Are You Noticing Your Kids Noticing You?
March 21, 2011
© Taylor Newman
Meditation reduces stress and makes people happier. Science says so. It’s documented. It’s also increasingly en vogue. And with a sell like that, you’d think everyone would be doing it—carving out fifteen or twenty minutes a day to sit quietly, cultivating awareness by observing their minds. The thing about it is that our minds are messy, noisy places, and sitting like that gets uncomfortable, fast, in more ways than one. The less-stress/more-happy connection isn’t immediately obvious, and delayed gratification makes for a tougher sell. I, for one, wasn’t all that great at making time to meditate even before Kaspar was born. Now, despite sometimes craving quiet time and space more than I craved Oreos during pregnancy, attempting to sit uninterrupted for any length of time is kind of a joke. Luckily for me, my little man is a mama-meditation machine disguised as a toddler in perpetual motion. It sounds impossible, I know, and I didn’t see it coming. But it’s true, I tell you! Let me explain.
I’ve noticed, lately, a whole lot of Kaspar noticing me. Sure, he’s stared at me almost constantly since he was born, but he’s taking things in (and turning them back out) on a new level now. There’s been a definite shift. Sometimes he’s peering intently at me, copying what I do, mimicking my speech. And sometimes he doesn’t appear to be listening or looking at all, but then he’ll respond in one way or another to something I’ve said, and I realize, somewhat shocked, how hyper-attuned he is to my general state of being (entering the no-cuss zone… now). As a result, I’ve been noticing what he’s noticing. Which is to say, I’ve started paying some attention to myself: my expression. What I’m saying. How I’m saying it. And whatever I was thinking just before I spoke.
The exhaustion that comes with parenthood sends us all into autopilot mode sometimes. I think that’s natural, and to some extent unavoidable (5:30 AM? ‘Nuff said). When I see people just barking orders at their kids as a force of habit, though, or speaking negatively about, or to, someone else, not noticing that their kids are observing them as they rant, I realize that autopilot, left unexamined, can really thwart our efforts at raising happy, healthy, less-stressed kids. I tend to feel like I’m parenting quite deliberately; I read Kaspar books that promote tolerance and peace, I walk him all over the place pointing out everything that we see (“A dog! Woof! Dogs say woof!”… and Kaspar now says ‘woof’…). I rock him to sleep telling him I love him and that all is well. Inevitably, though, the countless times each day that he unexpectedly flips my self-awareness switch come about when I’ve unknowingly slipped into some kind of autopilot setting. And that’s when I realize that I’m telling him all kinds of things about the world without necessarily intending to— what I say when I get cut off in traffic, whether I smile when approaching someone else on the street, how I handle waiting in line: these small, everyday moments are as meaningful as book time or bedtime when it comes to creating a baseline of calm and contentment in my kid.
I have a cynical sense of humor, and that’s fine; cynicism can be funny. A world in which everyone’s feigning bubbly Pollyana-ism doesn’t appeal to me. Emotions, experiences and relationships are layered and deep, and I want Kaspar to feel free to express himself authentically as he navigates them all. What meditation does, however, and evidently what having a baby does, too, is to bring things into our awareness that have previously gone habitually unnoticed. I think of myself as pretty positive person, so I’ve been surprised by how frequently I’ll focus on the negative aspect of a story I’m relating, or how quickly I’ll lose patience with unexpected delays—that’s the New Yorker in me, maybe—or with people who I don’t even know.
As a mom, what I want most for my child—the whole point of all of the other stuff I want for him—is for him to be happy, for him to embrace this life and everything in it. Amazingly, he’s teaching me to embrace life more openly, and diligently (it takes diligence, for most of us, at least at first), than I ever did before. When I catch Kaspar catching me absentmindedly furrowing my brow, and notice whatever I was thinking right then, it’s usually not at all relevant to the present moment. Just like that, he brings me back. Again and again and again.
I kind of like books on positive thinking, as well as people who adhere in extreme ways to their own commitments to respond positively to everything they encounter. Those books are alluring and those people are charming. But I’ve also always felt that stuff is kind of hokey. Not for me. Now, thanks to Kaspar, I have a really important reason to commit to being the person I want to be, to giving Kaspar, through example, the tools to thrive in this world—with its wars and Tsunamis and everyday traffic jams—and to contribute to it, without being dragged down by all that goes wrong. We all have that task in front of us. We also all have habits that are hard to break. But if we can face our messy minds, acknowledge the places in which we’re not quite who we think we are, we become better people, and better parents, for our kids.
Good thing it’s a self-supporting system, because I definitely don’t have time to sit down and meditate. Someday, sometime, it’ll happen. I can dream. But in the meantime, I’m a parent all the time. And I’m a learning to be less stressed, and happier, as a result. Go figure.
Has parenting made you realize things about yourself—your outlook, your relationships, your habits in any domain—that you didn’t notice before? Have you changed anything about yourself because of, and for, your kids (maybe your diet, the words you use, or some part of your daily routine)? Do you somehow find time to meditate, pray or do yoga in your living room (if so, I’d love to know how)? How has your perspective changed with kids in the mix? I can’t wait to read your thoughts!