Motherhood is like a buddhist retreat? What? Stay with me now…
I’m pacing up and down the hallway of our apartment, slowly, slowly with a slight bounce in my step and a jiggle in my arms. I am wishing, hoping our baby would go to sleep. I am still in the early stages of motherhood, a new inhabitant in a strange and beautiful land. I am sleep deprived, but I believe that will end any day now (yes.. any day now… 3 years later). Any day now, my baby will go to sleep on his own, sleep through the night and I will again feel like the human I once was.
I pace and I jiggle. I sing Nick Cave. Baby indicates his displeasure. I try Tom Waits. Baby cranks it up a notch because I still haven’t got the message.
HEll NO MAMA
“Baa baa black sheep…”
Baby settles into my arms.. (What? It’s the same damn tune baby).
I wait for the corners of his mouth to curl up into that cheeky reflex smile that tells me sleep is settling into his limbs.
“have you any wool…”
I continue my pacing. Stepping one foot after the other. Lifting my foot, placing it down, slowly, deliberately..
Reminded of another moment of pacing..
I am back in the meditation hall of the retreat centre in Thailand. It’s coming towards sunset. Two of us, white clothes meditators, pacing. We face in opposite directions. He faces the wall; I am gazing in the direction of the open window, but not exactly seeing it.
Pacing, stepping one foot after the other. Music again, this time The Eagles “Hotel California”, drifting up from a house below the temple. Sunset music. This is someone’s sunset song. Every evening it flows in through the window, along with the balmy breeze and the occasional mosquito.
Any time of year, you can find us here
We stop. Pacing paused. Laughter, giggles, bellies jiggling and corners of the mouths turned up into smiles. Letting go of the meditation frowns. Meditating now on the music. We say nothing. Humans, meditating on a hilltop, meditating on our pacing. Smiling, sharing.
The music ends, night falling and we return to our pacing, light in mood and step.
This is not the only way in which new motherhood resembles a Buddhist retreat, but it was the first one that occurred to me. Thinking about it revealed a number of other similarities.
- The early rising. Baby wakes at 5 am? That is practically a SLEEP-IN compared to the 4am start of a serious Buddhist retreat.But then on retreat, you can go to bed at 10pm and the only person waking for a middle of the night feed is you… because…
- The fasting and the hunger. Breakfast at 7 a.m, lunch at 11, and no food for the rest of the day. You are almost as ravenous as a breastfeeding mother, awake since 5 am, and who hasn’t had breakfast yet because she hasn’t figured out how to open a boiled egg and a mini cereal box onehanded (thanks for that hospital caterers).
- The extended periods of sitting. You thought that sitting for an hour at a time on the meditation retreat was challenging. Baby’s two-week growth spurt has hit and any attempt to move baby away from the milk source is met with blood-curdling screams. You’ve been sitting in the armchair since before breakfast and you can no longer feel your bum. Your husband is at work so you cry down the phone to your mother. Who knew it was this hard to sit still?
- The walking meditations. Same drill, different music and better (well at least more vocal) company.
- The gamut of emotions. Every emotion that you have experienced in your life to date, comes rushing into your head by day 2 of your retreat. You cry, you rant, you experience pure bliss, briefly. It makes you so crazy the only way to get through it is to let go.. or to let go of your sanity. Now any given hour with baby has the potential to send you up and down the spectrum of emotions, love, fear, anger.. and you experience pure bliss, every day in your baby’s gaze.
- The guilt. Guilty because your mind wanders instead of focusing on the breath. Guilty because you’re thinking how much more fun it would be just to sit on the beach somewhere. Guilty because you’re thinking about whether it’s that hot Australian guy who just sat down in the meditation hall behind you, instead of focusing on the Buddha’s teachings (which incidentally are not at all about guilt). Thought that was guilt? HAH. Welcome to the land of mommy guilt where nothing you do will ever be right/good enough for you or the multiple critical voices inside and outside your head. Breathe.. It will all be okay. Have a glass of wine. Adopt the slogan goodenoughisthenewperfect.
- The daze. On my departure from my meditation retreat, I was craving some food. There was this place that served pancakes across from where the songtgeaw dropped me off. I spent almost an hour sitting in a complete daze, while the waiter checked on me nervously at intervals before I could gather myself to choose my order. Post-baby the daze manifests in multiple conversations on the same topic with husband (at least half of which are about baby poo/puke), and conversations with parents of old friends where you forget minor details like which old friend’s parent this actually is (referring to them by the wrong name throughout).
- Nonself /dissolution of the ego. One of the primary teachings of Buddhism is the idea of non-self. Basically, the thinking is there is not permanent, unchanging self. This is a complex idea and I’m not going to get fully into it here, but there is something in becoming a mother or a parent which involves a relinquishing of who you think you are, your ego, that echoes that idea. You also see in your babies as they grow that there is no unchanging self for them.. the baby they were last year is replaced by the toddler they were yesterday, the 3-year-old they are today. Not quite the Buddhist concept of non-self, but an interesting entry point for considering the idea.
- The development of compassion. On a Buddhist retreat, you may come across loving-kindness meditation, a tool for developing compassion for all living creatures. As a new parent, it can sometimes feel like a similar compassion has suddenly switched on, you feel the suffering of the world more acutely. Maybe it’s the story of a child affected by war, or a delayed empathy for the cows on the farm of your childhood, calling mournfully for their calves across the fields (yes, I am definitely a country girl at heart).
- Contemplation of death. In Buddhism, contemplation of death is encouraged as an integral part of the concept of impermanence. Becoming a parent brings your mortality sharply into focus. In neither case does this have to be a negative thing- it is simply an acknowledgment of the human condition, albeit one we don’t really like to think about too much…
Let’s face it, another 21-day retreat in Thailand is not happening anytime soon… Just as well really that motherhood presents this opportunity for Buddhist practice… I can go on retreat without going anywhere..