A colleague of mine, who has been practicing and teaching meditation for a long time, said to me, “Before I had kids I never knew how angry I could feel.” Ahh, sigh. Our kids bring out the best and the worst in us at times. And yet isn’t it sooo taboo to feel angry, especially at our beloved children? However we all sometimes do. I mean I do, don’t you?
From what I’m hearing “on the street” lately, it seems to me that the “conscious parenting” camp, which is a very respectable map for encouraging family connection and emotionally intelligent children, comes down too hard on the parents. The message I’m hearing, and that it seems my friends and neighbors are internalizing, is that we are supposed to always know just what to say, just how to resolve, how to console, lift up, teach and role model for our children. I’ve seen so many books and videos that offer really valuable information about how to raise happy healthy children but sometimes the main message that comes across is that we parents should all be trying just a little (or a lot) harder. It leaves me wondering, where are our advocates? When does a book or video series get produced that talks about happy, emotionally intelligent parents, one that lets us make mistakes, foible and kindly lets us off the hook for getting it wrong sometimes?
Recently, at the park with a friend, while our gaggle of children played, my friend confided in me, “I blew it with my kids this morning.” “Me too,” I say. “Really?” she replies, very surprised. And the added guilt that, “I, the Mindfulness teacher, should never mess up,” comes traipsing right into my head. I take a breath and send that thought on out. “Yes, I think everyone does sometimes. This is a hard job!” I smile and say (for both of our benefits).
“I don’t think anyone really admits it though.” she responds. “Well we all should.” I sigh, “We’re only making ourselves more miserable with these impossibly high standards.”
It all makes me think of the extremes and impossible standards that Siddhartha Gautama (the man who later became the buddha) discovered. His pendulum swung between having all pleasures and comforts and having none of them. Much to his surprise, all imaginable pleasures did not bring lasting happiness. So he went running from them, only to discover that denying all all pleasures was nota source of lasting happiness either. The extremes were leading to unhappiness not away from it.
“There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.” -Siddhartha Gautama
The extremes in parenting might be described as: Being totally passionate, aka obsessed, about being the perfect, excellent, grade A parent – a source of unhappiness; or being uninvolved, checked out, and giving up on the whole process of parenting – a source of unhappiness.
Mr. Gautama discovered that neither extreme was satisfying in part because each led to obsession and “addiction”. He discovered that the middle way was the path of happiness. And that not getting “addicted” to the seemingly perfect extremes was a key.
I think we could use more middle way parenting. Right away I think of pediatrician and psychoanalyst, D. Winnicott’s research on ‘good enough parenting’ and the idea that “ordinary devotion” from a parent is enough to help the child feel “alive and real in one’s mind and body.”
I’ve fallen prey to the fantasy that if I just scowl at myself hard enough for being impatient, it will make me more patient…It never works.
When I am able to maintain mindfulness during a row with my child, I have thoughts but they don’t have me. And if I notice that my self talk is aghast at my own feelings and reactions it always revs my engine higher, making the conflict worse. If instead I am kind to my feelings, understanding of my own thoughts as well as the feelings and thoughts of my child, it deescalates much more easily.
So just as the middle way to enlightenment asks that we not distract ourselves with perfect and imperfect “practice” but rather just keep showing up, being mindful, taking time to sit and breathe and trusting the practice will work through us, I believe (even though I forget sometimes too) that the same is true for middle way parenting. Keep showing up, keep talking through the blunders and relishing in the sweetness, keep breathing through the flip outs (your child’s and yours). And kindly allow the ups and downs of it all.
Jack Kornfield, teacher, author and co founder of IMS and SRMC, said, “We couldn’t hire a better master teacher from anywhere – some amazing and wise person who would really take us to task on growing our compassion, patience, love in the face of adversity – then these little people we live with called our children. They are the greatest, most diligent, hard driving teachers we will ever know.”
Mindfulness if the process of beginning again and again, wrote Sharon Salzberg teacher, author and co founder of IMS and NYI.
Lately I’ve been mindlessly expecting perfection and completely not achieving it. (Deep breath.)
As I begin again I know these next few mindful days will not just be easier but also more loving and patient, to my sweet children, to my partner and last but not least, to myself.
One of my favorite stories (and illustrations of the middle way of leadership) is of the Dalai Lama. He made a clear translation error in front of, oh, thousands of people. He went so far as to argue back and forth with his translator about the error and after several exchanges of his translator very respectfully saying, “Your holiness the translation is ‘x’, not ‘y’, the Dalai Lama’s eyes lit up, and he said, “Oh yes, you are right. Ha ha ha, I made a mistake.” He then bowed to translator, interviewer and all, and simply went on with a big smile on his face.
May we all be so graceful and light-hearted in the face of our next parenting mistake! One foot in front of the other down the middle way.