Monday, July 12, 2010

The Parental Practice

The struggles of parenting are mentioned in conversations, facebook posts, and books about parenting. People use words like challenging, hard work, exhausting, demanding, frustrating. The implication is that having children creates the struggles of parenthood and in turn, that the children are responsible.

If you are a parent, almost without exception, your choices brought that child (or children) into your life. Your child didn't choose to move into your house, have lots of needs, go through developmental stages and end up as an adult. Just like you chose to be a parent, and it is your choice to make parenting a struggle. The struggles of parenting only exist inside of your mind. That is to say, the struggles of parenting are a mind state. Pebbles making ripples on the surface of the pond. Clouds that cover up the radiance of your relationship with your child. Mental crap that takes the joy out of your family's life together. Your mind, your choice, not your child's fault.

I struggle with my mind state. When I find myself feeling in conflict with my children, or struggling with my role as a parent, it can be traced to my clinging to something from my past, or my inability to embrace what is in the present, or my fears about the future. My children are not causing the conflict, my children are not causing the struggle. My children are being authentic, doing the best they can to get their needs met with the resources and abilities they have in that moment. It was my choice to be their parent, it is my choice to be the person who supports them in getting their needs met.

As a parent my desire is to joyfully meet the needs of my children. I want to be present for them in such a way that they feel free to express themselves fully, to process their experiences without feeling judged or criticized, so that they feel respected and loved as they are. Some times my mind state gets in the way.

Here's an example: My daughter has an itchy back. This happens a lot. I'm crocheting, or cooking, or washing dishes, and she walks up and says, "My back itches." Well, what she's really saying is, "Please scratch my back." I know what she's really saying but I can get hung up on how she's saying it. I find myself asking, "Are you asking me to scratch your back?" Then I feel annoyed that I'm stopping what I'm doing to scratch her back. I find myself increasingly grumpy as I am instructed to scratch higher and lower and to one side or the other. My mind state is not matching my desire to joyfully meet the needs of my daughter.

It could have gone like this instead: My daughter has an itchy back. "My back itches." I stop what I'm doing and smile and focus on my daughter's needs. I ask "Where would you like me to scratch?" and make sure that I scratch under her shirt because I already know that's what she prefers. I can use the time to connect with my daughter, embracing the moment and the comfort my daughter feels when having her back scratched.

It usually takes less time to meet my daughter's needs by following the second pattern. That's because she's really wanting attention as much as she's wanting her back scratched and when I'm feeling grumpy I'm not meeting that need for attention. When I focus on cheerfully meeting my daughter's needs, it also leaves both of us feeling connected and at peace. The difference between the two ways of responding is all in my mind.

There's a kind of parental enlightenment that we can attain. It is easier for some people than for others, but for most of us it does take practice. When we reach this state of parental enlightenment our day to day life may be the same (though it will probably feel easier and may actually be easier) but our attitude changes. We still spend our days meeting our children's needs, making food, cleaning up messes. The difference is that we now do these same things from a place of joy, as a gift to our children, instead of from a place of resentment and frustration.

As parents who are cultivating parental enlightenment in our lives and in our minds, we need to recognize that this is a practice. When we find ourselves struggling with a negative mind state, grumpy, annoyed, without patience or reactive in some way, we need to figure out how to support ourselves so that we can support our children. Part of the practice is focusing on how we can make sure our needs are met so that we can more joyfully meet the needs of our children. What little things can we do to brighten our own day? What methods work best to help us calm our mind? Who can we turn to when we don't feel like we can get out of a negative mental pattern on our own?

This does not mean that we have to be happy all the time and that nothing bad ever happens in our life. When there are challenges in our lives we can be honest with our children about how we are feeling and why. This means that we say, "I didn't get a lot of sleep last night and I'm feeling a little grumpy right now. I'm going to take a short nap and see if that helps me feel better." or "I'm feeling sad for my friend who is sick." or "Daddy had a frustrating day at work and is feeling the need for a little quiet time before he plays on the computer with you tonight." If we are struggling for a reason we can let our child know. If we are out of sorts and we don't know why we can tell them that, too. By acknowledging what's going on in our life, and how it is affecting us, we show our children that it's normal to feel a variety of different emotions. We also show our children that in our family it is safe to talk about how we feel and to get our needs met. This helps us as parents focus on identifying what is really bothering us so that we are less likely to lash out at our children or treat them in ways that may make them feel that our bad mood or sadness or frustration is their fault.

As parents we can continually look for ways to joyfully meet the needs of our children. We can accept the past, embrace the now, and let go of our fears about the future. Parenting doesn't have to be a struggle. We have a choice.

"Whoever would live well,
Long lasting, bringing bliss-
Let him be generous, be calm
And cultivate the doing of good.
By practicing these three...
The wise one lives without regret
His world infused with happiness."
(from "The Chocolate Cake Sutra: Ingredients for a Sweet Life" by Geri Larkin)


  1. Another great post Jenna!
    I know when I'm struggling it is all in MY head! We are very honest here about what is going on, I have been having a lot of health issues lately and I do say hey I'm feeling ____ today. I am finally getting the treatment that will help me help myself so I can go back to being the mom I want to be.
    I really appreciate your strightforward insight and ability to put it in writing :)

  2. I had my teeth cleaned the other day and the hygienist used those same word choices you used in your first paragraph (challenging, hard work, exhausting, demanding, frustrating) to describe "the other moms" who she works on. :) She said to me "You seem different. You seem to enjoy your kids".
    Gioia just came up to me and read this and patted me on the head and said, "Good mom, here's a cookie" lol!

  3. Say it! Reblogged and retweeted it.

  4. Good stuff Jenna. I needed to read this today. Printing it out for my unschooling binder and sharing on Facebook!

  5. I absolutely LOVE this post. you've said so eloquently what i've been attempting to blog about myself lately.
    Thank you! :)

  6. I just have to say I love your posts. I am trying day by day to see a different view on life with my children. I know that I am currently the only parent for my 2 yr old that is caring for her and meeting her needs. So I know she needs a little more nurturing than my other children that do get to see their dad. Not saying they don't need the same thing but just a little bit different situation I guess.
    I find myself getting frustrated with my day to day routines that sometimes end with me being too tired to even make dinner or do much of anything else. I love how you can be positive in yours posts :)