My beautiful friend Emily Roberti is a yoga teacher, doula and one of the most innately grounded, conscious and holistic parents I have the luck to know. Hailing form London, she has recently been living in New York where she has grown a thriving teaching and doula practice. I invited her to share her experience of parenthood in this section, and as we reflected on themes, the spiritual teachings that abound within every moment of the journey came up as something valuable and salient to share within this precious space.
I hope you enjoy Emily’s insights and find them as inspiring as I do.
Parenting as Spiritual Practice
The gift of being a mother is infinite. Yet it necessarily implies sacrifice and there is no way around this truth. When I became a mother I was startled by quite how much my independence diminished and wondered how I was going to fit in my spiritual practice. How did other mothers negotiate the dance between practice (be it prayer, ceremonies, rituals, meditation, yoga, quiet reflection and so on) and parenting?
I, like many I’m sure, believed that my spiritual growth could only really happen as a result of a regular meditation and asana practice, retreats and learning from inspiring teachers. How naïve I was. I had my very own little resident Zen Master living under my roof, constantly yanking me back into the present moment, making me question my assumptions and setting up problems to be solved. How could I possibly think that he’d be getting in the way of my spiritual practice when he is my spiritual practice?
Those early months of motherhood felt to me like I had embarked on an intensive Vipassana meditation retreat. It had all the elements – the long hours of silent sitting, the walking back and forth, the early starts and sleep deprivation, the chants (aka lullabies) and the wisdom teacher in a nappy assigning more demanding practices. Yet why was it that to rise gladly at 4am to meditate was considered a spiritual experience, and yet to rise early to serve the needs of my hungry child were considered the ultimate deprivation? My attitude to my mothering roles had to shift, and time and again I’ve had to remind myself that as long as I carry out my child-rearing with love, respect and my full attention, my need to be a good mother and my need to practice spirituality are being met.
Take breastfeeding as an example. I came to realize that this was the closest thing to a spiritual practice that I’d ever experienced. When my son was hungry I had no excuses, no time to be lazy, no time to procrastinate. It had to be done, over and over again, multiple times a day, for a rather long time. And what precious moments I had snuggled up with my boy, seeing his milky face light up with excitement and taking this time to stop and become quiet numerous times a day for meditative reflection.
As Peggy O’Mara explains so beautifully her in book The Way Back Home, “one can learn sitting meditation by rocking and nursing a little one to sleep; one can learn reclining meditation by staying still to avoid disturbing a little one who has been awake for hours; and one can learn walking meditation by walking and swaying with a little one who would like to be asleep for hours. One must learn to breathe deeply in a relaxed and meditative manner in order to still the mind that doubt’s one strength to go on, that sees every speck of dust on the floor and wants to clean it, and that tempts one to be up and about the busyness of accomplishment”.
My meditation cushion may get rather dusty at times but I now understand that the spirituality I explore in the gilded throne of my own privacy is merely an aid and shouldn’t become more important than living meditatively in daily experience. It should be an activity that we tie into the daily chaos. It’s here and now, bringing conscious attention to a sick baby at 3am, wiping a runny nose or playing yet another game of peek-a-boo. Figuring out how to cope when your child throws a level 5 tantrum on the plane, or managing your reactions when they throw their food across the room is the equivalent of an advanced course in personal growth. Do you fall apart, or are you able to stay present, deepening your ability to be with ‘what is’, responding rather than reacting?
As parents, perhaps the most precious thing we can give our children is the gift of our full presence. The same mindfulness that goes into preparing the body for meditation through yoga, for example, can also be practiced during those menial chores such as folding the laundry and tidying up the toys. So instead of assuming that development down your path can only happen in a formal setting, realise that family life is a spiritual practice of the most valuable kind. Think of the householder yogis in India – rather than living in a cave or ashram, they choose to evolve and grow through their experience at home and in the workplace, embracing the challenges of everyday life as a means to their transformation. And this is by no means easier than living up a mountain in solitude. As Stephen Levine, a spiritual teacher and writer, says, “Talk about a fierce teaching! It is easier to sit for three years in a cave than to raise a child from the time he is born to three years old”!
I like to see my yoga mat as a laboratory – it’s somewhere I can practice patience as I sit with strong emotions, and where I can practice acceptance as I fall over in a pose and have to start again with grace. After trying and testing compassion, patience, non-attachment and so on, numerous times in my laboratory, I then take it out and apply what I’ve practiced to real life situations. So there I am attempting to practice patience as I try and hurry my son to the playground, but then I realize that he is in actual fact teaching me to slow down, put aside my goal-orientated behavior and open my eyes to the magic and mystery of the everyday – ‘look, look at the stick, it’s a magic wand…’
Of course, you mustn’t now assume that because parenting is a spiritual practice you can ditch your other personal practices completely. We may not have as much time as we used to but if we can rearrange our lives just a little and remove some of the clutter (such as watching TV or spending so much time on social media) this new space can allow time for spiritual pursuits such as meditation, spiritual study, prayer, time in nature, writing a journal or cooking. Some days I will find a luxurious 2 hours to move through an asana and meditation practice while my son naps, and other days I may only have 15 minutes for self-care and I’ll set myself up in a restorative child’s pose – with a child on top! Carving out just 10 minutes for some pranayama will do wonders. To calm anxiety, for example, I will lengthen my exhalations; to alleviate dullness and fatigue I will lengthen my inhalations, and to lift myself out of an emotional pit, I find it most effective to equalize the lengths of my inhalations and exhalations. Serving myself, however big or small, isn’t just a luxury or indulgence – I do it so I can better serve others. Like re-booting a computer when it starts to misbehave, I can return more calmly to my life with a fresh mental screen.
To help me survive the ebb and flow of all the emotional states that may visit me as a mother, I’ve found it helpful to have an attitude of hospitality towards the emotions I receive. As Rumi says, “welcome and entertain them all”. Rather than creating an inner battle and fighting these emotional ‘visitors’, spend time with each one, welcoming them like a dear friend. Emotions can feel so powerful and compelling, and can take us so far from the present moment, that we really need to stop and spend time with each one without becoming too emotionally involved or taking any too seriously.
Sit with anger, for example. Allow it to be there without judging it. Where in your body do you feel it? Describe the sensation? How does it feel in your heart? How does it affect your breath? Watch the emotion arise and knock at your door, even by simply labeling it and repeating slowly “anger…anger…anger”, and then see it pass away – as all emotions eventually do. No emotion need overpower or entangle us. It’s one thing to describe and acknowledge a strong emotion, and another to act it out.
The truth is, parenting can be ridiculously difficult because it asks us to manifest qualities in ourselves that we may not yet have given birth to. It demands a level of patience we cannot always locate and we’re often completely unprepared for the responsibility, maturity, and selflessness that come with trying to be our child’s role model. Unfortunately there is no magic pill or elixir that makes it easier but this sometimes messy, sometimes chaotic, sometimes serene, often joyful life is it. We don’t need to wait to be alone in order to be “spiritual”. Parenting is a spiritual training all on its own.