Practice Makes (Im)Perfect – Motherhood and Yoga

February 2000

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna to focus on his actions, not the fruits of his labor.  As I read this again recently, it made me immediately think about motherhood and how yoga has impacted my mothering.  Maybe it was the word “labor.”  Maybe it was “fruits.”  Or, perhaps it was recent events in my life.  But, in any case, I’m reflecting on the connection between mothering my children (all six of them) and yoga in my head, so I might as well do so here.

I began doing yoga several years ago.  As I’ve said in prior posts, it was first just a physical choice, and only later did it become more philosophical/spiritual for me.  But, from the beginning, I could see changes happening in my mothering, and those changes have only increased as I’ve gotten more committed to my practice.  Some of this has been woven into my increased attention to Buddhist thought as well, so I’m not going to try to separate them out here, as the things I plan to discuss are part of both.

The first really noticeable was less yelling.  I’ve never been much of a “yell for a long time” mom.  But, I certainly wasn’t above yelling – short, but loud – and at some point I had slipped into doing it pretty much every day.  It was bad enough that I actually had an after-school schedule posted on the microwave called the “after-school no yelling plan.”  Some of the yelling after school that I was trying to avoid was children being testy about homework and with each other.  But, a good part of it was me yelling at them (about same homework, arguing with each other, not doing chores, etc.).    I’m not sure how long after I started yoga that it took the yelling to slow down, but I noticed it had when, one day, I did yell at the kids and they all froze in their tracks and looked at me with shock.  Interesting.

The second thing that I noticed was less profanity.  Yep, I’ll admit it.  I sometimes curse when I speak to my children, and even more when I speak around them.  If they know a naughty word before the age of 10, don’t blame their father or schoolmates, because they probably learned it from me.  I don’t actually mind profanity because it’s “bad words.”  But, I do mind the fact that I’m experiencing such anger/frustration that I need to express it that way.  As I did more with my practice, almost without any conscious awareness, the profanity decreased.  Hmmm… also interesting.

At some point, after I started to see these outward changes that were happening through no real thought on my part, I started to pay attention to and more consciously apply what I understood from yoga philosophy to my mothering.  This allowed me to see how the outward changes were a reflection of things going on inside and the way that yoga had changed my own patterns of thinking/feeling/being.  I think this has happened in many ways, so I selected 4 to discuss here (somewhat arbitrarily, because I can think of several more immediately, but eventually this post must end).

It might seem that compassion is a natural fit with motherhood, and in some ways I guess it is.  If compassion is to sympathize with the suffering of others, mothers are certainly expected to experience this with their children, and I have.  But looking at compassion from a starting point of yoga philosophy changes it just a little.  From this perspective, our very humanity is suffering.  At humans, we attach to things (people, ideas, outcomes, objects) and, since everything is impermanent, we experience suffering.  Sometimes it’s suffering at the loss of a “thing,” and sometimes it’s at the thought of loss, but it is inevitable.  Thinking about this has helped me to understand and think about both my own experiences and the experiences of my children.  It’s pretty natural to be angry at the pre-teen who is moody and stubborn, but it’s easier to be compassionate with that child when I am able to take her perspective a little more and understand that she is experiencing suffering (loss of baby status, loss of attention from a revered sibling or friend, anticipated loss of “fun” in school), even if her life is pretty nice from an outside viewpoint.  It’s also easy to be frustrated with myself when I am not handling issues with my children in the way that I think I should.  But, as the Buddha said, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.”  So, I need to have compassion for myself as well.  I need to be ok with my own experiences of suffering, and how they play out in my life, even when they aren’t as “logical” as I want them to be.   For me, in part, this has meant trying to examine my feelings of anger or sadness in my mothering relationship and identify what is going on to create those feelings, without berating myself over it.  When I’m angry because my teen wants to spend New Year’s day with a friend, instead of fussing at myself about irrational anger, I reflect on the idea that my upset is probably more about the loss of a child growing into an adult than anything else.  While it may not make the feeling pass, it allows me to not compound it by also feeling bad about feeling bad.

Things happen – deep, huh?  Every day we go through events that create feelings in us, both those we label as good and those we label as bad.  But, often, we not only go through the feeling, we evaluate the feeling and create responses to it.  The experience of anger can lead to more anger, to guilt, to defensiveness, to sadness, and so on.  The second level of feelings is not about the precipitating event, but the stories we spin out in our minds about our reactions.  We also not only experience feelings related to the events in the present moment, but also to what we think might happen in the future or what we remember has happened in the past.  This is certainly the case with mothering.  I go through a moment with a child (let’s say receiving a report card) and immediately begin to relate it to past and future.  A “good” report card might bring up feelings of happiness and pride as I remember encouraging my pre-schooler to enjoy reading or predict his successful future academic pursuits.  A “bad” report card creates negative evaluations of my own parenting (I should have been more strict about homework time) and predictions of  future problems (she’ll never get into the college she wants).  But what good are such thoughts?  The past is past. I can’t go back now and do anything about it, and I may well not be remember it “correctly” anyway.   The future hasn’t happened yet, so there is no point in fretting over it.  Thinking about it this way allows me to stay more in the moment and more calm, so that I can deal with what is happening right then, without creating a lot of drama that won’t get me (or the kids) anywhere.  I think they like this, because it means shorter lectures.  I’m sure my loving spouse also likes it because it means less general mothering hysteria.

Seeing the Divinity in Others
In general one might think – “Of course you see their divinity, you are their mother.”  But, if you’ll think back on your childhood (or if you are a parent,your relationship with your children) you will probably see that we don’t always see the divinity of our children.  To see the divinity of another asks us not to see them as potentially wonderful or almost amazing, but to see them as currently and always amazing and wonderful.  Again, this isn’t to say that we can’t experience anger with others, but that, even when we do, we can see the divine in them.  This was easy enough for me when my children were babies.  I like babies and I see them as miraculous even when they are red and wrinkled and screaming.  But, as they grow up and become people with mind of their own (that don’t always, or often, agree with mine) it becomes harder.  When the 12 year old is sitting next to you, smelling like the worst sort of arm-pit, clearly not having brushed his teeth today, with stains on his clothes, shoveling food into his mouth like he’s never eaten before, it’s pretty easy to focus on the bad.  When the young adult makes life choices that you feel are poor, or isn’t so fond of showers, or looks like a hairy monkey (just as a random example), it’s pretty easy to focus on the wrong.  But, thinking about things from a yogic standpoint has made it easier for me to stop myself from ruminating on what I view as “wrong” with my children and instead trying to see the divine in each of them at each moment.  Sometimes this means focusing on a particular quality that I really do enjoy (the 12 year old is hilarious, the young adult is brilliant), and sometimes it means remembering that, all behavior aside, they are divine and wonderful and amazing just in their being.  And that helps me to respond to them in a more positive and loving way.

Non-Attachment to the “Fruits”
And now here we are back to the fruits – not that we ever really left the fruits alone.  The concept of non-attachment doesn’t only apply to feelings, but also to outcomes.  When I was preparing for the first child, I read a lot of books (a LOT) that were recommended by the pediatrician.  I studied them carefully and made plans as to what I needed to do as a mother.  I was sure that if I was careful to do it right, I would end up raising children who had a strong work ethic and commitment to education, good self-esteem, and healthy food and exercise habits.  They would grow up to make sound choices about substance use, practice safe sex, not be attached to gender expectations, and have wonderful relationships with others.  They would get along well, be best of friends, and we would have parent-child relationships free of drama and bitterness.  Oh, and they would just generally be physically and mentally healthy, and have good teeth and eyes.  Hold on….  What a minute….  Almost there….  Whew! I just had to wait for that fit of hysterical giggles to pass so I could resume.  The reality is that parents cannot guarantee outcomes based on how they parent.  Sure, there is an impact, but it’s not an impact you can clearly predict.  It’s far more likely that a child will grow up to not be the person that you thought than it is that the child will grow up to be the person you expected.  I know that not everyone (yep, looking at you, Professor Chua – though maybe I’m not since I’ve read reports that the article wasn’t a fair representation of your book) would agree, but I believe it to be true.  It’s a tough truth, but there it is.  Just like with everything else in life, you don’t really know how your efforts will pan out in the end, or what effect they will have on the world as they ripple outward.  So, given that we just don’t know how they will turn out, the best thing to do is to do what you think is best in every given moment and then let it go.  This is hard, but it’s also nice.  It helps me to make parenting choices based on what I think is the best action at that time, and not to be so focused on the future outcomes – “good” or “bad.”

I can’t even pretend (or pretend to pretend) that I can reliably keep all of these principles at the forefront of my mind and observe them in every moment.  And, as I said at the beginning, these aren’t all the ways I think yoga has affected me (others including being more “in the moment,” being in better physical condition, having less general anxiety, feeling better about myself, carving out a space for “me” in my life, and so on).  But, I’m in what I think is a better place with these things now than I was a year, or two years, or four years ago.  And, as with other things, I’m working on it. It has been an unexpected outcome of the yoga journey, but a good one, and I’m grateful for it.  And I’m also grateful for these people that I share my life with and call my children.



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17 Responses to Practice Makes (Im)Perfect – Motherhood and Yoga

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