Becoming a mom was supposed to a beautiful gift. Society tells us that it will be miraculous, instantaneously fulfilling, and such a natural transition. Any shred of doubt is always dismissed by people saying, “Oh, you will be a great mom!” After all weren’t we women created for the sole purpose of becoming mothers?
Well when it finally happened for me, I wasn’t great. In fact, I wasn’t even good. Apparently, I was not normal. I did not feel miraculous or instantaneously fulfilled, and I found the transition to be anything but natural. I shuddered when the doctor walked over to hand me my beautiful newborn. I did not burst at the opportunity to hold my daughter for the first time. Instead, I secretly wished I could run away. My arms reached out for her because I knew that was what I was supposed to do.
Internally I was pushing against the desire to recoil, not just in my arms, but my entire body. My muscles retracted and tensed. They were trying so hard to tell me that something was wrong, but I ignored the message. I was not consciously willing to admit that I was scared. I had been diagnosed with anxiety in the past, but this felt different. I didn’t consider that my previous anxiety could have caused my brain to lay down “anxious” neural connections. Nor did I consider that these connections would make me more susceptible to anxiety as an adult. I didn’t think that giving birth could have acted as a catalyst for these previously dormant neural pathways.
After all, I was a psychologist. I was supposed to be an expert on anxiety and the brain. On a cellular level, by body was resisting the transition into motherhood. However, I was too blinded by how I thought I should feel or how I thought I should act. I ignored my own body. Instead, I was living under the tyranny of “the shoulds.”
Ignoring my body came at a devastating price. Physical pain became chronic and anxiety and depression took over. It felt as if my mind and my body were no longer my own; all autonomy was gone. I was coming apart at the seams, leaving my husband and family to pick up the pieces. This included the role of raising my new daughter.
Mindfulness for Anxiety
Somewhere along the way, as I was trying to stay afloat, I found mindfulness. It was not magical, or some profound overnight remedy. Yet it made sense to me and provided me with a sense of hope and some momentary relief. It took me away from the shame of the past and the terror of what the future would present. It helped me to identify my inner critic. She was the little voice in my head telling me that I wasn’t good enough to be a mom. It made life a little bit easier.
Mindfulness is a fancy way to say “monotasking,” or doing one thing at a time. This was something I was never very good at. Mindfulness is purposely paying attention to the present moment without judging the current experience. It is being aware of present moment interactions with a sense of openness and compassion. It is simple, but it is not easy. It asks us to replace fear with curiosity. It diminishes the need for immediate gratification and allows for more patience and trust to enfold. It reminds us that we are not defined by the shortcomings of our past. It teaches us the futility of trying to control the future. Mindfulness guides us down the middle path. It enables us to let go of rigid thinking and helps us to remain neutral, even amidst the chaos.
Chaos used to be something that was very familiar to me. When my daughter was born I immediately began drowning in it. I started doubting my own ability as a mother. As an academically successful individual, this was intensely overwhelming. It felt as if my entire identity was being questioned. Initially, I did not recognize what was going on so my suffering got exponentially worse. When I started practicing mindfulness, I slowed down long enough to realize what was happening. I began following my train of thought, which was unpleasant to say the least. I discovered that I spoke to myself in ways that I would never dare speak to another human being. My self-talk was profoundly negative and it only served to intensify my anxiety.
The Brain Can Change
Luckily for us, it is never too late to change. Recently it was discovered that the human brain has the ability to rewire itself. This term is called “neuroplasticity.” This means we are able to reorganize our brain structure by engaging in purposeful practices like mindfulness. Mindfulness can be compared to physical activity. Similarly to lifting a weight, mindfulness calls for mental repetitions (allowing and letting go.) Although it seems counterintuitive, there is no reason to push away a negative thought. That process merely creates more mental and physical tension. Instead, mindfulness teaches us to accept whatever comes up, but not attach meaning to it. Mindfulness allows us to notice negative self-talk and gives us the opportunity to transform it into something more positive. It shows us that it is possible to be an observer of our own thoughts. It helps to give us a sense of control, which is inherently lacking in the experience of anxiety.
When practiced consistently, mindfulness changes the neural pathways of the brain. It can alter the way the most developed part of our brain functions. It increases the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of planning, empathy, morality, etc. It can also shrink the part of our brain responsible for emotion regulation. That is why people who have been practicing mindfulness for a while seem calmer and not as easily roused.
I would not consider myself a mindfulness “expert” by any means. In fact, I don’t think anyone deserves to make such bold claims, with the exception of maybe Buddha himself. Mindfulness is a life-time practice because stressors are inevitable. There are always areas of our life that are in need of more kind attention. For me, I practice mindfulness in a variety of ways. I engage in a ten minute formal sitting practice after my children have gone to sleep. I practice breath awareness when I notice anxiety start to surface. I engage in mindful walking when I cannot seem to get my mind to settle. I try to practice a little bit everyday. Some days I do and some days I don’t. However, I definitely notice a difference in my mood when I take more than a few days off.
Mindfulness is not a cure-all like the media may want us to believe; but it is a wonderful tool. It is an ability that is innate in all of us. It just takes a small amount of commitment and persistence. It has helped me tremendously in reducing my overall fear surrounding anxiety. Now when I am experiencing anxiety, I label it and let it pass. I simply note that anxiety, although uncomfortable, is only a temporary experience.
Over four years have passed since my daughter was born and much has changed. With the help of mindfulness I am better able to appreciate my family, especially my three young children. Love and gratitude have slowly diminished the feelings of inadequacy and fear. I realized that it was my judging mind that told me I needed to be the perfect mom. With the help of mindfulness I was able to fight back. I reminded myself to let go of those negative thoughts because they were not truths. I acknowledge now that my thoughts are not facts.
The reality is that it is okay to be flawed. We can use the moments of imperfection as opportunities for growth. Every day my children remind me how to live more in the moment. I take solace in the little things like cuddling, soft baby skin, and inquisitive conversations. I let go more quickly of the inevitable “failures,” like resisting showers, losing patience, and having cereal for dinner. With the help of mindfulness I continue to grow more into myself and for that I am forever grateful.