I’m stressed. You’re stressed. Everyone is busy and stressed all the time, so mothers often feel they have no right to lay claim to being more stressed than anyone else. However if you factor in the lack of sleep that most mothers, definitely new mothers, contend with, not to mention the responsibility for their families they feel is theirs to shoulder alone, plus the constant roll call in their heads as to what is needed for the next activity from the moment they wake up, it is understandable that contemplation of the here and now is a far cry from their oft frantic state.
At the mindfulness eight week course I attended we discovered the constant thinking ahead and back was not conducive to living in the here and now one iota. We needed time, a minimum of twenty minutes a day, to sit and just be. ‘But when will I have time to sit and just be?’ wails our poor beleaguered mother, even though she knows that to function better she must take time for herself.
It’s not at all easy, which is why I developed our five week course for Mothers Uncovered to introduce some of the concepts of Mindfulness and to allow mothers those precious few minutes to focus inwards. The groups have to centre on the written aspects rather than long meditations, as participants usually have babies with them who demand their attention. Yet we always manage to fit in five minutes to meditate, or sit quietly holding babies, which seems to calm the babies just as much.
We realise that a lot of time is taken up with comparisons and judgements, of ourselves and others. Have I managed better as a mother today? Have I managed to do lots of other things? Mindfulness isn’t about trying to eliminate all the bad thoughts and feelings, but allowing what’s in your head to be there. The trouble for mothers is there is usually a judgement involved in their ruminations – ‘I don’t like what is happening’ or ‘Why can’t I manage to do that?’ They look around and see only other mothers who are coping much better, or so it seems. They feel they must be the most disorganised and it reflects badly on their parenting. If they were a truly good mother, so their exhausted brain goes, they would be able to do a hundred tasks every day on four hours broken sleep.
Mothers find themselves with greater levels of dependence in their lives; their baby’s dependence on them, their dependence on partners to support them, their own sudden lack of independence – too late they realise how joyous it was to just get up and go without a moment’s thought. Participants come to realise the impact their thoughts have on their feelings. This is especially true of motherhood when we are forever trying to keep up with changing circumstances and inevitably feel we’re failing. If you can be aware of the thoughts as they come to you, you can see they are just events in your mind, rather than hard facts.
Mothers often struggle with feeling hopeless – they will NEVER gain any autonomy back. The great deal of effort spent in trying to push away unwelcome experiences would be better spent accepting experiences as they happen, whether they are good or bad. The word ‘acceptance’ is problematic because it implies resignation to an undesirable state. However, acknowledging an experience or feeling doesn’t mean the same as wanting or liking it, it is just recognising it is there. If we try to resist by thinking, ‘I should be able to cope’ this reinforces negative thoughts about ourselves, rather than compassion. Instead of berating themselves when unwelcome thoughts crowd in, participants try and establish whether they are judging themselves, setting unachievable standards or expecting perfection?
It is paramount for mothers to take care of themselves in order to take care of others. Sometimes they can get overwhelmed by anxiety, stress and fear. Especially when they are always rushing from place to place and are constantly thinking about their child or children. When we are feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to tell ourselves that it will not stay that way. Life is uncertain, everything changes, there will be good times and bad times. We collectively make a list at the end of the session as to a small step they could take today to contribute to their wellbeing, plus a longer list of the things they need each day to be ‘as well as possible.’ When asked, ‘How does that suggestion make you feel? What is your attitude to yourself right now?’, it is gratifying to see them more at peace with themselves.