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Mindful Mothering: It’s Not What You Think!

By Lisa Reagan

Sponsored by Families for Conscious Living, the Institute of Noetic Sciences and Pathways, the first-ever Mindful Mothering Conference gathers at the Museum of Motherhood in New York City

Why do people conjure an image of a mother and child floating effortlessly through a field of daisies when they hear the phrase, “mindful mothering”? In daily reality, the practical tools of mindfulness are designed to bring us fully into the moment with an open mind and open heart, ready to accept the endless laundry, exhaustion and loneliness, as well as the connection, tenderness and joy we find on our brief journeys through motherhood.

I say “brief” because the 18 years of hands-on care for our children is now a fraction of our total lives, especially since most of us are living longer and will be active into our senior years. Put into perspective, most parents agree that, despite the stresses of modern parenting, we don’t want to miss a moment with our children. So how are we to stay awake and aware through the greatest adventure of our lives?

The first-ever Mindful Mothering conference, held at the Museum of Motherhood (MOM) in New York City on November 7, 2011, set out to answer this question. Its presenters shared their integrated insights developed through professional training and mothering experiences, and then opened the floor to interactive audience discussion. Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., author of the research-based and groundbreaking book, Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child’s First Year, shared mindfulness basics before moving on to the more serious implications of her three-year research project.

“Mindfulness is a practice of being aware of your experience, from moment to moment, allowing it to be just as it is without evaluation or judgment,” said Dr. Vieten. “Over time, mindful awareness of your experiences as a mom, whether they are internal (mental, physical or emotional) or external (situations with your baby or others), allows you to more and more often approach each experience with curiosity and compassion, for yourself and for others.”

Dr. Vieten explained to the MOM audience, “Mindful awareness recognizes that each experience is temporary, and with practice, you can learn to ride the waves of everyday life, allowing each one to arise, peak and pass away, as all experiences do. Mindful awareness can help you notice and derive greater enjoyment from the simple, subtle pleasures of life as a mom—the way the light shines on your little one’s fuzzy head, or the grasp of his hand on your finger—no matter what else may be going on.”

As Pathways readers know, optimal wellness begins pre-conception. Echoing this vitalistic principle, Dr. Vieten’s mindful mothering research reveals that the benefits to mother and baby increase the earlier the practice is begun.

“A large body of evidence in both animal and human studies indicates that stress and mood disturbance experienced during pregnancy increases the risk for preterm birth, low birth weight and other pregnancy-related complications, and may adversely affect the developing fetus,” explained Vieten. “Postnatal mood disturbance can interfere with attachment, quality of mother-infant interactions, healthy parenting behaviors, and child development. While a wealth of evidence supports all these facts, surprisingly little information is available to women and clinicians for reducing stress and improving mood in pregnancy and postpartum.”

Audience members at the conference found the information and presentations exciting and “unique.” Michael Chase, the sole male participant, said of Jeanne Ohm’s high-energy presentation, “This is worth the price of admission alone!”

Pictured are Karen Brody, BOLD founder; Lisa Reagan, Families for Conscious Living cofounder; Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., Mindful Motherhood author; Jeanne Ohm, D.C., Pathways publisher; and Joy Rose, museum director.

“Jeanne was very insightful. She’s really made a business to educate people about birth and how it is meant and supposed to be. She has a great perspective,” he said. “I thought it was interesting to hear what women are thinking during pregnancy and birth. As a man, I am exempt from all of that.” But Chase, who is a talent acquisition specialist for Goodwill Industries during the day and a personal chef for the elderly by night, said he was now more prepared for his future, which included getting married in 2012.

Janae Shields, M.S.W., the green initiatives coordinator for Goodwill Industries, attended the conference with ten single mothers sponsored by GWI. Shields, who runs the Beyond Jobs program at the Goodwill Center in the Bronx, wanted to expose the mothers to the idea of mindful mothering.

“I actually think it is a great thing to share with mothers,” she said. “I was already familiar with the practice of mindfulness. It was my hope that the moms there would find what they need. A lot of people we help are in survival mode and just trying to get food on the table, and don’t get to enjoy mothering. I was hoping that they would find something to help them manage their stress a little bit better as they manage their children.”

In a post-conference discussion, Shields said, “Everyone said they wished they knew about mindful mothering before they had their kids, not after they were five years old, or more. My daughter is four years old, and my son is ten months, and that was a completely different experience, with paying attention to my son consciously instead of just getting through. It was much more of a struggle with my daughter. “All of the mothers who attended the conference with us said they wished more people knew about mindful mothering,” Shields said. “How do we bring other people to this? That was our underlying thought.”