Blog: Parenting With Presence

Susan Stiffelman

I’ve done yoga for years, meditate at least a few times a week and read books by spiritual authors like Eckhart Tolle and Marianne Williamson. I talk about living in the moment, but when I am with my children, I am often somewhere else in my mind. Even worse, I often lose my cool when they misbehave, and all my good intentions about being calm and accepting fly out the window. Your thoughts?

Sitting in a cave on a mountain top is a heck of a lot easier than raising children! It’s quiet, peaceful and nobody is asking you to make them a grilled cheese sandwich — or insisting that this time, “don’t cut it into four pieces — just two — or I won’t eat it!”

Bringing a serene attitude to parenting sounds great on paper. It’s living that way in real life with real kids where things get messy.

And therein lies both the challenge and the joy of parenting.

Jon Kabat Zinn — the well known mindfulness teacher who was recently featured in Time magazine’s cover story on the subject — once told me that living with children was like living with little Zen masters. Our children are like mirrors, showing us precisely where we are unconscious, ruthlessly shining a light on our emotional dark corners.

We can either accept that we are in a “school” designed to help us use our impatience and resentments to learn and grow, or we can clench our teeth, defending our irritability and frustration as we move through each day in resistance. But as the saying goes, resistance is futile.

Our children will push our buttons. Playing with them will be boring at times. There will be days when we wish we could stay in bed all day munching chips and watching TV instead of making meals, supervising homework and chauffering kids to classes they complain about going to. Welcome to being human!

Some of us welcome opportunites to see our shortcomings so we can work toward gradually improving them — at least on our better days. But for most parents, the relentless demands of parenting are both exhausting and disheartening, especially if we identify ourselves as spiritual and fold shame and guilt into the mix.

Don’t do it! Don’t allow that mean and critical voice in your head to judge you for the ways it tells you that you’re not being adequately conscious or evolved! That voice — the one who suggests that if you were more “spiritual,” you wouldn’t snap at your kids or threaten to ground them for a month if they don’t bring their dirty dishes to the table — is not your friend.

Instead, make friends with your heart and with the part of you that understands that it is OK to be a “good enough” or “perfectly imperfect” parent.

Parenting with presence is a subject so near and dear to me that I’ll be doing a series of interviews about it this week with a wide range of speakers. In the course of my own efforts to use my parenting life to grow into more of who I want to be, I have discovered that what is most vital is to begin with an intention to just do my best, allowing my flaws and vulnerabilities to be part of the experience.

It is only with a heart that is relaxed and at ease with our imperfections that we can truly embrace the opportunities for spiritual growth that come with being a parent. You will sometimes wish you could be checking your email instead of sitting with your child as she does long division. You may feel resentful about having to make lunches when there are things you’d much rather do. There are going to be days when you might lose your cool and say awful things to your children that you instantly regret.

Parenting with presence simply means that you are willing to be present with whatever is going on — the good, the bad and the ugly. It means staying in your body, feeling what you feel, allowing frustration or resentment to be a wave that washes over you while you endure the discomfort, knowing that once it has passed, you’ll be OK again. It means holding on to the unwavering love you feel for your child even as you notice how restless you feel when she drones on and on about what happened at recess.

Making our parenting life an essential element in our spiritual growth is not for the faint of heart. Be kind with yourself, practice self-compassion and gently come back to this moment — whether sweet or uncomfortable — allowing it to be what it is. None of us will ever arrive at some glorified image of a spiritually-evolved parent who remains unflappable no matter what kind of chaos ensues. The journey is the destination. Enjoy the ride.