someone pretty much always asks some permutation of this question: “I hear what you are saying, I’ve read lots of books, and I love the idea of AP. But still when my buttons are pushed, I can’t help but react out of habit by [yelling, or guilting, or punishing, or whatever]. It is so frustrating! How do you DO it? Tell me how to BE an Attachment Parent!”

I have come to think of this as the $64,000 Question of Attachment Parenting.

This has been my answer in the past:

  1. Really, you never DO it in the sense that you never achieve perfection. Or at least I haven’t. Give yourself some love because the fact that you are working to create a home environment that is in line with your values of mutual respect and love is really awesome.
  2. AP is not a set of techniques but a way of living and interacting with other people in general and our children in particular. (I always feel like a loser when I give this answer. People want to know what they should do and I’m not telling them! They came for answers, and I’m giving them nothing!) Playful parenting and talking so our kids will listen and all the rest are tools we keep in our toolbox and take out when we think they will help us connect with our kids. They are ideas we can use to help us connect from moment to moment. They are not “Attachment Parenting”.
  3. It takes time. For awhile, you will learn about AP and sill continue to react out of habit by yelling or punishing or whatever. Then one day you’ll be in the middle of a habitual reaction, and you’ll stop yourself. Finally one day, your child will do something that would normally set you off and you’ll do something calm and connected and loving and brilliant and the seed of a new habit will be planted and it will feel great. (And then five minutes later you’ll do something out of habit again and realize how much work you still have in front of you.)

As I’ve gone on my own journey – through life, through marriage, through parenting, and through Attachment Parenting – I’ve come to realize that all this can be summed up in one word:

MINDFULNESS

Attachment Parenting, and non-violent living, is a commitment to be mindful of our own habits and triggers, of our child’s (and spouse’s, and friends’, and the guy standing behind us in line at the grocery store’s) habits and triggers, and of how those two interact. It is a parenting/life philosophy that demands of us the willingness and the ability to look hard at ourselves so we can create space between stimulus and response in order to come closer to those around us.

In NVC, they call this the difference between reacting and responding.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this does not come naturally to me. My habit is to react, but I am working very hard to cultivate the ability to respond. Through hours spent in meditation, and hours spent studying Nonviolent Communication, I have been able to more clearly see my habits of mind, which create my habits of behavior. Slowly, I have been able to push open a crack of light where I can stop defining myself by my reactions. Instead of “I am frustrated”, more often I think “Right now I feel frustrated. This too shall pass”. It may not seem like a big difference, but I assure you, it’s huge. Life changing, even.

The next time someone asks me the $64,000 Question of AP, I will have a better, or at least a more efficient, answer. I will say:

The key to successful Attachment Parenting is introducing some sort of mindfulness practice to your life so that you can begin to recognize your habits and replace them with something new.

Do you have a mindfulness practice? Has it affected your relationships? How?

On motivation and ego

Photo courtesy of flickr user JasonUnbound

Photo courtesy of flickr user JasonUnbound

Yesterday I met with two moms who are going through the process of becoming Attachment Parenting International leaders and will soon be co-leading the Skylands API New Jersey group with me. (Hooray!!) We spent a lovely couple of hours at the county library chatting about all things AP while three of the kids played and the infant slept.

Together we laughed about how we give babies voices, like when he is crying and we try this and that and the other thing and finally get the crying to stop, and we say something like, “Finally! I thought you’d never figure it out! Just because you’re cold when it’s 75 degrees doesn’t mean I need to be dressed like an Inuit!” We mused about whether or not there is a word for that.

If anthropomorphism is attributing human characteristics to a non-human animal or entity, what is the term for an adult putting words into a baby’s mouth?

Because I have nothing better to do, or because the nerd in me loves an entomological challenge, I gave this a fair amount of thought. I think the term would be pedomorphism, or the retention by an adult of juvenile characteristics. But I’m open to suggestion.

So then I started to think, what would the word be for describing the reverse situation, attributing adult characteristics or motivations to a child? After all, it happens all the time so we really should have a word for it. A baby cries and we describe her as being impatient. A toddler has a tantrum and we describe him as manipulative. A preschooler wants to wear a bathing suit to school in February and we describe her as stubborn. The second we sit down to read our child asks for a snack and we describe him as inconsiderate.

Of course, none of these things is true. They are simply being children, driven by ego.

But we tell ourselves these stories, and it puts distance between us and our children. We interpret their age-appropriate behavior through the lens of adult emotions and motivations, and we get angry and frustrated. That’s not to say that we aren’t responsible to teach them consideration, honesty, patience and flexibility. Of course we introduce these characteristics in an appropriate way over time so that eventually they grow to be adults who are kind and pleasant to be around. But words like “manipulative” and “inconsiderate” are loaded, and they make a lot of assumptions.

Children are simply trying to get their needs met. Nothing more, nothing less.*

I wonder what would happen if, when we see these judgements arise, we do a little rephrasing. Instead of “She is being manipulative”, we tell ourselves “I feel manipulated.” What is that about for me? What is the story? Maybe I am thinking something like, “She doesn’t trust me to meet her needs, and that’s why she is manipulating me instead of being honest. I’m a bad mother.” Or maybe it’s something like, “She does not care about me at all. I do so much for her, and all she cares about is what she wants.” I could be, “Everything has to be a struggle with her all the time. Why can’t she just take no for an answer?”

Try it, and let me know how it goes.

*Of course, this is true of everyone! But ideally with age comes maturity and consideration….

My personal war on “Attachment Parenting”

Image courtesy of Flickr user christyscherrer

Image courtesy of Flickr user christyscherrer

I am an Attachment Parenting International leader.  I’ve read the books.  I’ve studied the research.  I believe wholeheartedly in Bowlby’s theory that a baby human needs to have her primary attachment figure(s) nearby in order to ensure survival, and the extent to which she is able to accomplish this goal defines, to a large degree, her ability to have stable relationships throughout her lifetime.

I just don’t like the term “Attachment Parenting”.

Only recently did I figure out why it bugs me so much.  One clue came from a recent article in the Huffington Post, “Why I Am a Detachment Parent”.  While the article is riddled with hyperbole, the description of attachment parenting as “masochism” really struck me.

I have found AP to be the easy way.  Who wants to be tied down to the house during nap time every day when your kid could just sleep in a wrap while you go about your business?  Why deal with a baby screaming for a lost pacifier when you could pop in a boob?  If some parents are over the top, that is less about Attachment Parenting and more about the parent.  AP is about meeting the needs of all family members – including, but not limited to, the children.  Parents’ needs are important too, they are just not more important than the needs of the child.  I am baffled by the proud assertion of parental detachment.

It all became clear to me when I read a quote from the Dalai Lama:

“Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.”

When most people hear the word “attachment”, they don’t think of Attachment Theory.  Most people  I’ve met, even those who identify themselves as AP,  have no idea what that is.  ”Attachment” connotes codependency, clinging, smothering, and that is a big turnoff for many people.

But there is a third choice in between attachment and detachment, and that is equanimity.

I think it’s obvious that all healthy parent-child relationships involve some degree of attachment.  Otherwise, why bother?  But instead of being attached to a particular outcome for the child or the relationship, we accept what is true now for this child in this place and time.  I want certain things for my children but I work to accept, to the best of my deeply flawed ability, that they are their own people with their own lives to live.  I hope to have close relationships with them as adults, but all I can do for them is offer them my unconditional love and presence and tell them that they are fundamentally valued and cherished, and then let go.

When Bess was a baby, she wanted me and only me all the time.  She would not take a bottle, she would not sleep for more than 90 minutes at a stretch, and she cried frequently at high volume.

Yes, I lost sleep.  Yes, it was outrageously stressful.  But you know what?  It passed.

Now we have a great relationship where she is willing to talk to me, and I am able to help her.  (We shall see what happens during the teen years…)  She trusts that I am there for her even when the timing is inconvenient or she has ugly things to say. Would we have had the same kind of relationship if I were a 7 am to 7 pm parent?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  And Harry, who was parented the same way, is totally different.  It’s just the way they came into this world.

This begs the question: if not “Attachment Parenting”, then what?

Equanimous Parenting is really hard to spell.  Respectful Parenting?  Peaceful Parenting?  They’ve been used.  Mindful Parenting?  I think Humane Parenting comes close.

I’m currently leaning toward “Nonviolent Parenting”.

I like “Nonviolent Parenting” because it goes so much deeper and speaks to a fundamental starting point of a deep and abiding love for all beings without judgement.

Do you have a good alternative to the term “Attachment Parenting”?  Do you think we need one?

You are already perfect

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AlicePopkorn

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AlicePopkorn

During last week’s dharma talk, the sensei at the zendo I have been attending shared a quote.  I wish I could remember it exactly, but it was something like, “We do not sit zazen to attain enlightenment.  We sit zazen to express our innate enlightenment.”  In other words, the purpose of sitting zazen is simply to discover the perfection, the spark of wisdom and compassion, that is already within all of us.

You know how sometimes words come together in just the right way, so that something you’ve heard a million times suddenly makes sense?  This was one of those moments.

I grew up in the Lutheran church, and I’m sure it’s no different from other Christian traditions in that it teaches Original Sin. We are born sinners and we need to work to overcome our sinful nature.  In the words of Martin Luther himself:

But what, then, is original sin? According to the Apostle it is not only the lack of a good quality in the will, nor merely the loss of man’s righteousness and ability. It is rather the loss of all his powers of body and soul, of his whole outward and inward perfections. In addition to this, it is his inclination to all that is evil, his aversion against that which is good, his antipathy against light and wisdom, his love for error and darkness, his flight from and his loathing of good works, and his seeking after that which is sinful.

Yikes!

But what if we replaced Original Sin with Innate Perfection?  What if we are actually good people trying to find ways to express our goodness?  How would it change the way we see ourselves, the way we see other people, the way we relate to each other, the way we operate in the world?  How would it change the way we raise our children?  What if we saw our jobs as parents not to break our children of their tendency towards badness, but to nurture the expression of their inherent goodness?

It would be an interesting experiment to notice how often in one day we chose to operate from a different paradigm.  What would that kind of day look like?

  • When we get cut off in traffic, instead of thinking, “What a jerk!” we think, “Wow, that person is really in a hurry!  I hope everything is okay.”
  • When we feel taken for granted by our children, instead of thinking, “They don’t appreciate all the work I do for them!” we think, “I’m so glad that my kids feel like they can count on me to take care of them.  I guess I’m doing something right.”
  • When someone at work snaps at us for no reason, instead of getting defensive and snapping back, we say, “It seems like something is bothering you.  Do you want to talk?”
  • When we meet someone new and he starts listing his credentials and accomplishments, instead of thinking, “Egomaniac!” we think, “It sounds like he’s looking for some respect.”
  • When we are feeling manipulated by a friend, instead of thinking, “Does she think I don’t see what she’s doing?  I’m not an idiot!” we think, “It seems like she feels like she can’t trust me enough to be honest with me.  I wonder what that’s about for her.”
  • When someone bumps into us on the street, instead of thinking, “Hellooooo!  There are other people on this planet, you know!” we think, “Wow, it looks like she has a lot on her mind.”

Try it.  I dare you.  Take one day, and assume positive intent and inherent goodness in everyone you meet.  Let me know how it goes.

Scary moments in parenting

anaphylaxis in young children

Image courtesy of Flickr user Rolf Larsen

Hello all!  It’s been awhile…life has gotten crazy busy these last few weeks, but I’m looking forward to things slowing down a bit in the next week or so.

In the meantime, please check out my essay that was posted over at The Momoir Project:

[Bess] was playing with blocks on the living room floor while I loaded the dishwasher in the next room. Her piercing shriek brought me running. I found my daughter lying on the ground, face swollen beyond recognition, desperately clawing at her sausage tongue. With that inner calm that people find in moments like this, I picked up the phone. I dialed 911.

“What is your emergency?” I was the picture of composure.

“My daughter appears to be having an allergic reaction and is not breathing.”

Read the whole thing here.

Kids say the funniest things

kids say the funniest things

At a birthday party recently, Harry took a moment out of the action to pose for a photo op. He thinks he's awfully cute.

So busy!  We were in Washington, D.C. for almost a week, and work has been crazy, and Bess has been sick…and I’ve had no time to write!

And there’s so much I want to write about, too.  Our trip to D.C. provided much food for non-violent parenting thought, I’ve finished two books I want to review (both novels, unusual for me), there have been some interesting articles and blog posts that beg commentary, and I also read Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams (it’s free, you can download it in every format imaginable here).  Alas, all those things will have to wait for another day when I have some free moments to put together a coherent thought.

In the meantime…more funny things my kids have said recently:

  • John: “Harry, have you brushed your teeth yet?”  Harry: “I brush my teeth on Thursday, Tuesday and Sunday.  Is it one of those days?”
  • Harry has had a cold, and whenever he sneezes he runs around the house saying “Snot alert!” which sounds like “Snot aloit!”  And then, usually, he wipes his snot on my shirt.
  • The other day, my mom put Harry in the bath and then went home.  When I started taking the toys out of the bath so I could wash him and get him out of the tub, he reprimanded me: “No, Mommy!  Oma (pronounced Oooh-ma) put those in here for FUN!”
  • Bess wanted Harry to get out of her bed, so she said: “Here’s the rule, no boys allowed in my bed!”  I thought this to be a most excellent rule.  But then she amended it to “No boys allowed in my bed except Daddy and Evan”.  Evan is her friend across the street.  This is a significantly less excellent version of the rule.  I suspect that we will have to revisit that rule in approximately ten years, specifically as it relates to Evan.
  • Harry asked me the other day: “Remember when the police came and Bessie was a little bit arrested?”  I still have no idea what he was talking about; I do not recall Bess ever having been arrested, a little bit or otherwise.
  • Over the weekend, Harry was supremely uncooperative and I may have become uncharacteristically impatient at a few points in time.  After he lay in bed for an hour chatting me up and I was desperate to go to sleep, I may have asked him in a less-than-pleasant tone to stop talking and go to sleep; the next morning, when I needed to go to work and he refused to put his shoes on after approximately seven hundred billion requests, I may have made my request a bit louder.  So Sunday night he had one of his epic meltdowns, spearing me with a hockey stick and throwing toys at my head.  When I finally got him to calm down, he said: “Mommy, remember when you yelled at me last night?  I didn’t like that.  And remember when you yelled at me this morning?  I didn’t like that either.  Now that we’ve had this little talk, I feel much better and now I am sleepy.”  And he rolled over.  And he went to sleep.