From Suffering to Softening: Parenting Through a Pandemic

Just prior to meeting my husband, marrying, and having kids, I had been living and studying full-time for over 3 years in my Guru, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati’s, Yoga Ashram in India. It was an immensely transformational period in my life and still today, 6 years after returning home, I find new relevance and application in what I learned there during that time, particularly in relation to motherhood.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone. Now, we are learning that it has been particularly hard on women, and mothers. Motherhood is beautiful and joyful, yes, yet it also brings big, new challenges every day as our children continue to grow and calls for much personal transformation in order to meet those challenges. Yet, I have found that oft times discussing the challenges is a bit taboo, since we are supposed to be "selfless, loving mothers," a flat characterization which can make us feel guilty if we are perceived as "complaining" when we need to talk about the tough bits of it. Especially since we know that so many other mothers are undoubtedly facing similar challenges, and yet we don't hear them talking about it. Now, throw in a pandemic that disproportionately affects women and mothers (as well as our elders and so many others), and the challenges can become greatly amplified.

As you know, I am a woman, and I am a mother. So, let me start by saying that even if you feel you haven't been able to be the parent you wanted to be over the past year, you are not alone. It has scarcely been possible. This pandemic has brought so much suffering to so many people in so many different ways; yet, at the same time, it has also brought a multitude of lessons and opportunities. Opportunities not so much to change, but to find acceptance of one's limitations and those of the situation. Opportunities to soften our rigid perspective. Opportunities to transform our suffering into softness.

We all know that parenthood is a total blessing filled with so much joy, love and connection. We are so grateful. But that is not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the challenges. I think we need a safe space for this right now.

Parenthood comes laden with a multitude of simultaneous pressures. I don't need to tell you what they are, you know. Yet, this is precisely what makes it the Yogic practice and lifestyle that it is. The pressure creates the opportunity. In Yoga, the analogy often given is that of a diamond. A diamond endures tremendous pressure from all sides, in the same way that parenting on top of work and everything else can feel like teetering on the edge of overwhelm a great deal of the time, especially when you have little littles. Yet, that pressure transforms a simple hunk of coal into a strong, precious and beautiful diamond. Simply through the transformational power of pressure. Swami Satsangi-ji of Rikhiapeeth has also said that sometimes all one needs to do in life to evolve is endure.

We are not really talking about changing ourselves. When it comes to the hard barrier of the ego, when it undergoes tremendous pressure and difficulty from all sides and becomes totally frustrated and completely exhausted, it is at that precise moment that it throws its hands up in the air and surrenders. And with that surrender, there comes a great softening and openness. And with that softening and openness, we do not so much change who we are through hard work and so on (after all, the qualities of the heart are already within us, we only need to connect with them), but our perception,  understanding and expression naturally tend to shift into the realm of the heart. From the suffering of the ego, into the softness of the heart.

Recently, having been home so much with my 3 and 1 year olds over this past pandemic year, whilest also trying to work a new job from a noisy and more-than-often-interrupted home office, on top of running the household with my partner, I had been starting to feel that immense pressure, fatigue, and frustration to the point where I knew that if I did not figure out how to deal with it in a more positive and Yogic way, that it could have a negative impact on my physical, mental and emotional health. So, being the disciple that I try to be of my Guru and the teachings, I took time to stop. I just stopped. I rested. I reflected. I re-focused. And I let the kids watch a lot of TV while I did it.

In Yoga, there is a saying, "There is no noise in the marketplace, and no peace in the Himalayas. Both are within you." I thought about this a lot and what it meant for me and how to apply it in a practical way. I couldn't really do much to change my circumstances, they are what they are right now without a lot of wiggle room. However, something could shift within me. And then I remembered a seemingly minor incident that occurred while I was in the ashram during those 3 years of study.

I had been rushing off from one karma yoga activity to another, as I often was. I was literally running to try to get there on time. Somehow, I tripped when I was stepping up onto the curb from the road, stubbed my toe really, really hard taking a decent chunk of skin off, and fell. I looked to my right (feeling a little embarrassed and kind of hoping nobody was watching), and who was standing there witnessing the entire incident unfold was my Guru, Swami Niranjan-ji. Without saying a word, the message was crystal clear, "slow down. don't run." I have even heard Swamiji say before that, if you end up being late somewhere, better to arrive late and relaxed than to arrive on time and frazzled.

This incident suddenly felt so incredibly relevant. As a parent, I constantly find myself rushing all over again. Rushing from putting out one fire to the next, rushing from tidying this spot to the next, rushing from this appointment to the next, rushing to help manage the big emotions of my two toddlers, rushing to make meals and get everyone bathed, brushed and to bed, and then rushed to get everyone up, dressed, diapered and on time for preschool. Rushing, rushing, rushing.

In our tradition of yoga, it is often said that the speed with which you practice the asana does not impact the quality of awareness, meaning that the faster you go, you do not have to become less aware. Likewise, in parenthood, there is a lot to do all the time. We cannot always stop. Sometimes we may need to for a moment, but then we have to keep going again. So, how do we slow down inside and connect with this inner peace and stay there while there continue to be so many simultaneous external demands on our attention, bodies, minds, and emotions as parents. 

I feel that it starts with a choice. A choice to prioritize my inner peace and happiness. And then, when I feel the coil inside me beginning to wind tighter and tighter, I remember. I remember my inner priority. I breathe through the tension, and breathe the tension away. I choose peace. I unravel my inner coil before it winds tighter. I remind myself that, while this moment is intense, everything is usually pretty okay in general. And I choose peace. I accept the limitations of the moment, and the limitations of myself. I let go of how I thought things should be, or how I wanted them to be. I focus my mind, my attention, my eyes and my ears on what I need to do externally the best I reasonably can without becoming angry or judging myself that I could not do it better. I slow down inside. I let go of the thoughts that begin to sprout in all directions, and let the resulting emotions rise and fall away. I do what I need to do, inside and out. Sometimes I fail. But, then I just try again. Just like I teach my kids to do.

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