(Reprinted with the author’s permission from: Psychology Today, Published on May 3, 2010 in Consciousness Matters)
Mindful Motherhood, simply put, is being present in your body, and connected with your baby even when the going gets rough. It’s being aware of your experience from moment to moment, as it is happening, without pushing it away, trying to make it stay, or judging it as bad or good. It is meeting each situation as it is, and over time, more and more often, approaching whatever is happening with curiosity and compassion.
Mindful Motherhood is a way of approaching all of the experiences you’ll encounter as a mom with open eyes and an open heart. Whether those experiences are internal, like thoughts, feelings, or body sensations; or external, like relationships, workplace situations, or the situations in your environment, mindful motherhood is a way of simply being with whatever is happening, no matter what it is. While it may be simple, for most of us, it’s not easy.
You are always actually in the moment and in your body–there is no other place to be, when you really get down to it. But often, your attention is not directed toward the present moment. In the same way, you are always connected with your baby, whether you feel like you are or not. Bringing mindful awareness to that connection can enhance it for both you and your baby. There are a few key elements of healthy connection with your baby that happen naturally, without you needing to try at all.
Becoming more consciously aware of how you are connecting is not so much about trying to be a good mom or setting a high standard for yourself to try to achieve. Similar to mindful awareness, you can’t make yourself connect with your baby. The connection is already there and does not need to be created. Mindful motherhood is more about being awake and aware as the connection is happening and creating the optimal conditions for the natural connection between you and your baby to emerge. For the most part, you don’t need to do anything except get out of your own way and allow what is happening to be just as it is. Mindful awareness can help you with that.
For example, let’s say you’re talking on the phone while the baby is playing on your lap, and the baby starts to squirm. You keep talking but begin to notice what the baby’s doing. Your baby screws up her face and arches her back. Here, you could try to continue your conversation, maybe bounce the baby up and down on your knee, or toss her over your shoulder and begin to pat her back. You might tense your body up a little because you were really hoping to talk to your mom, who you hadn’t talked to in several days, and you start to talk a little louder.
Alternatively, you could stop when you notice the screwed-up face and arched back, either by asking Mom to hold on for a few minutes or asking to call her back, and take a look into your baby’s face and body. Naturally, you might screw your face up a little too, making a soothing sound that is the flip side of what the baby is making.
Neither of these choices is necessarily right or wrong. (I’m being serious here. It would not be mindful mothering to drop everything whenever the baby squirms). But bringing mindful awareness to this moment (being present in the moment, in your body, connected with baby, letting the experience be exactly as it is without needing to change it, and approaching it with curiosity and compassion) will help you notice what’s going on in your baby’s experience and make a choice about how to respond.
Attunement is not just matching your baby’s state. It’s making a complementary response, one that both conveys your empathy (“I can feel what you are feeling”) and responds appropriately to what the baby is communicating. For example, if the baby gets really upset, it’s not ideal attunement to get equally upset. Ideal attunement might be making sure the baby knows that you see that he’s upset and reflecting a sense of being able to tolerate or contain that upset. This reaction could be holding him with firmness and making low and deep sounds. Luckily, with present-moment mindful awareness that meets experiences as they are, this comes pretty naturally–you don’t have to figure it out with your thinking mind.
Use your present-moment awareness to explore what the baby may be trying to tell you. “Get me off my back. I want to be on my tummy!”, “I want to sit up!”, “I’m tired but can’t get to sleep!”, or “My diaper is wet!” You won’t always be able to tell exactly what’s going on, and if you guess, it will still be a story you are telling yourself about the situation. But the main thing is that you’re communicating with your baby and letting her know, “I get it. I see you are uncomfortable. Let’s work as a team. What can we do?”
Transmitting a secure sense of self through attunement happens in thousands of micro-interactions, not just one, or two, or even fifty. This is not about being perfectly attuned all the time–that’s impossible. It’s about deciding that you want to actively engage, more and more often, in present-moment awareness with your baby and cultivating the capacity to do so. Your baby is always in the present moment. Mindful awareness allows you to join her there more often.
Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, Director of Research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences co-director of the Mind Body Medicine Research Group at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco, CA, and co-president of the Institute for Spirituality and Psychology.
Her research has focused on mindfulness-based approaches to cultivating emotional balance, the involvement of emotion regulation in addiction and recovery, and the factors, experiences, and practices involved in psychospiritual transformation. She has published several academic articles and chapters, has conducted numerous presentations at international scientific conferences, and is coauthor of Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life. Her new book is Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year. She is also an avid soccer player and mom of a spunky ten year old girl named Indigo.