Mindfulness is getting a lot of press in parenting circles -- and with good reason. If practiced and developed, adults (and, yes, parents) can enjoy a calmer, more relaxed life. But what is mindfulness? U.K.-based author and mother of three Amber Hatch describes it as "the quality of mind when we have an awareness of what is happening in the present moment." Even more interesting, she notes: "All parents use and experience mindfulness -- even if they have never heard of the word."
Hatch's new book, Mindfulness for Parents, introduces the concept, explains what it is, how to get started, and how its practice -- and that of daily meditation -- can help adults:
* Stay calm in a crisis * Feel more connected to their children * Be patient * Keep a sense of perspective, and much more.
Your bio says you began practicing Buddhist meditation seven years ago. Was this before or after you had your first child? What drew you to daily meditation?
I began practicing Buddhist meditation when my first child was 18 months old. (Hatch is mother to 8-year-old Morrigan, 5-year-old Dougal, and 10-week-old Rowena.) Becoming a parent caused a paradigm shift in my outlook and sense of self. I became very open to different ideas and perspectives, and I wanted to try to make sense of the changes I was already undergoing. Someone handed me a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace is Every Step when my little girl was just over a year. The concept of mindfulness made so much sense to me, and not long after that I found a meditation class to join. Looking back I had already been intuitively meditating whilst I put her to sleep each night -- but formal meditation, and a clear path to follow in the form of Buddhist teaching, added a whole other dimension for me.
How do mindfulness and meditation work together?
Mindfulness is the quality of mind when we bring awareness to our present moment experience. Everybody experiences mindfulness at times. Meditation is what we do when we set out with the intention to keep raising mindfulness, to keep coming back to the present moment. We can do this formally -- perhaps sitting for 20 minutes with our eyes closed using breath as a guide; or informally -- as we wash the dishes. The more often we practice it, the easier it is to call it up. During meditation we can also raise other positive qualities alongside our mindfulness, such as calm and concentration, and feelings of love and goodwill.
In the book, you share the birth story of your first child and how it sparked your awareness of how powerful mindfulness is. How did you get from that watershed moment to writing a book about how it can aid parents?
Because of that special experience in labor, mindfulness and parenting have always been bound together for me, and I've spent an awful lot of time exploring how they intertwine. This is the book that I wanted to read myself -- but I couldn't find one. When I first thought about writing the book I wasn't sure if I was qualified enough. But then I realized that I was qualified to write honestly about my own experiences and insights. And I've had the good fortune to explore the subject with other parents on the family retreats and meditation groups that I am involved with. Once I started writing I realized I had a lot to say, and I began to feel confident that other people could find my perspective useful.
Your first labor sounded very traditional -- painful and scary -- until you embraced the moment. After practicing mindfulness, what were your second and third labor experiences like?
I had a really well-established daily meditation practice by the time I was pregnant with my second child. I was expecting to have a similarly special -- or perhaps even more profound -- experience during childbirth this time round. I remember my meditation teacher warning me that it wasn't going to be the same. He was right -- it wasn't! But I had a wonderful labor and birth anyway. All three of my children have been born at home in a pool (home births are well supported here in the UK). I'm sure the meditation practice helped me to let go and allow the contractions to do their work, also to fully rest and relax in between. In fact, with my third baby -- who was born only two months ago, I felt so relaxed and normal during my labor that we were a bit late ringing the midwife, and she only arrived a minute before my daughter was born!
Parenting in a child's first year, even from the first labor contraction, can be an exercise in chaos, especially for first-time parents. Yet saying that embracing mindfulness, surrendering to and accepting that moment at hand, will yield calm and peace seems very contradictory. What do you say to parents who seem skeptical of what seem like two polar opposite states of being (parenthood and calm, peaceful living)?
Ha, ha, yes -- parenting can certainly be chaotic! I'm afraid mindfulness won't automatically make your house quiet and orderly. What it can bring you is a sense of space and calm inside yourself so that although you'll still hear all the noise and see the mess, it won't trigger you in quite the same way.
Does practicing mindfulness as a parent help a person feel more control, in what can seem like an out-of-control time?
I'm not sure I would describe mindfulness as helping parents feel more in control -- it's more about being OK with not being in control. Allowing yourself to see things as they are and not try to make them anything else. But it's not about being passive, either. When we choose to accept reality, that's actually very empowering.
Mindfulness centers around being in the moment, yet mothers are seemingly required to be professional multitaskers. How can those co-exist?
I talk about this in my book. Yes, as parents we often have to do more than one thing -- especially if we have two or more children. But that doesn't mean we can't be mindful. When we have a lot going on, that's when mindfulness is most useful.
You write: "I have continually found that when I stop fighting reality and start accepting it, then everything goes a whole lot more smoothly." That's a powerful statement. Why do you think parents fight reality so hard and why is what you advocate such a radical idea?
It's not just parents who fight reality -- we all do it at times when things don't appear to be going our way. When we resist reality we get frustrated, annoyed, or upset. The problem is this doesn't tend to help us. With more mindfulness it's easier to see what needs to be done in any particular situation. It helps us stay calm so we can make choices that move things in the right direction. I'm not sure if this is radical -- it's just common sense. But perhaps what's new to some people is the idea that this is something we can cultivate. We can get better at doing it. It means we don't have to be a victim of circumstance.
What would surprise parents the most about mindfulness and parenting?
At first it can feel like a big effort to keep coming back to the present moment. But over time, it can become a way of being. Being in the present moment becomes a kind of refuge, a place where we can feel comfortable and replenish. I think that's hard to see for a newcomer. It has to be experienced to be understood.
Parents are habitually pressed for time. Why should they make time for meditation and why is it worth it?
Mindfulness can be practiced at anytime throughout the day, so that's not something we have to set aside time for. However, formal meditation is very beneficial as it kind of "tops us up" with mindfulness. It makes it much easier to access that quality throughout the rest of the day. At periods, for example, when you are parenting a newborn, it may not be possible to manage formal meditation. But if you can make a bit of time -- even if it's only 5 or 10 minutes, then that's worth doing. I think it's something people have to experiment with and find out for themselves how much of a difference it will make.
Embracing mindfulness and beginning a meditation practice may seem daunting to busy parents, who rarely get to put their desires first. How could one start without feeling overwhelmed?
I think it's really important that mindfulness isn't seen as something we "ought to do" and beat ourselves up about if we forget. It's there to help us get more out of parenting (and, in fact, life in general) -- not something we should feel guilty about. We can gradually incorporate it into our everyday lives, rather than have it as something on the "to-do" list. One way of doing this might be to make an intention to be mindful every time we do a specific task, such as read our child a story. Then we can extend our mindfulness practice to other activities throughout the day.
In my book I've explored how mindfulness can be applied throughout different aspects of parenting. I hope that reading it will inspire parents to consider how it can be of use in their own families. Ultimately, it's a resource that we can draw on. When something helps us, it becomes easier to make more of a commitment to it.