What Parenting Has Taught Me About Mindfulness

Jay Michaelson
February 13, 2020
A parent holds their child in a shop

My daughter is about to turn two years old, but I still describe my partner and myself as “new parents,” since we still seem to be figuring everything out by the seats of our pants.

Pretty much every day, I’ve had one thought in particular: I have no idea how people without a mindfulness practice do this. 

In fact, while mindfulness has taught me a lot about being a better parent, parenting has taught me even more about the value of mindfulness. Here are four things I’ve learned.

1.  Mindfulness is everywhere

Mindfulness has completely saturated both the lovely and the excruciating aspects of my parenting journey. It’s there when I don’t offer my contrary opinion to everything my partner says or does. It’s there when I ground myself in the present moment in order to play with my daughter, cherishing the moment and letting go of the urges to get back to whatever I was doing before. 

And of course, it’s there in tough times, when I’m tired or frustrated. 

This basic movement of mind shows up in every single parenting activity I can think of:  playtime, diapering, cooking, road trips, doctor visits, playground etiquette, boundary-setting, everything. 

There is no special time and place to be mindful, because mindfulness shows up in every time and place.

2. The basic stuff is the most valuable

At difficult times in particular, all the fancy, weird, exciting meditation practices I’ve learned over the years go out the window, and I tap into Mindfulness 101: taking a breath, feeling my feet on the floor, noticing what’s up in the mind. And, if it’s one of my familiar red flags (anger, frustration, etc.), being super-mindful about what I say and do, while allowing whatever feeling is present to arise and pass without resistance.

Now, I still love the weird stuff. I love to teach absorptive meditative mindstates (jhana in Pali/Sanskrit), mysticism, earth-based spirituality. And as a nerdy, intellectually-minded Western Buddhist, I still have memorized the seven factors of enlightenment, the four divine abidings, the five this and three that.

But in the last two years, Mindfulness 101 has been, by far, the most valuable teaching. How to calm down. How to notice what’s up in the mind, and not be controlled by the reactive stuff. How to be more present, more aware, less in my head thinking thoughts of past or future. This has been where the rubber has hit the road.

3. This is not about me

Third, putting mindfulness to the test in this way has erased any doubt that this practice is of enormous benefit to ourselves and others. 

Especially others.

Sometimes you hear people write off mindfulness as self-indulgent or even narcissistic. I feel sure these people have never had to keep their wits together while wrangling a screaming toddler. Because whatever benefit I may enjoy from not freaking out, I feel sure my daughter “enjoys” it even more. And my partner too, for that matter. 

Sure, being less angry and more attentive, loving, and present makes me feel good. But more importantly, it makes me a better parent for my daughter’s sake. 

The same is true, I think, for our relationships with family members, friends, work colleagues, and even strangers. If you find yourself questioning your mindfulness practice (which is totally natural and all of us do it!), I invite you to consider a relationship in your life that it’s made better, and consider it from the other person’s point of view.

Mindfulness makes us ten percent happier, sure – but also ten percent better people. 

4. Practice makes imperfect

Which leads to my fourth and final point. Mindfulness is a skill like any other. At first, it’s awkward; then, it’s conscious and somewhat fluid; and eventually it becomes second nature. And that final stage is where the benefits really kick in. 

Sure, I still get lost, many times a day, and ‘forget’ to be mindful. Ask anyone who knows me how “imperfect” I still am. But a lot of other times, the basic orientation of mindfulness – present moment, non-judgmental attention; noticing, allowing, letting go—is now wired in.

I’m writing this piece after a somewhat bumpy hour. Our daughter fought bathtime for no apparent reason; she usually loves it, but this time she resisted and cried and had us wondering if we’d just abandon ship and go straight to bedtime instead. 

Yet there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t feel love for her, and compassion too, since clearly something was going on. There wasn’t a moment when anger or exhaustion got the better of me. It was really okay. My partner played with her for a while, pushing the metaphorical reset button, and I was able to give her a bath as I do every night.

I’ve had some amazing peak experiences over the years. I’ve learned, and taught, some truly wild contemplative stuff. But tonight feels like the real point of it all.

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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