When I first discovered I was pregnant with my son, I went through the full gamut of emotions—excited, nervous, terrified, anxious, and elated. I prepared his nursery, bought a few onesies, pre-registered at the hospital, took a mildly helpful birth class, and considered myself ready.
I had 17 years of meditation practice under my belt going into motherhood. I figured, how different can motherhood be from the other upheavals of everyday life? How hard will it be to meet life with presence and awareness with babies, when I have been training at it for so long?
Turns out, extremely different, and extremely hard. In my experience of having two kids 15 months apart, I can say that motherhood hit like a semi-truck and dragged me down a road of complete confusion and disorientation (with a healthy wallop of sleep deprivation) for two years before I felt like I got some of my footing back.
Now that I am somewhat steadier, I want to share my top three pieces of advice, as well as accompanying meditations to help you on your parenting journey. My hope is to help prepare you for this transition or, at the least, assure you that you are not alone.
Parenthood Lesson #1: There Is More to Babies Than Meets the Eye
Mindfulness tip: Forgive yourself and ask for help
It was 2 a.m. My 15-month-old was waking up every three hours with a 103-degree fever. My 3-week-old was refusing to breastfeed, waking up every few hours and screaming inconsolably and almost perfectly coordinated to the moment that I finally got my other son to sleep. My husband screamed into his pillow. I thrust my screaming baby at him and went to sob on the dirty bathroom floor.
Those days, my husband and I battled daily about who was acting more like a baby. The truth was, we both were. We were pouring every ounce of parental energy and care into our children, leaving us feeling parched for care ourselves.
When I stopped thinking of my desire to be cared for as an embarrassing inconvenience and more like a necessity, two things changed. First, I started to be kinder and gentler to myself during the course of the day, forgiving my messy house, my pile of endless laundry, and the fact that I let my son repeatedly lick the side of the garbage pail because it kept him quiet.
I asked myself the question, “What can I do for you right now? How can I cushion this very hard time?” Sometimes that was just a deep breath. Sometimes it was a trip to the coffee shop. It didn’t matter what exactly it was. The self-kindness was all that mattered.
Second, I started asking for help like it was my job. I asked family, friends, local mothers groups, acquaintances, and even Facebook for babysitting, advice, food, and even comfort. I have never been much of a help-asker, but when I started considering the multiple babies in my house (especially my husband and me), and the sheer impossibility of surviving alone, I summoned up the strength to ask. A surprising number of times, people came through. And even when they couldn’t, it still felt good to ask without shame.
Parenthood Lesson #2: You Are Going Through a Massive Change
Mindfulness tip: Try to be patient
Pre-motherhood, I thought that having a baby would be kind of like buying a new couch for my home. It was a big investment. It would bring a lot of comfort to my life. It would require upkeep. But ultimately, I would still be me, and the couch would be the couch.
Instead, having a baby changed the molecular structure of who I am as a person. Being a mother was not just “Yael + baby”. The math of motherhood transformed the being that was “Yael” into someone that was almost unrecognizable. My body was completely different, with new folds and cushions that didn’t exist before. My mind was filled with thrashing to-do lists, new and urgent fears, and a disorienting sense of time passing both too slowly and too quickly.
In my old life, my daily meditation was the place where I centered myself. Now, in the rare moments I could take to formally meditate, I never made it very far out of mental grocery lists and diaper orders. I was reeling, inside and out.
It took a while to realize the colossal change that becoming a parent would bring. I clung to the baby-as-couch idea far after it became clear that motherhood was something much more radical and transformative than I imagined. Realizing this and accepting the grief that came with the death of the old life, I could slowly step into my life with more patience, curiosity, and even surprising joy.
You will not be the same post-babies. Even if you did not give birth to them, you will be transformed in ways you don’t yet see. Try and be patient as your life and your old sense of self dissolves and rearranges.
Parenthood Lesson #3: Your Spiritual Path and Your Life Are Not Separate
Mindfulness tip: Be present
Scrolling through Instagram on maternity leave, a newborn sleeping lightly on my lap, I was awash in jealousy for the gorgeous photos of people doing yoga on distant beaches, emerging bright and glowing from meditation retreats. I was aware of the irony of that jealousy, since for decades I had felt it while looking at photos of people in my exact situation with newborn babies, but there you go. Jealousy isn’t exactly obedient to logic.
I met with a spiritual director during this time. After listening to me whine about missing my practice and wishing I could go on a retreat, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Yael, your spiritual life is not different than your real life.” I felt the truth of it hit me like a lightning bolt. Of course! I was looking for wisdom and insights and freedom everywhere except right where it has always been—in the present moment. Life, as it is.
Re-adjusting my vision to see my life with the babies as my practice, I started noticing a lot. I saw the pain and the beauty of impermanence as my sons grew out of their clothes and learned new skills. I felt the vulnerability and the heart-expanding love beyond the borders of the self when staring in their eyes or holding their tiny warm bodies. I felt the suffering of resisting life when I clenched up against the unfolding of my life as a mother, and the release of that suffering when I softened into it and opened up to the flood of feelings underneath.
Your spiritual life is your everyday life. The two are not separate. If you notice you are fighting with life, pushing against the truth of how things are, escaping into your phone or running away in your mind, see if you can gently, courageously come back to the present moment. Even if it’s painful, you will suffer less and notice more. Life is right here, waiting for you.
By Yael Shy