Being a parent is not easy. I would say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. (I talk about this “parental paradox” in my article on “The Peaks of Parenting.”)
The challenges are great. To put it simply, being a parent takes time and energy on an order of magnitude far beyond what any non-parent could possibly understand (I certainly didn’t before I had kids!)
I am particularly challenged recently because I am busier than I have ever been (even without taking the kids into account.) I am teaching an online course on Positive Leadership through U.C. Irvine, I am in the process of publishing my school capstone thesis on “The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing” as an ebook (coming soon!), I am managing my blog and posting a new article every week, and of course I have my real job, as a corporate director of spas for a large hospitality company.
This year, my wife and I welcomed our second son into my crazy life. So we have been in the throes of those crazy first few months, when a new parent experiments with the boundaries of human functioning through sleep deprivation. The past months have been a bleary eyed blur of diaper changes, late night feeding sessions, family visits and of course occasional transcendent moments of sheer love and joy with our new baby.
And this week, my first son has been sick. So layer on to all of the above a feverish, clingy, sweaty, snotty, crying boy, who doesn’t even know what he wants–he just knows he wants something to help him feel better (this means constantly cycling through cries for “mommy”, “daddy” and “Elmo” as he tries to find comfort.)
One thing I learned since day one of being a parent, is that things don’t always go as planned. It is easy in these moments to get frustrated as deadlines loom, projects back up and the kids are clamoring for more and more attention. Sometimes it seems as though every time I’m just about to get some work done, one of the boys is needing something. It’s easy to feel as if the kids are getting in the way.
I’ve found a mindfulness exercise to be a great help during these moments. I call it “just be a parent” and it is about as simple as it sounds. When one of my children is in need, it is time for me to forget about work, projects and deadlines, and spend some time just being a parent.
Here’s how it works:
1. I put away whatever else I’m doing and invite myself to participate in whatever my son wants to do. For my older son that might mean reading a book, playing with blocks or watching Sesame Street and fast forwarding through all the parts that don’t feature Elmo. My younger son might need a diaper or a cuddle or a song. It doesn’t matter what they need, just that I become fully engaged in providing it.
- I listen intently. I try to hear their breathing. I try to hear their eyelids opening and closing. I notice whatever sounds are going on around us and see if they notice them too (they usually notice far more than I do.)
- Then I focus on my sense of touch, stroking their skin or running my fingers through their hair. I hold them against me and try to feel every instance of contact to the fullest.
- Then I turn my attention to smell, burying my nose in their hair or in the nape of their neck and trying to breathe in their essence and notice everything I can about the sensation.
- Finally, I soak it all in visually. I try to sear the image of the moment into my brain, being sure to record every detail. I look at my sons and try to notice something about them that I’ve never noticed before.
3. Then I might experiment with experiencing multiple senses all at once. Can I see and hear them perfectly? Or smell and feel them? Adding more than two senses and it starts to fall apart, but I try to fully experience the moment .
When I practice “just being a parent,” it feels magic. The most amazing thing is recognizing the mindfulness of the children. For them, there really is only this moment. They are not thinking about what happened yesterday or their plans for tomorrow. They are just right there with you. When I stare into their eyes focusing all my attention on them, I see them staring right back with the same level of intensity. For me, mindfulness is an “exercise,” something that requires effort. For them, it is who they are.
Sometimes all they need is a moment of mindfulness. If they can get my full, undivided attention, even just for a moment, it gives them the security to know they can also release me. They can let me go back to my world of deadlines and “grown-up” projects that seem important but really aren’t. Having that moment of mindfulness reminds us both what is most important, and that if they do let me go. . . I will be back soon. And there is no place I would rather be.
by Jeremy McCarthy