Mindful Mama: Cultivating Mindfulness through Compassion


As mamas we just want to get it right. Raising happy, healthy, resilient kids — that’s it. But, boy…what a challenge! For so many of us, we entered our role as mothers with a strong sense of what we didn’t want to do and the mistakes – usually the ones our mothers made – that we wanted to avoid.

Unfortunately, we may not always have as clear a picture of the kind of parent we want to become. So, we begin looking for answers on the best ways to parent. In this age of information overload, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the vast volume of conflicting advice that leaves us feeling confused, paralyzed, and anxious as we attempt to discern the right course of action for our child.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

As Elizabeth Kabalka, Executive Director for Chattanooga’s Center for Mindful Living puts it, “Raising a kid is not like building an IKEA bookshelf with only one right way. As mothers, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do it right and we introduce a lot of anxiety into our lives when we attempt to follow a script or structure introduced to us by a parenting book or by trying to emulate what someone else does. All the advice in parenting books focuses on the child but fails to address self-care for mothers. Yet, mom’s psychological health and well-being may be the most important factor in raising healthy kids.”

Think about how you spend your days. How often are you worrying about every little detail of raising your kids? From the foods you’re feeding them, and how much screen time they’re getting, whether they have enough friends or intellectual and creative stimulation, to whether they should play outside by themselves or attend Waldorf or Montessori or the neighborhood school…the number of details you can obsess about feels infinite. You doubt and second-guess yourself, and worry about the mistakes you made in the past and you worry about the ones you think you might make in the future. And for every minute you spend criticizing yourself and worrying about all the things that might go wrong, you miss the perfect moment you could share with your child or your partner or your friend, or even yourself, right now. Moreover, when you worry, you fail to think clearly and act calmly.

Not only that; worry easily blossoms into anxiety, criticism into anger and your children will feel and absorb that negative energy, making it their own.

Of course, you want to nurture and protect your child, but in order to do so, you must also nurture and protect yourself. Mindfulness and its companion, heartfulness, offer a first step toward breaking the cycle of worry, doubt, and all the negatives that follow. So, what exactly are those?

Mindfulness simply means the act of giving attention to the present moment.

Rather than focusing on what was or will be, you can consciously choose to control your thoughts and turn them to the very moment you are in, giving awareness to your present emotional state, physical sensations, and your thoughts. Heartfulness, in turn, means acting with compassion and loving kindness toward yourself and others.

While you can follow many paths toward living and parenting more mindfully, building a compassion practice makes a great place to start. Today, instead of reacting with anger or frustration or giving into feelings of failure when your toddler has a meltdown, try reaching for compassion – toward your child and yourself. Ask yourself why he might feel upset. Is he tired, hungry, frustrated that he hasn’t mastered a specific skill yet? How do you feel and react to things when you feel tired, hungry, or unable to complete a challenging task? Would you want someone to yell at you for feeling bad? Of course not. So try approaching your child with the same loving kindness you’d want someone to show you. Remember, too, that young children haven’t mastered the complexities of verbal communication so a meltdown, as awful as it is, may be your child’s only way of communicating how awful he feels about his current situation. Approaching the situation with compassion and tenderness allows you to address the underlying cause and diffuse the situation much more rapidly and effectively than simply trying to distract your child or punish him for his outburst.

And if you first react with anger, sadness, or frustration, you can still recognize your feelings, pause, and dial them back so you can move forward in loving kindness.

Then, make sure you apply the same sense of compassion to yourself by reminding yourself that learning mindfulness, like any skill, takes time and effort. Instead of beating yourself up over what you did wrong, recognize that you feel bad over a missed opportunity and that everyone has these moments, then look at the situation and think about the specific ways you can handle it differently in the future.

Catching yourself judging others provides another simple way to act compassionately and develop both mindfulness and heartfulness.

Most of us have found ourselves judging other mothers. Whether we cast a second look at her daughter’s mismatched clothes or ask our friends in a snarky tone, “Why doesn’t she just pick up that crying baby?,” we’ve all had less than compassionate thoughts toward other mothers. So, the next time you’re around other mothers, pay attention to your thoughts and if you notice yourself being critical of anyone, put yourself in her shoes. Think about why and how a mother might act a certain way or allow certain behaviors. Maybe her daughter has an independent streak and insists on dressing herself and mama wants to encourage her independence and creative thinking. Maybe the mama with the crying baby just knows that her child always cries for three minutes before falling asleep. Or maybe she’s just exhausted from being up with the baby all night and needed to get out of the house and she really wants to scream and cry herself and she’s too scared to pick the baby up because she thinks the crying means her baby hates her.

Do you want to judge or do you want to support and cheer on, even if it’s just with a kind smile?

Little humans learn by watching and mirroring the behaviors of their parents. We teach them best when we learn to become aware of our thoughts and emotions, then accordingly to control them and model calmness, compassion, resilience, and the ability to recognize when we need to take a time out of our own. Mindfulness gives us this ability.

If you’d like to learn more about mindfulness practices including meditation, the Center for Mindful Living provides a variety of wonderful classes and other resources, including an extensive lending library. On February 24, CML will host a class entitled Raising Resilient Children and their four-week Mindfulness for Beginners series begins on March 12. Finally, if you’d also like to introduce the idea of mindfulness to your younger children, CML’s Executive Director Elizabeth, recommends the book Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel.

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Dawn Downes
Hey, y’all! I’m Dawn – a native Tennessean who could not wait to escape the small town for the big city. After attending a women’s college in Atlanta, I took root there and stayed. One marriage, two homes, two kids, and 25 years later, here I am, back in Tennessee. My husband moved here in January of 2016 to start a new job while our two boys, Brendan (born 2003) and Beckett (born 2006), and I stayed behind to finish the school year and sell our house. We arrived in July 2016 and have been working to make a happy new home here since then. We love living on the North Shore and I am enjoying finding unexpected beauty and little joys throughout our new city. I am also mama to fur babies, Josie the Rhodesian Ridgeback/Lab mix, and Miller, a sweet orange and white tabby cat. I'm into art, movies, music, TV, pop culture, nerdy stuff like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and I know more than my share about the DC Universe, Pokemon, Minecraft, Battlefield, and all things LEGO thanks to having two boys.