Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

I had just put my one-year-old to bed and was trying to squeeze a little work in before the next step in the nightly family routine. My big kids were fiddling around before their own bedtime when my 10 year-old son walked over to my desk and said, “Can I talk to you?” I kept my eyes on the computer screen and told him I needed to finish the email I was working on. He stayed put and said, “I need your full attention for a few minutes. Can we sit on the couch?”

I didn’t type another letter, astonished and proud of this sensitive boy’s eloquence. We sat together and he told me about a worry, something so little but big enough to bring tears. As we sat together, talking and cuddling, I was completely with him, unaware of my to-do list, my phone’s whereabouts, or the progress of the email I had been working on. It was simultaneously awesome that he found the words to tell me what he needed in that moment, and awful that he had to ask. Would this plea have been necessary 10 years ago before our devices got so smart that they made work and home life bleed together seamlessly?

Meet Distracted Mommy.

Distracted Mommy is the new Mean Mommy.b2ap3_thumbnail_Mean-Mommy.jpg

She’s the one who tells you it’s okay to reply to that non-time-sensitive text message while your daughter is telling you about a tough day at school. Distracted Mommy feels anxious if you’re not multi-tasking, and she breaks out in a sweat if you leave a beep or flash or vibration unanswered for more than a minute or two. She’s sneaky and greedy: she’ll pretend she’s giving conversations her full attention, but both kids and adults know the truth. And when her kids start manifesting the bad technology habits they learned from her, she goes Mean Mommy on them (“NO &@#&& PHONES AT THE DINNER TABLE!!!”).

Distracted Mommy is Mean Mommy’s passive-aggressive sister, and she has the same issues – not enough me-time, not enough self-care, not enough sleep (doesn’t that sound like most moms you know?) – only she’s opted for a subtle bandaid approach in an attempt to hide it. Distracted Mommy convinces you that checking Facebook updates on your phone while also helping your kid with homework is a perfectly acceptable way of squeezing in some me-time.

I made a promise to myself (and by extension, my kids) a couple years ago before my phone got so smart: I would avoid turning my computer on between after-school hours and bedtime, unless there was some sort of extremely time-sensitive emergency at the studio.

It was the best parenting decision I’ve ever made.

But when my son asked me to really be with him rather than figuratively (and literally, in a sense) phoning it in, I realized I’ve gotten sloppy on this promise. Blame it on the fact that I’ve consciously chosen less childcare and more amazing (and exhausting and all-consuming) time with my one-year-old, so I have to pick up the slack somewhere. And it doesn’t help that the greater culture has slid to a place where it’s common and accepted to be in one person’s physical presence while simultaneously “talking” with someone else via a device.

As my son and I sat together on the couch, his little-big issue morphed into urgent meaning of life questions: “What’s the point of life if once something is over it can never be repeated again?” Whoa. It was awesome to say no to distraction so we could be alone together in conversation, in cuddling, in silence….that is, until his 7 year-old sister sensed she was missing out and crashed our party with her own fascinating questions.

Technology and distractions are big topics of conversation at the moment, whether or not you’re a parent. It’s easy and hip to say that we really need to put down the phones and unplug, but I’m watching myself closely.

Am I really willing to do anything about it?

Am I willing to exercise a little discipline, a little restraint?

If not for my own health and well-being, then at least for the sake of my kids who just want some focused, undistracted interaction with me, and who desperately need models for how to use these life-altering devices in healthy and balanced ways that don’t ruin everything that was once fun about interacting with other humans.

 

To banish Distracted Mommy, you have to be willing to make a personal commitment. It’s a promise, a choice you’ll have to remake hundreds of times each day thanks to the convenience and invasiveness of technology. It’s hard, but all I know is I'm thankful for my yoga and meditation practice as I try again. If this isn't a mindfulness practice, I don't know what is.

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Just a few weeks ago, I had a person in my belly. Now that person, a little girl, the fifth member of our family, is sleeping a few feet away from me. She’s decidedly her own person, both independent and also completely dependent on me. After sharing space with me for 9 months, she made her exit into a world in which she has to learn, step-by-step, how to do everything. Everything. Breathing is new, digesting is new, controlling limbs is new and initially impossibly difficult. In our family, we call her frenetic arm movements “playing the bongos.”

What can you say about something that is so profound and yet so incredibly common? In the time it took you to read that sentence, four more babies were born.

Sure, there’s the typical territory, but to me the most notable things about the newborn days are not the sleep deprivation or how hard it is to find time to take a shower. What amazes me is the fact that within days of my third child’s birth I simultaneously felt an overwhelming love and a paralyzing fear.

A week before my due date, I wrote about the joy of waiting and not-knowing. Baby girl took the post  to heart because she kept us waiting and not knowing for two weeks past her due date! During those bonus weeks I did lots of yoga and meditation, took walks, enjoyed weekly massages and nightly baths, and just generally tried to savor the in-between while also doing all the things people tell you to do to get your baby out. Contractions would start and kick up in intensity, then they’d stop. I wanted nothing more than to make sense of the patterns and figure out what exactly I needed to do to give this kid her eviction notice.

The night before I went into labor the waiting finally got to me. I tearily told Zach I wanted to “take the night off,” so I pretended I wasn’t desperately hoping to have a baby and instead we watched “The Big Lebowski.”

The next morning I did a sweet meditation and a wiggly yoga practice that veered from the usual sequence of poses that had kept me feeling so great throughout my pregnancy. The practice was mostly hip circles and other organic movements that just felt right at the moment, and it tuned me into a different sort of mindfulness. 

Contractions finally began that afternoon and as I labored through the evening and deepened my breath to match the increasing intensity, I felt the echoes of my yoga and meditation practice and a connection to an intuition I hadn’t experienced with my other two births. I let go of attachment to where I was in the process or how long labor would last and instead just did my best to surrender one contraction at a time. My strong baby girl was born that evening 5 hours after the first contraction and just 1.5 hours after we arrived at the birth center.

For the first few days after her birth I embraced the fluidity of life with a newborn and was simply overflowing with gratitude: for our thriving baby girl, for my wonderful husband, for our doula, for our midwives, for the luck of having a healthy pregnancy and beautiful birth, for the support of our friends and family, and for the immediate love big brother and big sister showed for their new sibling.

But on about day four, all that poetically intuitive stuff went out the window and I had my first new mom anxiety dream where I couldn't find my baby after having brought her to a party. Then my overthinking, control-seeking mind tried to push its way back in between feedings and changings. “When will she get on a nap schedule?” “How long before she smiles?” “Should I take her for a walk in the stroller or sling?”  

My first instinct was to pump google for answers, but I stopped myself. It’s been 6 years since we’ve parented a newborn, but I still vividly remember days wasted crying over this stuff. The intensity of the love I’ve felt for each of my children took me to new heights of fear and self-doubt. What if I do everything wrong and mess up this perfect little being? How can I keep her from getting sick or hurt? What if every other mother in the world knows something I don’t?

As baby girl sleeps today I get on the mat to breathe and move to remind myself that as long as I’m taking care of her basic needs, none of these seemingly pressing questions really matters. I remind myself that the newborn phase is all about creating a strong attachment, and attachment naturally leads to a fear of loss of love. This new mom business is tough - the emotions are so raw and real and close to the surface.

These first few weeks as my body recovers from birth and I'm adjusting emotionally to this massive change in our family's life, my yoga practice looks different. It's abbreviated, gentler, and more subtle, but no less powerful. This is yoga as prep for birth as prep for parenting; it's learning to be okay in uncertainty and to listen to the experts on the big stuff, but to body, breath, baby, and my own intuition on all the little daily stuff. She will sleep, she will eat, she will get sick, she will get hurt. There are no magic answers. When she wakes up crying and I can't figure out why, I kiss her and tell her over and over that I lvoe her. I know this is the most important thing I can do: quell the fears and amp up the love.

The experience of growing, birthing, and raising a human being is no less amazing the third time around, and the love I feel for her is still chased by fear. But instead of running from it or feeding it with a relentless search for external answers, I coo to my fears and gently shush them knowing that sometimes being less in control and instead surrendering to a tiny love is a glorious change of pace.

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With baby #3 fully cooked and safe to arrive any time in the next couple of weeks, I wait. Or rather, I try to go about my everyday life despite the fact that something incredible is about to happen, that my body is preparing for a powerful physical experience, that our family’s life is about to be forever changed.

Friends wonder (and place bets) on whether I’ve had the baby yet, my mom is certain every time I miss her call that I’m in labor, and several nights recently I’ve gone to bed wondering if tonight is the big night.

WaitingI sit in wait with my huge belly and savor this in-between time in a world where waiting has gone out of fashion. Have a few minutes before the next train arrives? Pull out your phone and suddenly you’ve transformed what would have just been a wait into productive and/or entertainment time. But the last weeks of pregnancy are all wait, all wondering, and surrender to the fact that there’s no app for predicting the onset of labor.

I sit in not-knowing with this new person who is either a boy or a girl, one or the other, and though I could have found out months ago I revel in my ignorance of this key fact about our new family member. My dreams are of no help – last night I dreamt of a sweet cheeked blond boy who looks remarkably like my son, but a few nights ago the baby was a cuddly baby girl. It’s not often I get to not-know something so big for so long. Not even a conversation-ending google search on my phone can give me this answer.

I sit in surrender because I have no control over when labor starts, how the birth goes, or any of it. I like control, so this is hard. Meditation helps, as does yoga practice.

I’m practicing the yoga of waiting for baby. Maybe it’s the hormones, but it’s not as difficult as I remembered. I’ve given up bargaining with baby (“Please wait until your grandparents are back in town, until I wrap everything up at the studio, until our teacher trainees graduate…”), realizing this is not a negotiation I can win. It’s refreshing to loosen my grip on schedules and plans and just say “I’ll be there if I haven’t had the baby yet!”

The present is the only thing I can count on. This is always true, but never more obvious than right now. Sometimes I have to stop and catch my breath after walking up the stairs to our apartment, other times I feel strong and vital, like I could walk miles without issue.

I’m overflowing with gratitude to feel as good as I do at this stage of the game. Each time I’m asked how I feel and respond with a smile, I’m careful to not get too attached to this whole “feeling good” business.  While the yoga, meditation, massage, and walking I’ve done throughout my pregnancy certainly helped, I’ve just been incredibly lucky, too. And I know that could change at any time, so I enjoy any day where I can get up from my mat without grunting.

There’s nothing more to prepare: the names are picked out, the carseat’s installed and awaiting a tiny passenger, and we’ve done our best to prep big brother and big sister for the intensity of life with a newborn. Now, again, it’s just the wait.

I breathe in and feel baby wiggle and adjust in the private world of my belly. I breathe out and know there will only be so many more times I get to experience his or her movements from the inside. 

I breathe in, I breathe out, I am grateful. 

My breath will get me through whatever comes next – wait, birth, and afterwards.

 

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Mean-Mommy.jpgWhen it comes to interactions with my kids, it can seem like a mystery why sometimes I’m able to channel the patience of Super Mom while other times I’m snappy, unsmiling, finger-waving Mean Mommy, a shriveled up version of my ideal maternal self. For the longest time I assumed if I could just learn enough parent-whisperer techniques I could master this split personality problem. But after reading countless alternative parenting books and yet still screaming at my son over a literal glass of spilled milk at the dinner table, it finally dawned on me that knowing what to do and actually doing it are two completely different (and often unrelated) things.

You don’t have to be a mom to relate. Before my first child was born 9 years ago, I struggled with many of these same challenges. But back when that grouchy irritability was directed at my husband or mom or friend, it was more easily masked. If I snapped at Zach he’d inevitably either snap back or point out how unreasonable I was being, both of which would just amp up my irritation and fuel a self-righteousness that made it impossible to see how I could be in the wrong.

Kids are little mirrors. When my son berates his younger sister over her spilled glass of water, I’m seeing an unflattering version of myself on a bad day. Having witnessed that pattern repeat over the past 9 years of parenting, I’ve been on a quest to discover Mean Mommy’s kryptonite so I can channel Super Mom more often.

I think I’ve figured it out, and it’s embarrassingly, irritatingly simple how direct the correlation is: consistent self-care + adequate sleep = not losing your mind when the little people around you do the stuff they are programmed to do (like spilling milk, arguing with their sibling, or taking forever to tie one shoe when you’re trying to get everyone out the door). 

I figured out the self-care part of this equation years ago (with the help of my wonderful husband). One afternoon I was lamenting my sour mood and general blahness and he walked through what has since become my self-care checklist: 

Had I done my yoga and meditation practice?

Was my monthly massage scheduled?

Had I gotten outside for a walk or run or bike ride?

After I took care of those three things and felt like an entirely different person, I committed then and there to consistent self-care. That checklist has served me well for the past few years. But in order to juggle my mom and business owner roles, I was simultaneously becoming the master of late night work sessions. I’d stay up until 2am, typing away in the blue light of my computer, only to be surprised the next day when I felt lousy even after yoga and exercise.

Now that I’m in the third trimester with baby #3, my body is forcing the issue. Exhausted from the work of growing a person, there’s been no denying the need to quit my late night work habit. I’ve consistently been in bed before 10pm for the past seven months and I’ve never felt happier, healthier, or more able to enjoy the little moments with my kids that would make the less-rested version of me insane.

I’m finally convinced that you can’t have one part of the equation without the other. I’ve discovered Mean Mommy’s kryptonite: self-care on its own is not enough, but when combined with good, old-fashioned rest it’s an unstoppable formula.

Turns out while there are many things you don’t have to do anymore once you become a grown-up, you never really age out of being well-rested. When I was a whining or just generally unpleasant kid, it always made me crazy when my mom would reply, “You must be really tired.” But as with so many other things, my mom was right (and still is). Super Mom's not all that different from Mean Mommy - sometimes all that separates the two is 8 hours of sleep!

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Within moments after bringing the kids home from camp, dragging myself and two drawstring bags stuffed full of swim suits, towels, sunscreen, water bottles, and lunchboxes through the front door, it began. 

“Can you help me find my baseball glove, Mom?”

“I want to watch TV!”

“Mom, can I have a snack?” (A favorite in our family. I’ve always suspected that when my kids see me coming to pick them up they imagine me as a big, juicy, steaming chicken drumstick.)

With each pull at my pant leg and each subsequent question, even when asked politely, I could sense my hulk-style evolution towards Mean Mommydom. My answers got unnecessarily curt and I gritted my teeth so as not to blurt out, “Just leave me alone!”

I wanted to be a mom so desperately in the years before my kids were born. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and wondering what it would feel like to have a baby, my baby, in my arms. What I was unprepared for was the intensity of the wanting on the other end, too.

Even as they’re gradually becoming more independent at 8 and 5, my children want a lot of me. They often still need full body contact in the form of cuddles, hugs, and kisses; they want to tell me about something unfair that happened at camp that day or ask me for help opening a new package of art supplies. I’m totally on board with this, most of the time.

But sometimes the wanting overwhelms me. After spending the bulk of my day working and going through the various routines to take care of my family’s needs, at the end of the day it can seem that there’s nothing left for me.

After my Gentle Yoga class a few weeks ago, one of my wonderful, thoughtful students said, “I feel so taken care of in your class. It made me wonder – who takes care of you?”

I hugged her and nearly cried because it’s the same question that had popped into my head that very morning as I was on my mat.

Taking care – of children, aging parents, spouses, friends – can be demanding, but harder still is consistently making time for self-care. Why are the needs of others so obvious, so impossible to ignore? Who, finally, will take care of you?

b2ap3_thumbnail_your-mask-first.jpgWe’ve all heard it before: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

But there’s something important missing from that advice.

Once you’ve put the child’s mask on and he’s out of danger, there’s no need to be a martyr and take yours off. You don’t have to wait for another crisis to put yours back on again.

Of course there will be moments when the needs of those in your care necessarily (but temporarily) overtake your own. Whether your child comes home with a hurt (physical or emotional), your aging parent takes a turn for the worse, or a friend is going through a crisis and needs your support, sometimes the needs of others are intense and urgent and it’s a wonderful thing to be the one who is able to take care.

But when the immediate needs pass, what do you do? Do you find a way to make up for your overextension, or do you keep yourself perpetually in caretaking mode, resentful of the fact that there never seems to be enough time for you?

Any day when I practice yoga, sit for meditation, take a run, walk, bike ride, swim, connect with a good friend, or go to bed early with a good book, I’m doing what no one else can do for me. I leave the proverbial oxygen mask on for a good long time. I breathe in, replenish, and smile. I breathe out and answer for myself that essential question: who takes care of me? I do.

As the kids continue to bustle with post-camp questions and requests, I know they just want me to put on their masks, to help them come down from the day. But right now, after a late night spent working to make up for an afternoon of extra playtime at the park, my mask needs to come first.

“Guys,” I say, crouching down to their level, breathing deeply and feeling Mean Mommy melt a bit. “I just need five minutes with no one asking me for anything. Okay?”

They look at me for a moment, then nod. They’ve heard this before and though it’s not their first choice, they’ll do their best. My five-year-old daughter waits a whole minute before starting to ask me for something, then catches herself and stops mid-sentence. I hug her and feel taken care of.

After the five minutes are up I switch gears and let myself be needed again. Then when they go to bed, I pretend I’m my own mother and have a short debate with myself about the choice between work and sleep. I imagine how beautiful it would feel to heed rather than fight my droopy eyelids, and crawl into bed shortly after.

The next morning after I drop them off at camp, rather than immediately launching into battle with my email, rather than ripping off the mask, I bring myself to my mat for a gentle yoga practice. I move consciously and breathe deeply, because no one else can do it for me.

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