In this posting of the Work of the Light, my occasional writings on this great yoga practice called life, I explore some of motherhood's first lessons. It's hard to know where to fit a contemplative practice in the early months of motherhood. The answer, experience teaches, is everywhere.
I used to meditate every day. I’d wake, and the first thing my mind would pull to: get up, and meditate. Most mornings, before I touched my phone, or boiled the hot water, I’d find a comfortable seat and a long spine. First the breath. Long, full inhalations, each a stretch from the inside out; longer exhales followed, like the sound of the ocean. My breath, my being, my single point of focus.
Now I wake to my baby’s movement. He begins to toss and turn, searching for my breast. Or, I feel him stir and open my eyes to greet his: big and blue, and eager. He wakes wanting to move. My ten month old babe is full of sound. In the morning, I imagine he’s recounting his dreams. He’s excited and alert, and very, very awake. There is no closing my eyes. There is no finding stillness. Just moments after waking, I’m on call. He becomes my single point of focus.
When I was pregnant, I heard a voice. She said: Julia, less noise, more listening. I knew I was being prepared for the noise, the bustle, the hectic-ness of motherhood. I knew she — my Heart — was readying me.
The first months of being mommy are a haze. Memories didn’t fully imprint, given how little I slept, and appear to me now like faded sketches. I know there was a lot of joy—moments more filled with Love than I had known possible. Also, I remember a lot of tears. I remember being gripped, ravaged by the sharp, hard reality of what I had birthed. A baby is vulnerability embodied.
Motherhood is hard. Motherhood is really, really hard. There is the raw exhaustion; fatigue that guts you; the ache in bones and muscles, body now bent into the shape of nursing, holding, swaying; the physical challenges of a still-healing body, even months postpartum, that did not “bounce right back”; the weight that once held powerful muscle now hangs heavy on joints. Even ten months removed, my body sometimes feels like a stranger’s; though, I know, I’d be more kind to another than I’ve been to myself.
My mind has felt pulled by patterns I thought I had long ago abandoned: self-judgment about my productivity, strength and shape, the loudest bullies. Before motherhood, I had readily available tools to combat these mental assailants. I created a whole professional life in support of physical and mental wellness; daily instruction of meditation and yoga is good for the teacher’s soul, too!
But in early motherhood, tools once at hand weren’t within grasp. I was too damn tired, bones too sore and heavy for movement. Nothing fit. My baby cried all the time. And meditation…forget it. In those first few months, a meditation practice was as elusive as a good night’s rest. I could never turn fully within. Even if I took a 20 minute walk, leaving baby in his father’s arms, abandoning thoughts to a podcast, or a song, a part of me was pulled by motherhood. A baby is a gravitational force that pulls everything out of familiar orbit.
Beyond the physical challenges of early motherhood, this was the hardest part. My hands and arms and heart and head were filled with baby. There was no space; there was no silence. My ears rang with his cries. Even when my sweet boy slept, I listened for him. If I tried to close my eyes, half my brain cocked toward him. I was never fully turned within, gaze never able to rest on that cool, calm stillness within.
Sometime during those first weeks, a sister in meditation emailed me. Sisterhood, I have realized, is the salve of motherhood. Answering the question I hadn’t even known to speak out loud, Kathy shared this wisdom:
How can anyone live contemplatively when faced with the constant needs of a new baby?…The whole incredible mixture of receiving and giving can itself become our prayer, our meditation.
Yes! The words rang loudly, like the start of something good: I could make the whole of motherhood my meditation! If meditation is, as I’ve so often instructed, rigorous, compassionate presence to what is, I could turn each moment into a kind of meditation. Until I can once again take my morning and evening sits, I must make all the moments in between my practice.
I could, I reminded myself, spend my time paralyzed by the frustration of what has changed. Or, I can make the moments — the awesome, challenging, vulnerable, joyful moments of motherhood — my meditation. And so, I turn the feeling of the soft pads of his tiny toes into my meditation. When I close my eyes, I attune to the rise and fall of his breath, the warmth of his body tucked so perfectly — like we were meant for each other — into the curve of mine.
And, moreover, when I feel frustrated, I get to feel it. I don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist, or that it’s somehow supposed to, on some great cosmic balance sheet, be neutralized by all the good stuff I also feel. Challenge, too, becomes my meditation. Sorrow and angst, too, become fodder for presence. I kiss the softest part of my babe’s cheek, I breathe him in, and I allow myself to feel both the intense hardship, and whole bodied joy.
There is a lie first time mothers tell ourselves: that we shouldn’t feel certain feelings. We shouldn’t ever want for our pre-baby life, or feel angry, or sad, or scared. That somehow those feelings violate the singular joy we are supposed to feel. What nonsense! What an act of violence, to force those valid parts of self into some dark place where shame feeds.
Motherhood is about welcoming your whole self into the room. Your child doesn’t need a muted, one dimensional caretaker. Your babe needs a mother who is willing to feel it all in the interest of moving through it, and becoming stronger for it. Your baby needs a mother who is able to contain his or her ups and downs, because she’s not afraid of her own.
Of course, despite my efforts to attune fully to my experience, my mind wanders. I lie down to nurse, and though I intend on making his being my single point of focus, I almost unconsciously reach for my phone. My mind wants to stay busy with “important” things, it tells me. But — as is the practice of meditation — rather than shame myself for having wandered I simply, sweetly return to the feeling of being mother, here and now. It’s not always easy, but that’s why I practice.
And so, Sister, I invite you to make motherhood’s fleeting moments your meditation. The next time you sit down to nurse your babe, from bottle or breast, make his or her gaze your meditation. Make the gentle rise and fall of his or her round belly your prayer. Perhaps, let your mind find a word or a phrase that aligns with your intention. Softly repeat it to yourself, within. Align its recitation with your breath. Be gentle. Know this shall pass, and quickly, too.