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According to a study carried out in 2018, parents feel “stressed” an average of six times a day (only six?). We also spend around eight days a month feeling like we could do with some “me-time”. And since the pandemic, we’re guessing this has only got worse. We’re all even more exhausted than usual. We’re struggling with the low-level hum of anxiety that comes with living through a global pandemic while we’re trying to juggle living through everything else as well.
So what is mindfulness and how can it help us navigate this wild old ride we call parenthood?
As it’s become such a buzzword, the concept of mindfulness seems to have become a bit inflated. At its simplest, it’s about paying attention to the present moment. As parents, our to-do lists are so overrun with tasks, we’re constantly thinking about what we need to do next. This tendency to focus on the future and rush through life can exacerbate feelings of stress, while trying to be more “present” can help manage them. But it should go deeper too.
Speaking on the NHS website Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, explains that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.
“It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,” he says.
“An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs.
“Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”
Yeah, cool. That’s all well and good – but what does “mindfulness for parents” actually mean? And how do we get it into our lives when the baby is screaming, dinner’s burning and we’re trying to remember how to do long division for the 7 year old’s homework? Meditation app Headspace explains that mindful parenting is about trying to approach parenting with a “soft and open mind”.
They talk too about trying to remove the temptation to multitask, explaining: “When we multitask, rather than learning to do lots of things at once really well, we simply learn to do lots of things at once not nearly as well as we could. Bouncing back and forth between tasks when caring for children can be distracting and stressful, which is why doing a lot of things at the same time is not really in the spirit of mindfulness. We can still get things done and be efficient; we’d just approach things differently… and this is where mindful parenting comes in.”
Mindfulness for parents can take many different shapes and sizes. Ultimately, it comes back to that idea of trying not to let things run away with you and staying in the present moment. Within that, there’s a few things we can think about to help us.
Listening is a really big part of mindfulness. While it might seem like all we do is listen to our kids, it’s easy to get wrapped up in all the things we need to do ourselves. Dedicating ourselves to our little ones without doing chores or checking our work email or chatting to other grown-ups is a really good way to integrate mindful parenting into the every day.
It’s easy to forget how overwhelming and difficult it is to be a tiny human in a huge world. Showing compassion for our children and being mindful of the moments they are in is really useful. We also need to show compassion to ourselves too. This is much easier to do when we’re in the moment, rather than thinking about what we have to do tomorrow or next week. Sally Hogg and Matt Price spoke brilliantly about this in our Infant Mental Health Awareness Insta live in June.
Parenting is haaaard. There will be times when you aren’t able to be mindful. There will be times when you snap. There will be times when you are a shouty parent. There will be times when you judge yourself and your child harshly. Acceptance of all feelings, even the negative ones, is important. Recognising a feeling, then letting it pass and moving on from it, rather than being consumed by it, is a really great mindful practice. Then you can respond with patience, rather than react out of frustration and anger.
Sometimes chaos comes. There’s no avoiding it. Here are a few techniques to try when things feel a bit too much:
When difficulty shows up in your life (which it inevitably will), it can be useful to remember the acronym NAP. Sadly, we don’t mean retreating to your bed like an 18th century damsel:
Deep, belly breathing is a great way to bring in mindfulness for parents when we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Notice how you feel – physically and emotionally – after breathing deeply in this pattern.
Using your senses can be a great way to ground yourself in the moment when you feel panicky or stressed. Acknowledge:
Mindfulness isn’t for everyone and it won’t work in every situation but if we can allow ourselves to be a bit more present, a bit more forgiving and a bit kinder to ourselves, it might help us be a bit less stressed. And at the moment, anything we can do to be a bit less stressed is worth a try.