In a recent New York Times[i] opinion piece, author Karen Rinaldi asserts that “Motherhood Isn’t Sacrifice, It’s Selfishness.” The article elicited a wide-spectrum of reader-responses on the subject of mothering and mothers themselves, generating over 1500 comments in its first two days on the Times website. Wherever you land on this issue—whether you believe motherhood to be more of a blessing or a burden, or both, this edition of the blog is a challenge to your way of thinking. And perhaps even more importantly, to your way of being, in relation to other mothers, and to yourself. Few other subjects in our culture are as fraught with judgment and condemnation as that of motherhood. We are all guilty of moments of slamming another mother, often in our internal dialogue, or sometimes in the form of more public gossip via social media. Let me be clear; My point is not that we should all circle up for a round of “kum-ba-ya.” Like you, I’m a real mom, in the real world. Our commonality as mamas does not make us besties (necessarily.) But, as you’ll see from the researched-based tips that follow, we can all benefit from decreasing our judgment of other mothers and building on our compassion for each other.
1.) Compassion Training, 101: “Compassion,” from the Latin root “com” and “pati” (to bear, suffer) is defined by Merriam-Webster as the “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”[ii]. Like nearly every other human attribute, “compassion,” comes more easily to some of us than to others. Think about your friends. Whom are you most likely to turn to when you need a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen? Chances are, the person who comes to mind is compassionate in nature; someone who makes you feel heard and supports you in your time of trouble. The good (and somewhat remarkable!) news is that compassion can actually be taught. Yep. If your heartstrings are not easily tugged, you can learn to make them a little looser. A recent study out of Stanford University tracked the progress of adults participating in a newly designed CCT (compassion cultivation training.) Over the 9-week course, consisting of classroom-type lessons and a specific meditative practice, participants were found to have significant improvement in three types of compassion, compassion for self, compassion from others and self-compassion.[iii] Looking for a compassion crash-course from the comfort of your living room? Check out the wonderful series of TEDx Talks from The Center For Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford.
2.) Compassion Turned Inward: One way to begin to lessen the mother-judger in you is by beginning a judgment-reducing practice on yourself. Self-compassion is a good way to start. “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” These are the words of Dr. Kristin Niff, an associate professor in psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, and a leading researcher in the evolving field of self-compassion. Many of the tenets of self-compassion dovetail nicely with the exercises shared in previous editions of the Blog. The additional guided breathing and meditative practices found here, courtesy of Dr. Niff, will enhance those in your arsenal. Think you don’t have time to give it a go? You only need 5 minutes for this self-compassion break.
3.) Compassion Spread Outward: Can you imagine what it might feel like to move through the daily routines of motherhood if everyone turned up the dial on compassion—even a little? From lending a hand with the stroller to sharing an empathic “wink” when one’s toddler is in full tantrum mode, choosing (and it is a choice) compassion can tangibly impact day-to-day life in lasting ways—not to mention have positive effects on children. Cultivating compassion for people we care about is often easier than for people we don’t like, but we can learn to do each and become better at both. The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Madison-Wisconsin recently conducted a study[iv] to determine whether compassion for all—those we like and those we don’t, could be taught. The results? Absolutely—and pretty quickly, too. After only 7 hours of training (guided instruction over the Internet for 30 minutes a day,) MRI scans of the test group revealed differences in their brain activity in comparison to the control group. Helen Weng, researcher on the study, compares compassion-building to weight training. “People can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.” Ready to boost your capacity for caring? You can access the Center for Healthy Minds’ compassion training tool here, for free!
[i] Rinaldi, K. (2017, August 4). Motherhood isn’t Sacrifice, it’s selfishness. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/opinion/sunday/motherhood-family-sexism-sacrifice.html
[ii] Merriam-Webster. (2017, August 6). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion
[iii] Jazaieri, H., Jinpa, G., McGonigal, K., Rosenberg, E., Finkelstein, J., Simon-Thomas, E., Cullen, M., Doty, J., Gross, J., & Goldin, P. (2012). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a Compassion Cultivation Training program. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 1113-1126. doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z
[iv] Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. Z. K., Olson, M. C., … Davidson, R. J. (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1171–1180. http://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612469537