Being a parent is an absorbing and transformative experience. The desire to do our best by our families and provide our kids with a wonderful upbringing is a great motivator.
Reading publications, such as the Huffington Post parents section, it is clear that many mothers and fathers have the urge to become, not just better parents, but better people.
The only problem with the resolution to transform is that it can sometimes drive us to feel that, left as we are, we are failing, or cannot support each other, or should not have confidence that all is well, even when we’re not, we can, and it is.
It seems to me that an internal sense of peace is the best place to grow from, rather than self- evaluation.
I read a load of books and talked to some great people, most especially my husband and kids. I began to see that the way we think is crucial to our experience as parents and our ability to be more conscious, more present, and, of course, more peaceful.
So, I sat down and made a list of the ways of thinking which led to the greatest improvements in my daily life, and that have helped me to parent in a more grounded and loving way:
1. Let go of the past.
The past is but a memory, and it is easy to forget that at times. Many parents use the past as a way to beat themselves up. The hours ticking by on the clock do not always eliminate feelings of shame because you overreacted when your son threw milk all over the sofa AGAIN, or because you yelled when no one was listening to you saying that it was time for bed.
The past can also be a reason to be angry with your spouse. They did not see that it was their turn to do the washing up tonight, even though you did it the last three nights. They slept all night long, while you got up with a miserable teething baby.
Whether you feel bad about yourself or others, it is not practical to harbour those misgivings. It is a way of tormenting yourself, when instead you can choose to move on. You can admit responsibility for a mistake and make reparations where needed. You can be more communicative with others to get on the same page. You can help them help you out. With each new moment, there is a fresh start.
2. Let go of the future.
If the past is a memory, the future is a fantasy. However real the fantasy may appear, it is pure invention. Life rarely conforms to fantasy, for better or for worse. We need the concept of the future so we can make plans. Too much thinking about the future leads to anxiety or stress because the more you dwell on what will be, the more you want to control it, and the more you fear that you cannot. Well, that’s correct. It is not really in your control, so it is best to realise that and allow for flexibility.
So, if your son did not say ‘Thank you’ when you gave him a present, or your daughter just doesn’t seem to get this potty training thing, it doesn’t mean that he will grow up to be ungrateful or she will still wet the bed at 15. These normal parenting fears happen because we cannot yet see how our kids will learn politeness or bladder control, and we wonder what to do about it.
There are no guarantees, but applying pressure from a place of fear is more likely to result in a fight than learning experience. Better to set a good example, and support their natural urge to get along with others or rock those big girl panties and let them work it out. Let them surprise you. They will.
3. Embrace the present.
The present is all that is left when you let go of the past and future. This is all we ever really have and all we ever will have. Every moment we experience is a present moment. The good news is that, with the past and future out of the way, we are freer to really observe what is in motion around us, to connect with others, and to feel the stillness within that leads to a sense of peace. When we are not busy counting up faults or inventing calamities, the world around us appears that more beautiful.
When there is a challenging situation, focussing on the present helps you to deal with it, because you can be methodical and get down to practicalities. It is much less tempting to multitask when you are not already doing six things in your mind. So, when your toddler has done a poo on the floor, the baby is crying for a feed, or your tween is threatening to leave home forever, you can take a deep breath and do your best to sort it out, one task at a time.
4. Break the pleasure pain cycle.
You know how you promise yourself a glass of wine when the kids are in bed, and then you find yourself rushing through Green Eggs and Ham to get to it (He doesn’t like them, oh wait, he does. OK. Night night. Where’s the cork screw?).
Well, not that enjoying a nice tipple is a bad thing in itself, but when you focus on that reward, that desire, that pleasurable thing your future self will have, that can make putting the kids to bed into ‘the trial I have to go through before I get wine’. You can also end up drinking just because it is Wine O’clock. It has nothing to do with savouring something marvellous, and everything to do with habit. Bedtime will feel like a chore, rather than a shared moment with your children. They may well also pick up on that ‘I want wine and a nice sit down’ energy and respond by trying to postpone bedtime.
When you are acting out a pleasure-pain cycle, you feel it, and you know it. It is astounding how many things you can do it with: Work is the pain to get that lovely money; You spend the money, you have to look at your bank account; you want nice endorphins, you have to get moving first; Lycra is the penalty for enthusiastic exercise.
None of these things is inherently bad or good, unless you make it so with your thinking (Lycra may be the exception). Whichever thing is the pleasure and whichever the pain, the good things in life are always diminished by this cycle, and the bad are augmented.
When you really embrace the present moment, the pleasure-pain trap falls away, because you are not fighting to be something else or somewhere else. It is easier to make peace with whatever you are doing. Everything is more enjoyable for it.
5. Take the ego with a pinch of salt.
The ego is a voice in your head that tells us if we are OK or not. It chatters away, informing us how we are doing.
For instance, it will tell you that when you cared for your sick infant, even though you were ill too, you proved yourself all kinds of marvellous at parenting. As a result, you will be sainted and angels will sing in your wake.
Alternatively, it might say that when your kid was ill, and you were ill, and you still had to get up in the night and nurse them all day, that this parent job is NOT fair. One day you would just fall down and DIE and then everyone would realise how put upon you were, how unappreciated.
You are so much more than your ego can ever imagine. You are an amazing invention of nature. After all, it is a peanut sized lump in the left brain hemisphere. What does it really know? It is difficult to brush off its ramblings all the time, but when the ego gets quieter, we can get in touch with the rest of the brain, which tells us that we are just fabulous and so is everyone else, which is a great place to parent from.
6. Be nice.
It is a very simple truth that when we are nice to other people, they are more inclined to be nice back.
So, when your kid is struggling with the world, which amounts to them fighting you every step of the way to not get dressed, or eat their breakfast, or participate in a fulfilled family day you planned, give them a break. Know that their assault is not a true attack on you, or what you want them to do. They are acting from the state of mind they are in, and need to get themselves out of their funk. They might need to be left alone awhile, or want you close, or need to eat, or sleep, or whatever. Where possible try to help them attend to their needs, and do not judge them.
The same goes for dealing with grown up family members: Say, your other half is stomping around because you drank the last of the coffee. Know that their overreaction is evidence that they are having one of those mornings, not a personal slight. There is no need to act defensive because when they calm down, and they will, they will be ready to see how wonderful you are after all, and you can forget the whole affair.
This is not to say that if the level of spite coming from the other person is truly violent or insupportable, you should put up with it. Rather that we should realise their behaviour is not truly about us, and therefore react out of a reasonable position, rather than fighting back in our own defence.
7. Be open.
We each inhabit our own version of reality, because everything we observe about the world is filtered through our thoughts. No two people see the world in exactly the same way. We each have our own set of social expectations which affect the way we see other people’s behaviour. Sometimes the meaning we give to those behaviours align with what other people think and sometimes not.
When you see that your daughter just wiped her nose on the curtains. When your son is angry with you for moving the toys he had carefully strewn across the stairs. When your Aunt Linda tells you that you should really stop breastfeeding and did you realise how spoiled your baby will become. These are all indications that the other person is living in a different reality. As far as they are concerned,soft furnishings are a great alternative to tissues, cluttering stairs is not dangerous, and babies are greedy little rascals who need to be Taken In Hand.
How you handle a misalignment of reality depends on how important finding agreement is.
When children don’t realise that spreading dirt and germs has consequences, or that playing on the stairs can lead to tumbles, then it is in their interests to help them add these considerations to their own reality. This is best done at leisure, as if you are introducing them to a curiosity. Though, let’s face it, sometimes you might find yourself putting the point more forcefully, this is less likely to actually sink in. Where possible, it helps to say ‘How interesting! Can I suggest you use a tissue because we can throw that away when it’s dirty, but it would be hard work to take down the curtains and wash them.’
When someone is opinionated about the way you are running your reality and you know you cannot agree, then you can often just ignore them. There is no need to be angry or offended because, as far as they are concerned, they are helping. If someone is offering large amounts of unsolicited advice you can always thank them for their interest, then explain that you are not saying they are wrong, just that their way is not your way. If you really need to reach an agreement, it might be necessary to sit down and try and get on the same page as each other.
It is always worth considering that sometimes other people may have something figured out that is really cool and worth taking on board. By allowing for misalignments of reality, you can be open to that incredible new idea that so and so had about snot disposal. No. Actually. Tissues are great.
If you look back over my listicle, you will see that the seven ways of thinking boil down to two simple ideas:
Stay in the present moment as much as possible,
Avoid passing judgement on yourself and others.
It really is not complicated, and it almost always involves doing less rather than more.
Parents often give themselves a raw deal because they want to create a wonderful environment for their offspring, but get bogged down in the details. In their effort to grow, they sometimes do not realise just how amazing they are already. If this is true for you, please let me remind you that you are awesome, just as you are. All you need to do is stop thinking otherwise.
How can you start thinking peaceful right at this moment? (Because that is all there is)