For first-time moms, pregnancy is a brand-new frontier. All symptoms and sensations are an education into a novel experience, an induction into a club whose members have existed as long as human beings themselves. As a new recruit into the motherhood association, you may be timid about making your own choices on a path so many others have already forged. But if the “everyone’s doing it” approach doesn’t work as your mama mantra, it may take a hefty boost to your boldness before you feel comfortable claiming the course of action you deem best. If this security is something you seek, consider looking within for the answer. Quiet the noise, get in tune with yourself, and enter into parenting with peacefulness and poise.
Originally a spiritual discipline, mindfulness is now widely used in psychology circles as a therapy for many mental conditions. It is a practice that involves paying attention in a purposeful way to the present moment— nonjudgmentally—so that your actions come from a place of gentle contemplation instead of fear, peer pressure or shame.
Cassandra Vieten, PhD, author of Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year, explores this very tool as an aid for women who are growing, delivering and raising babies—some of the most stressful experiences in a woman’s life. The pressure to do all the “right” things for your baby is real, and well-meaning friends and family will give ample advice that can cause mental conflict in a new-to-the-game mom. “The extent to which we feel hurt by another’s negative feedback or comments on our pregnancy, childbirth or parenting choices has mostly to do with how solid we feel about our decisions,” says Vieten. “From feeding to daycare to vaccinations, everyone has an opinion about how we should parent.”
So how can mindfulness help a mama out? “Mindful motherhood is a way of approaching all of the experiences you’ll encounter as a mom with open eyes and an open heart,” explains Vieten in her book. “In a way, mindfulness is like learning to surf. By riding the waves of experience, rather than fighting them, you get a lot less battered about. You still experience each of them, to be sure … but learning how to let go and ride the waves helps keep you from being caught up in the riptides of agitation, obsessive worrying, rage or avoidance that can come from wrestling with those waves.” Mindful awareness helps keep you from making reactionary decisions and move toward making conscious ones based on your own values and goals as a mother.
Of course there will be times when you will seek the advice of professionals or trusted friends and will truly be open to their words of guidance. But there are some decisions that will be up to you solely and will depend on your intuition.
For example, if you plan to go back to work after your baby is born, you’ll likely be seeking child care while you’re expecting. A myriad of options exist, but not all are right for you. Only you can know which is best. “When visiting a potential daycare provider, everything may seem to be checked off on your mind’s internal checklist—location, references, background, certifications, etc. This is one source of information,” Vieten reports. “See if you can observe how your body feels when you consider this provider for your baby. What does your intuition tell you about whether your baby will be happy here? Combine what you learn with your mental checklist. Once you make decisions based on your own inner wisdom and the values you and your family share, you will be more grounded when other people question them.”
Putting it into practice
Nine months of gestation (and then a lifetime of parenting!) leave a lot of opportunity for subtle criticism. Even remarks said with good intention can sometimes leave a sting. Rehearsing potential retorts ahead of time, as silly as it might seem, can be a good way to keep your emotions in check in the moment.
What you might hear:“You’re going to find out the gender of your baby from an ultrasound? Oh, but it’s so much more fun when it’s a surprise, don’t you agree?”
What you can say: “It will be a happy surprise no matter when we find out—we’re really excited to do it our own way.”
What you might hear: “I know you say you’re going to deliver without medications, but take it from me—you’re going to want those drugs. Don’t be a martyr.”
What you can say: “My goal is a safe delivery and healthy baby, and how I achieve that goal is a personal decision.”
What you might hear: “Why would you go to an OB? Having a midwife is really the better option. You should switch practices!”
What you can say: “That’s not the approach we’re taking, but I appreciate you sharing your perspective.”
What you might hear: “How can you think about going back to work and leaving that sweet baby with someone else all day? Children should be home with their mothers.”
What you can say: “We put a lot of thought into what our family needs as a whole and ask that you respect our choices.”
What you might hear: “I hope you’re planning to breastfeed. You know, breast is best!”
What you can say: “That’s definitely something to think about.” (This is a good approach for avoiding a topic altogether.)
If your learned lines don’t seem to deter your inquisitive advice-giver, you can simply defuse the situation by ending the conversation. Vieten suggests the following statement: “I’d prefer not to discuss that topic with you any more—let’s agree to disagree.”
Vieten also advises staying centered in the moment. “When confronted with criticism or questioning of your decisions, first, take a second to breathe. Check in with your body sensations, feelings or emotions, and thoughts.In any potential conflictual situation, it really helps to at least know where you are coming from, even if you don’t know where the other person is coming from.”