September; a time for heading back-to-school and preparing our little ones for the coming year. As we shop for those new back-packs, books and lunch boxes, what can we do to better equip ourselves for the year ahead, and beyond? When it comes to motherhood, there is no curriculum, no lesson plan, no definitive guide to ensure we are doing the job well. Perhaps this is part of what makes motherhood so trying at times. The stakes, raising a happy, healthy human being, are incredibly high, and yet we are all pretty much winging it. This edition of the Blog then is dedicated not to “how-to-do,” but rather “how-to-be.” Here are 3 researched-based tips on better managing the not-knowing inherent in being a mom. If you can practice these three “S’s” you can learn to better tolerate the unknowns (of which there are so many) and this can transform your experience of motherhood. Shift Your Thought-Process: Our thoughts have tremendous power, which is interesting when you consider that they are just, well, thoughts—intangible, passing notions that fade in and fade out. Think about a night-time feeding. You might find yourself saying “I’m so tired—I don’t know how much longer I can do this!” No doubt you are exhausted, but the reality is that you have been managing night-time feedings for weeks and maybe months, and you will most likely be able to manage this evening’s one as well. What if you were to replace the initial, emotion-driven thought, “I can’t handle it,” with something more realistic such as “These feedings are exhausting but they will come to an end, and I will sleep through the night again.” This kind of reality-testing allows a mom to differentiate between her own internal thought (“I can’t do this anymore”) and the reality of the outside world (“In fact, I have done this many times before and I am managing it now.”) This exercise can break the cycle of getting caught up in worrying about what you fear you may not be able to do in the future, by instead developing an awareness of what you are capable of doing in the present. (Ironically, the concept of reality-testing is credited to Sigmund Freud; a man who himself had some pretty radical [irrational?] views on motherhood. We’ll save that for another edition….) Stay Present, If Only For a Moment: Timing is everything. Or is it? In Buddhist tradition, the nature of time is very different from the one to which we ascribe in Western culture. The Zen Master Dogen, born in 1200, wrote that “If time keeps coming and going, you are the time-being right now.” What he means (and I’m hazarding an educated guess here, Mamas) is that the only “time” that truly exists is the present. So how is this useful in terms of quelling the anxiety wrapped up in un-knowingness? Because, according to this idea, the present moment is the only one we have. There is no future. How can one be anxious about something non-existent? Ponder that one---for the time being! Besides reducing stress and anxiety in general, remaining present also brings with it a slew of positive side effects including decreasing depressive feelings and maybe even lessening our chances of getting the Flu! (And you don’t wanna be a Mama with the Flu!) Here are two super-simple exercises to help you return to the only time there is; the now, courtesy of one of the most mindful among us, Eckhart Tolle: 1.) “Ask yourself, am I still breathing? You suddenly feel the air flowing into your body and out of your body... At that moment, you’ve entered the state of presence. Even if it’s only five seconds.” You may be moved by the way in which something as simple as this can inspire a sense of awe in being alive. 2.) Be conscious in your everyday activities. Whether you are washing bottle parts, or rocking your baby to sleep, summon your senses fully to the task. Be aware of the warm, soapy water on your hands, or the sound of the stroller wheels moving back and forth on the floor. The beauty of your senses—they only ever exist in the present. Even a reminder of the memory of how something tasted or smelled, for example, happens in the now. Steal a Lesson From Your Little One: You know who’s remarkably adept at managing the uncertainty of what lies ahead? Your baby! Young children have a knack for immersing themselves fully in the “now,” whether it be delighting in the wonder of a new object or throwing a full-body tantrum. It is not until about the age of three that children begin to develop the capacity to imagine and ruminate about the future, and more so as they turn four and five. So, there was a time in your life, albeit long ago, when you were not even able to fathom what’s to come. You had no other option but to simply exist as you were. Today, when you find yourself preoccupied with what might happen or what could happen, take a cue from your child and place yourself wholly in whatever is happening now. As an adult, you possess the wisdom to recognize that this moment, pleasant or not, will pass on its own. You don’t have to do anything. And as a mother, that is a rare and delightful thing, indeed.
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
Well, mamas, summer is most certainly upon us. Regular readers of Mother Matters may know that the monthly blog often takes its inspiration from the time of year (though the research-based tips offered are applicable all year round.) The July issue is no exception. Since many of you may be encountering the heat, either where you live or where you are vacationing, this month’s post is all about how to keep your cool—physically, emotionally and spiritually. If you ever find yourself getting hot under the collar, literally or figuratively, (and we all do,) read-on Mamas!
Cooling Off: Keeping Your Mama-Body Moving & Hydrated
Just because the thermometor (sorry, I couldn’t resist) is rising outside, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice an outdoor workout. What it does mean, is that you need to be more thoughtful and purposeful in your exercise plan. Here are 3 tips to make sure you keep cool (enough) while you’re sweatin’ it.
•Nursing?! Super-size your drink: Noted pediatrician William Sears MD, recommends that nursing mothers should aim to drink 8 ounces of water with each feeding, usually 8-10 times daily.[i] If you exercising, you’ll want to be sure you have a tall glass of water shortly before beginning your workout, and then another glass to sip slowly and often throughout the duration.
•Get More Bang From Your Water-Bottle: As your baby grows, you may find your muscles need to grow as well, in order to continue lifting up him or her into toddlerhood. Here’s where your water bottles can do double duty. Grab a couple of 500ml to 1l plastic bottles and fill them up before heading out for a walk. Place baby in the carrier so that you have arms free to hold a bottle in each hand. (Or, if you’re stroller-stuck, simply alternate holding one bottle in each hand.) Pump up your upper body by doing a bicep curl, alternating either side. Aim for 10-12 reps on each side, 2-3 sets total. As you drink, obviously, the weight of the bottles will become lighter, which means you have a bonus option to repeat another set of curls on your way back home! Stuck inside but still want to work-out your upper body? Try this upper body press that you can do with (or without) your little one!
•Get Moving in the Morning (Or Evening): Every mama knows her time is seldom her own. If you have any flexibility in terms of when to exercise, opt for the early morning or after sundown during the summer months. Cooler temperatures will make for a more pleasant workout and a reduced risk of dehydration, not to mention a decrease in potentially harmful sun (over)exposure. Mamas for whom exercise also offers an emotional lift may be interested in this added benefit of a sunrise or sunset stroll (scroll down to the 4th paragraph.)
Cooling Your Jets: Keeping Calm in the Midst of Conflict. You’ve slept a total of 5 hours in the last two nights, your babysitter canceled, and the air conditioner just made a sound that suggests it's coming to the end of its lifespan. Tonight is the night you and your partner are going to discuss whether the time has come to stop co-sleeping. You’re for it. (S)he’s against. This is not going to be pretty. Before you march into battle, prepared to pulverize your co-parent, consider this: What if you entered into the discussion with a willingness to be proven wrong. Yep. That’s right. What if, instead of committing to making your case come hell or high water, you instead choose to listen wholly to your partner’s point of view, with the idea that perhaps it has some merit? And imagine if he or she enters into the discussion with an agreement to do the same? How might it change the entire tenor of the conversation, if instead of fighting to prove your point, you each focus on listening to the other’s? This is not a new idea. In fact, it’s steeped in over 2000 years of Western philosophy. The concept, a willingness to be proven wrong, was embraced by Plato and his teacher Socrates[ii], and served as a guiding principle in how these iconic masters of wisdom conversed with others and each other.
How might the work of co-parenting be made more manageable if, when conflicts arise, we approach them in this way? In fact, how might this strategy inform the way we move through the office, the school, the supermarket?! Next time you are headed for conflict, try it out for yourself. Invite your partner to do the same. You just may find that doing so keeps the room temperature a whole lot more comfortable.
Cool Head, Cool Heart: Keeping Spiritually Cool: Motherhood is nothing if not humbling. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on how to manage any given challenge, a cosmic shift occurs that throws a wrench into that best laid plan. And that’s often when we reach a boiling point. Moments like these are when a mindfulness technique can be especially useful. Taking a pause to burn off some steam can help keep us from doing or saying something we will likely regret later. Regular readers know that mindfulness comes up often in the Blog, because it works. A growing body of research[iii] highlights the positive health benefits of mindfulness in mothering. So what is “mindfulness” exactly? Broadly defined, mindfulness is the practice of placing focus and awareness on the present moment. While not a religious practice, the ideas are steeped in traditional Buddhist meditation practices that date back more than 2000 years. There are innumerable ways to begin incorporating mindfulness into your daily mothering. One of the simplest is to begin to observe your anger, and specifically where you experience it in the body.[iv] Does your jaw clench up? Does your breathing become fast and shallow? Do your shoulders rise up to your ears? Next time you feel like you’re going to “lose it,” see if you can catch yourself and shift your focus to your body. Rather than saying or doing something regretful, act to let go of the physical tension. Unclench your jaw, take a deep breath, relax your shoulders. This accomplishes two things; 1.) It gives you the gift of time—a moment to reflect before acting from a place of rage and 2.) It helps your body downshift from “stress” mode to a calmer stance, and the physiological change may in turn help you feel more in control—“cooler” and more collected.
Dayna is a leading authority on the subject of women transitioning to motherhood and serves as Director of the Anna Keefe Women's Center at the Training Institute for Mental Health in Manhattan. She is a licensed social worker and NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) Certified Personal Trainer with an additional certification in training the pre and postnatal client. Dayna is the author of the upcoming "Mother Matters: A Practical Guide to Raising a Happy, Healthy Mom" (Familius Press, Spring 2018) and is a contributor to the Doctor's Book of Natural Remedies (Rodale, 2017). Dayna also serves as a "Real Answers" expert on TheBump.com. She has written or been consulted on articles for the websites of PopSugar, The Today Show, Pregnancy & Newborn, Big City Moms, Pregnancy Corner, WAGmagazine among others, and writes the "Mother Matters" blog on the Huffington Post. A sought-after speaker, Dayna regularly presents on the subject of mother-care.
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Read Dayna’s “Real Expert” Answers to Mamas’ Questions @ TheBump.com
 See the Ask Dr. Sears website, “Hydration While Breastfeeding” at http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/feeding-eating/breastfeeding/hydration-while-breastfeeding
 David Kolb, Postmodern Sophistications: Philosophy, Architecture, and Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, November 15, 1992.), 30
 S. Warriner, M. Dymond, & M. Williams, “Mindfulness in maternity” 21(7), 2013. British Journal of Midwifery, 520-522.
 David Gelles, “How to Be Mindful When You Are Angry,” The New York Times, April 5th 2017, accessed July 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/well/mind/how-to-be-mindful-when-you-are-angry.html?mcubz=2&_r=0
Surprise! The June and July editions of “Mother Matters“ will be published a few days early, thanks to a much-needed mama-cation. Enjoy!
Happy (almost) start of summer, mamas. A change in season brings with it a natural time for reflection. As the hours of daylight lengthen and the night time shortens, seize the shift in time to evaluate how you are feeling with regard to mothering. Could you find greater enjoyment or fulfillment in particular activities? Are certain aspects of motherhood feeling especially challenging? This month’s “Mother Matters” blog highlights 3 researched-based tools that you can employ today to help make motherhood easier and hopefully more enjoyable. In honor of the start of summer, in this edition we pay special homage to light!
Look Toward the Light (to Boost Your Mood): Vitamin-D is essential for good health. The body needs “D” in order to absorb calcium, a requirement for enabling bone growth. The likelihood is that it may do a whole lot more than that—everything from helping prevent autism, to reducing the risks for cancer and heart disease—though the evidence is inconclusive. What we do know for sure is that too little Vitamin D can have a negative impact on kids and adults. Insufficient vitamin D, in severe cases, can cause rickets in children. More common during the 19th century in the U.S. and Europe, rickets, from the Old English word “wrickken” meaning to twist or bend,[i] resulted in the abnormal development of soft, malleable bones, often at risk of fracture. In certain under-developed areas of the world, rickets is still problematic.
In adults, there is evidence to suggest that Vitamin D deficiency is linked to depression. A review of studies including over 31,000 individuals found an association between low vitamin D concentration and depression.[ii] Ask your doctor about having your Vitamin D levels checked (it’s a simple blood test) as well as a recommendation for a dietary supplement if you need a boost. And in these next few months where there is more time to do it, go outside for a walk and soak in some sunlight! (See the next bullet for a tip on timing your walk.)
Take a Sunset or Sunrise Stroll—Regular readers of the Blog know that I’m a big fan of walking. This low impact (easy on the joints), cardio-enhancing, activity is a great way to lift your spirits and lose some baby weight (if you’re looking to do so.) During these summer months, consider taking your walk around sunrise or sunset. According to ancient Hindu philosophy, these two time periods make it easier to access “sattva” (pronounced “saht-wah.”) From the Sanksrit, sattva doesn’t have a direct English translation, but it refers more or less to a certain property or energy that is present in the world, and is associated with a sense of goodness, harmony and contentment.[iii] If you practice any form of meditation, you may find that doing so is easier in the early morning and evening. One might attribute this, in part, to the idea that “sattva” may be more readily tapped into at those times.[iv] So lace up your walking shoes and move into the blissful light of sunrise or sunset to boost your sattva!
Turn Down the Light: Get Your Zzzzs: With greater daylight, you may be more inclined to stay up later and forced into waking up earlier. Sleep is essential to your overall health—boosting your spirit, keeping your body well and preserving sanity. This is why sleep deprivation makes such an effective torture device—really! If you get a lot of light in your bedroom, invest in blackout shades. Be sure to get them for the nursery as well, if you haven’t already.
Looking for a few additional sleep-stealing tips beyond light-management? Here’s a bonus, courtesy of Nutritional Consultant Patricia Daly, BA, DipHE, NT.[v] She shares that one of the best ways to stave off physical and emotional fatigue is to keep blood sugar levels even throughout the day. Complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta and brown rice are preferable to their white counterparts, which can lead to a rapid spike and drop in pressure. A tall glass of water along with those carbs is also a good idea. Water can keep the bodily systems running smoothly and reduce the risk of constipation—a common culprit of fatigue.
Vitamin D deficiency and depression in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis.
[iv] Lecture on “Happiness;” 5/24/17, The School of Practical Philosophy, New York, NY.
[v] Patricia Daly BA, DipHE, NT Email interviews June 9-September 27, 2016.
Welcome to a special “Mother’s Day” edition of the “Mother Matters” blog. Mother’s Day has a rich and long history. The Ancient Greeks practiced some form of the holiday, reserving a festival in the Spring to pay homage to Rhea, the mother of all Greek gods. Medieval England reserved the 4th Sunday of Lent for “Mothering Sunday,” a time for servants of the Court to return home to be with their mamas. The Mother’s Day with which we are most familiar was created by grateful daughter Anna Marie Jarvis, whose mother attended to Civil War soldiers and worked in community activism. Jarvis’ vision for the holiday included a Sunday morning church service followed by handwritten love letters to a mother from her child(ren.) After a dedicated campaign to make it a federal holiday, Jarvis saw her dream realized when then President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill in 1914, declaring the second Sunday in May, “Mother’s Day.” It wasn’t long before Mother’s Day became a money-maker for greeting card companies, florists and the like. So disturbed was she by the commercialization of the day, Jarvis dedicated the rest of her life, unsuccessfully, toward the work of its abolishment. Jarvis died in 1948, never having had children.[i]
Do you feel your work as a mother is recognized, not only on the designated Sunday, but on most days? Or some days? Or any day? If the answer is “no,” then let this year’s Mother’s Day serve as a catalyst for change; an opportunity to begin to more fully appreciate your mother-self, and other mothers in your life. Wondering how to make it happen in a real, research-based, way? Read on!
Tribute to Your (Mother)-Self: The inherent flaw in Mother’s Day is that it comes only once a year. One day in 365 is not a sufficient amount of time to appreciate the work you do. You should be saluted on a regular basis. This is not self-indulgence. This is self-care.
Here are three free ways to bring Mother’s Day into your every day:
· Spend five minutes in silence. This may seem a tall task if you’re home with an infant or toddler, but most mamas can find five minutes. And it’s more than worth it. Silence really is golden when it comes to your mind. Reserving some quiet time can result in a brain cell boost! A study published in Brain, Structure and Function[ii] [iii] revealed an increase in the production of new cells in the hippocampus’ of mice—the part of the brain responsible for tasks such as learning and memory. Have a seat, close your eyes, and enjoy the silence.
· Stop and smell the roses—literally. Walk past a florist or garden and take several deep breaths. Appreciation makes a significant, positive impact in life satisfaction, according to a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.[iv]
· Take a self-loving-selfie. You have your phone at your fingertips anyway, right? Turn the camera on you and snap a shot. Look at the picture and write down three things you like about what you see, or think about when you look at yourself. They can be related to your appearance, i.e. “I love that shade of lipstick on my lips,” or in reference to something you see “under the skin,” such as “I like the tone of voice I used with my son just before I took this, gentle but firm.” If you notice negative thoughts coming in, simply be aware of them and let them float away—they have no place on that piece of paper.
Tribute to Another Mother: If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll be familiar with the idea of honoring not only yourself as a mother, but honoring other mothers as well. Acknowledging another mother for her work not only serves to feed her soul, but feeds your own. A well-established, robust body of research underscores the health benefits, physical and psychological, of offering support to others—social, financial or otherwise.[v] Offer a small gesture of appreciation to another mother; buy her a cup of coffee, offer an hour of baby-sitting time, or send a text just to let her know you’re thinking of her. A little goes a long way. Do be sure though not to get carried away in do-gooding! Over extending yourself can have negative repercussions for your own health. If you are feeling depleted, or if giving feels burdensome, hold off. You need to tend to yourself before you can tend to another.
Tribute to Mother Earth: There is something about communing with Mother Earth, the greatest mama of them all, that can be very therapeutic. In fact, horticultural therapy has been demonstrated to have positive health outcomes on a wide variety of populations, according to studies published by the American Horticultural Therapy Association.[vi] The combination of not only being in a natural environment, but also of engaging in a structured, purposeful and fruitful activities can provide a sense of accomplishment. One can literally see (or eat) the fruit of her labor. If you are lucky enough to have the space, consider planning out a small area of your yard to build a garden. This will afford opportunities to engage with your child(ren), partner or yourself. If not, ask about planting a tree at a local park (call your department of parks and recreation—often there are special days reserved for this purpose), or buy seeds to cultivate a small herb garden at home.
[ii] Kirste, Imke, Nicola, Zeina, Kronenberg, Golo, Walker, Tara L, Liu, Robert C., and Kempermann, Gerd. “Is Silence Golden? Effects of Auditory Stimuli and Their Absence on Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis.” Springer Berlin Heidelberg, October 30, 2013.
[iv] Fagley, N.S., (2012), Appreciation uniquely predicts life satisfaction above demographics, the Big 5 personality factors, and gratitude. Personality and Individual Differences 53(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.02.019
[v] Konrath, S., and Brown, S. (2012), The Effects of Giving on Givers in Handbook of Health and Social Relationships, Nicole Roberts & Matt Newman (Eds.) APA Books. Accessed 5/7/17
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” – William Morris
Spring is traditionally the season to tidy up. We speak of “spring cleaning,” of ridding our homes of the piles that have somehow accumulated over the short, dark days of winter. In early motherhood, there may not be much time for physical cleaning. Beyond the onesie-washing and brushing out the milk bottles, tackling the tangible mess may have to wait a season or two, or more.
However, there is always time to “clean out” the chaos in our minds; the “mother-clutter.” Caring for a baby, for all its privilege, can create a build up of emotional residue. This month, “Mother Matters” offers 3 concrete, evidence-based exercises for cleansing your mama-mind, (and your mama-body too, because as the research shows the health of one directly impacts the health of the other.)
In this season, or any season, you can use these tools to help remove the cobwebs and claim a clearer, brighter view.
Pay it forward (to another mother): In the throes of sleep deprivation, toddler temper tantrums and wondering what to make for dinner—again, it’s very easy (and very normal) to lose ourselves in our own woes. And the woes are real. The fatigue can be debilitating, the tantrums exacerbating, and the meal-planning monotonous. One way to break out of the bubble of our own “stuff” is to focus our attention on someone else. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology[i] tested the pop-culture concept of “paying it forward,” to see if the idea would hold up under scientific scrutiny. A group of undergraduate students were recruited to perform brief, one-time-only acts of random kindness. These were simple actions—holding open a door for someone, extending a compliment, paying a parking-meter or offering someone a snack. The study demonstrated a positive emotional impact on both the givers and receivers of the action, with women showing even greater benefit than men.
Next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your own emotional mother-moment, make a choice to “pay-it-forward” to another mother in your neighborhood or “mommy and me” class. Chances are, you will both feel better.
Walk Your Way to A Clearer Mind: The Buddha did it, and he seemed to have a few things figured out when it came to making life more manageable. What mother wouldn’t welcome a few tips in that department? Walking meditation has been found in studies[ii] to offer tangible health benefits including reducing feelings of depression, and increasing functional fitness. It also happens to be a wonderful way to connect with yourself, and quite literally, become more firmly grounded. As opposed to adopting the act of walking for the purpose of getting from point A to point B, as is most commonly done, walking as a meditative action has a different objective. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, M.D., founder of mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MBSR) describes it beautifully; to “bring our attention to our feet and feel the contact of the foot with the floor or ground with every step, as if we were kissing the earth and the earth were kissing right back.”[iii] You can begin to practice a walking meditation nearly anywhere at anytime. You could even have your baby strapped to you in a carrier, or in the stroller. Take a breath. Lift one foot off the ground, feeling the weight shifting from one side of the body to another. Notice the heel come down, the ball of the foot, then the toes last. Then lift the back foot, moving it forward. Be aware of how each step is unique. While there are similarities in the mechanics, each one is different than the next. When you become distracted, bring yourself back to the beauty of your feet, and welcome a kiss from the Earth.
Wipe Away the Blur; See What’s Right in Front of You: So much of our time, mothering and otherwise, is spent going through the motions. We engage in the day-to-day routine, but are we really “awake” as we do so? The American writer Henry Miller wrote “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”[iv] Imagine how you might feel differently if you became more attentive, more focused, more welcoming of each aspect of the daily “grind.” This is a wonderful exercise to try with your baby: Practice observing an object the way he or she does, as if for the first time. It doesn’t matter what the object is—a toy, a piece of food, anything. Really see it. See the colors, feel the texture. Take it in in a deeper way than you are accustomed. Look for the beauty—every thing has at least a hint of it. Try this a couple of times during the day. Seeing things, or people too for that matter, as if for the first time, can reduce the “mother-clutter” and help you gain greater clarity.
[i] Pressman, S.D. (1), M.P. (1) Cross, and T.L. (2) Kraft. “It’s good to do good and receive good: The impact of a ‘pay it forward’ style kindness intervention on giver and receiver well-being.” Journal Of Positive Psychology 10, no. 4 (July 4, 2015): 293-302. Scopus®, EBSCOhost (accessed April 8, 2017).
[ii] Prakhinkit, S. et al., “Effects of Buddhism walking meditation on depression, functional fitness, and endothelium-dependent vasodilation in depressed elderly.”J Altern Complement Med. 2014 May;20(5):411-6. doi: 10.1089/acm.2013.0205. Epub 2013 Dec 28.
[iii] Kabat-Zinn, J. Mindfulness (2017) 8: 249. doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0638-1, p. 249.
[iv] Henry Miller, American author, 1891-1980.
March is a time of transition, coming “in like a lion and out like a lamb.” It is tumultuous, with dramatic changes in temperature highs and lows. It is unpredictable, especially in the current climate—environmental, political, and otherwise. It is, in essence, an apt metaphor for becoming a mother.
Drawing on March as inspiration, this month’s Mother Matters centers on being centered; on having practical ways to come back to your mother-self when your surroundings feel out-of-control, as they often do in the early days of motherhood.
While it may not always feel like it, you are your own best resource for maternal wisdom. Books and blogs (even this one) may offer information, education, but they are limited. Ultimately, mining your self-knowledge is likely to be the most valuable of resource a mother has at her disposal. Here, then, are three researched-based exercises intended to help you get better in touch with your best source of support—yourself.
The “Planted Seed.” Chances are you’ve heard (and heard and heard) about “mindfulness.” The term itself has become over-used, but the practice remains as remarkable and powerful as ever—especially when harnessed during this time a woman’s life. A new study[i] in the journal BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth looked at a group of new mothers who participated in a multiple-week long mindfulness-based parenting program. While it may come as no surprise that the participants reported enhanced psychological wellbeing as a result of their participation, there was one particularly interesting finding; The perception of mindfulness as a “shelter.” When asked about her experience practicing mindfulness, one mom offered “Mindfulness is like a seed: once it has been planted, it’s for life, nobody can take it out of yourself (p.7)” This is the first report of mindfulness as source of “sustained support”(p.7) and as being a “trustworthy ally,”(p. 7) among new mothers. Imagine the sense of empowerment in knowing that you have an inner resource at your disposal that can provide shelter in moments of fear or anxiety. It also happens to be free.
Short on time like most mamas? You can “plant a seed” 1 minute or less, courtesy of Psychotherapist Leonie Stewart-Weeks who offers 9 mindfulness exercises in 60 seconds or less. Give one a try here.
“Come to Your Senses!” We use the phrase as a directive to help someone “snap out of it,” perhaps even ourselves. Have you ever stopped to consider the implications of the literal meaning? The act of coming to one’s senses has a very practical, useful result; it brings us into the present moment. Purposefully taking time to tune in to your senses can redirect your attention to the here and now, which in turn can help you connect with your maternal instinct. The next time you find yourself in a moment of frustration with your child (as we all do,) see if you can catch yourself. Stop. Make sure your child is in a safe place. Then step into another room and close your eyes. Pick a sense of your choosing and try to focus exclusively on that sense for a moment or too. Listen to the sounds around you, without preference or aversion. Or, take a few deep breaths through your nose and notice any smells. Or, simply feel the flow of air on your face. Prefer to have your eyes open? Observe light, color, shape and shadow. Give yourself a moment to rest in the awareness of being in the moment you are in, without judgment. Just being present is enough.[ii]
“A Dose of ‘Real’…” Pour a cup of tea and take ten minutes (okay, maybe twenty) with Jennifer Senior. In her Ted talk, the author and researcher of the 2015 book All Joy and No Fun, offers researched-based insight into why mothering (and fathering, too) feels so overwhelming in our current climate. Though her focus is on parenting slightly older children, there are important lessons to be learned here as you move into motherhood; namely, if you are feeling anxious, you are in good company. Senior’s description of the parenting section in the bookstore, "a giant, candy-colored monument to our collective panic," reflects the bombardment of well-meaning advice heaped on parents today. It also serves as a reminder that sometimes the better choice is to close the book, the website, or the blog post (yep, even this one) and tune in to your own maternal instinct.
[i] Malis, F. R., Meyer, T., Gross, M. M., & Roy Malis, F. (2017). Effects of an antenatal mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting programme on the postpartum experiences of mothers: a qualitative interview study. BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth, 171-11. doi:10.1186/s12884-017-1240-9
[ii] Adapted from The Wisdom Within. (2017, January 9). Lecture presented at Philosophy Works: Introductory Course in The School of Practical Philosophy, New York, NY.
Whether you believe Valentine’s Day to be the ultimate symbol of romance, or merely an opportunity for Hallmark to cash in, it is hard to ignore the bombardment of rose bouquets and over-stuffed teddy bears that infiltrate stores this time of year.
Rather than (or in addition to?) investing in either token, how about using them as a reminder to turn some of your love inward. In the throes of early childcare, we seldom remember to maintain the mothercare. And if we do, we may then wonder how to secure the time or muster the stamina to tend to ourselves. This month then, Mother Matters presents 3 heart-warming, researched-based tips that require very little time or effort, but will leave you feeling the (self) love!
“Philosophy” is, literally, the marriage of “love” and “wisdom,” from the Greek roots “philo” meaning "love" and “sophos,” meaning "wisdom." Mothering is rife with questions from the more mundane, “Which onesie should she wear,” or “Should I feed him peaches or pears,” to the more profound, “Should we consider sleep-training” or “When do we leave him with a sitter for the first time?” We face more decisions in a day than we can count, sometimes struggling to find the “right” choice.
In a moment of indecisiveness, what if you gave yourself the gift of asking this question: “What would a wise person do now?”[i] And then, as you took a few deep breaths and patiently waited, a reassuring response emerged from within you. Indeed, the answer is always there. The trick is giving yourself a mindful moment to hear it. Plato, student of Socrates and founder of the first institution of higher learning in the Western world, teaches that all wisdom is innate—that we are all born with it. Next time you find yourself in a midst of maternal uncertainty, use your inherent wisdom to guide you.
Tempted by the Russell Stover chocolate boxes in the drug store aisle? This may be a good time to indulge, if you choose wisely. An analysis published in the journal Nutrition Reviews,[ii] pointed to a handful of studies demonstrating the mood-boosting effects of this delectable dessert. Incidentally, a number of these studies also suggest that chocolate improves cognitive functioning. Chocolate can have a positive effect on serotonin (the “happy juice”) in the brain and has been shown to enhance endorphin production, like exercise does. When looking for the sweet treat, opt for a high quality dark chocolate with simple, non-artificial ingredients. Some bars will indicate the percentage of cacao on the front of the label—that’s a good sign. Since chocolate is not exactly low-calorie (if only,) try and limit the serving size to the recommendation on the package if losing weight is on the agenda. One serving is often less than one whole bar. New moms who want to watch their weight should get into the habit of checking the serving size on labels. Consider using a serving of cocoa powder as an ingredient in smoothies or as an addition to a warm drink.
The American Heart Association cites cardiovascular disease (which includes heart disease and stroke) as the number one killer of women around the world.[iii] A 2015 study in BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth[iv] reported that a group of postnatal women engaged in an exercise program demonstrated improvements in haemodynamic function (the flow of blood) and a reduction in blood pressure, both of which can reduce the risk of heart disease. A little bit can go a long way. Bundle up baby in the stroller or the Bjorn and head outside. A brisk 30-minute walk most days of the week can make a difference.
[i]The Wisdom Within. (2017, January 9). Lecture presented at Philosophy Works: Introductory Course in The School of Practical Philosophy, New York, NY.
[ii]Scholey, A., & Owen, L. (2013). Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review. Nutrition Reviews, 71(10), 665-681.
[iii]See the American Heart Association’s “Facts About Heart Disease in Women” at https://www.goredforwomen.org/home/about-heart-disease-in-women/facts-about-heart-disease/
[iv]Carpenter, R.E., Emery, S.J., Uzun, O., D’Silva L.A., Lewis, M.J. (2015). Influence of antenatal physical exercise on haemodynamics in pregnant women: a flexible randomisation approach. BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth, 15(1), 1-15. doi: 10.1186/s12884-015-0620-2
Mom, feel like you’re losing your mind? Apparently, you are!
The New York Times (1) last month reported on a revolutionary study affirming for the first time, that pregnancy actually changes the physical structure of the brain and that these changes last well into the postpartum period. The study revealed that portions of the brain, gray matter, actually reduce during pregnancy. This research corroborates what most new moms already know from experience. Becoming a mother is wholly transformative, yielding not only the birth of a new life, but also the emergence of a new maternal soul. Of course the brain is dramatically changed! This month, Mother Matters highlights 3 researched-based tips for helping to preserve the mama-mind when motherhood feels chaotic, or when a moment’s peace is needed.
Take Time to Write a Line:
The “one-line journal” can provide a quick outlet for releasing strong emotion when there is neither the time nor the energy for more. Even a brief moment to express oneself quickly can be therapeutic by releasing emotion out of the body and on to the page(2), according to social worker and expressive arts therapist Kaeli Macdonald who provides support to pre and postnatal clients in Canada. Reserve a legal pad exclusively for this purpose, or simply take a piece or notebook paper or whatever is on hand and convenient. Grab a marker or a crayon and fill up a line (or two.) Scribble, draw an image, letters, words, a pattern—anything that comes out. This should be a quick burst of creativity, rather than one that is carefully executed.
Take a Moment to be Mindful:
In the early days of mothering, the 24 hour routine of feeding, diaper-changing and sleeping can become so monotonous that time can begin to blur. Taking time to actually be present in a moment, any moment, can present a much-needed opportunity for self-reflection and restoration. One way to do this is through meditation. Cassandra Vieten, PhD has researched and written extensively on the subjects of motherhood and mindfulness-based meditation. Her book, Mindful Motherhood includes a variety of exercises for new and expectant moms. Dr. Vieten offers wonderful meditations including the following, which can be accessed for free here. This exercise (which may be performed with or without baby) is a reminder that breathing is always happening in the present and that learning to place focus on the breath is a way of bringing the whole of oneself into the moment(3). Doing so can be both soothing and empowering.
Make a Call; Make a Few:
Thinking of making a playdate for baby? How about making one for yourself. Take the time to call or Skype a good friend, close family member or both. Increased social support is not only a significant mitigating factor for postpartum depression, but according to a study in the journal Social Science Research, the variety of supportive people in a new mom’s social network is also important(4). Different people offer different kinds of help—concrete or “hands-on,” emotional, etc. New moms deserve as much as they can get, from as many people as possible.
1. Pam Belluck, “Pregnancy Changes the Brain in Ways That May Help Mothering,” The New York Times, December 19, 2016 available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/health/pregnancy-brain-change.html
2. Kaeli Macdonald, Skype interview with the author, February 15, 2016.
3. Vieten, C. Mindful Awareness of Breathing Meditation [Audio Recording]. Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/ions-assets/library/audio/MindfulAwarenessOfBreathingMeditation.mp3
4. Reid, K. M., & Taylor, M. G. (2015). Social support, stress, and maternal postpartum depression: A comparison of supportive relationships. Social Science Research, 54246-262. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2015.08.009
"The new sleep mandate is compelling, but making it happen can be a nightmare."
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a recommendation stating that babies should sleep in their parents' rooms for the first 6 months of life. The guideline came as a result of research demonstrating that doing so can reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.) While this sleep-mandate may be compelling, making it happen can be a nightmare for mamas. This month's post offers 3 tried and tested tips that can help moms (and dads) to catch a few extra winks.
Sleep More= Sweat More.
A study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine 1 revealed that a home-based, individual aerobic exercise program can reduce fatigue, both physical and mental, in women with postpartum depression. A second study revealed that a group of postnatal women who practiced in-home Pilates, a method of exercise designed to enhance strength, flexibility, posture and awareness, were found to have lower levels of physical and mental fatigue than their non-practicing peers.2 Ready to try a gentle in-home Pilates routine? Check out this one from Fitness Blender .
Wanna Sleep? Apply the Pressure
Licensed acupuncturist and owner of Four Flower Wellness in Chicago, Ashley Flores speaks to the restorative potential of acupressure for new mothers. This centuries-old technique works similarly to acupuncture, but instead of using needles, the treatment is administered with the fingers. Flores suggests that applying acupressure to the Pericardium 5,6 and 7 points can be especially useful before going to sleep, as a means of moving away from wakefulness and toward rest.3
How to do it: The Pericardium 5, 6, and 7 points are found on the inside of the wrist. Look at the inside of the wrist and locate the 2 tendons in the center. (If they are not visible at first, flex the wrist back and forth until they are either seen or felt with the index finger.) Take the thumb of the opposite hand and place it 2 thumb widths up from the wrist crease towards the elbow. Place the thumb parallel to the wrist and begin to massage in a circular motion. Gentle pressure should be applied; enough to feel a bit of an ache on the spot but not pain. It does not matter which wrist is chosen first but do massage both sides for about 30 seconds to a minute, each.
Eat Your Way to a Good Sleep
The foods a new mom opts for can make a difference in helping cope with a chronic case of depleted " Zzzzs." Nutritional Consultant Patricia Daly, BA, DipHE, NT states that one of the best ways to stave off physical and emotional fatigue nutritionally is to keep blood sugar levels even throughout the day.4 Complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta and brown rice are preferable to their white counterparts, which can lead to a rapid spike and drop in pressure. A tall glass of water along with those carbs is also a good idea. Water can keep the bodily systems running smoothly and reduce the risk of constipation—a common culprit of fatigue.
1 Dritsa, M., Da Costa, D., Dupuis, G., Lowensteyn, I., Khalifé, S. (2008). Effects of a home-based exercise intervention on fatigue in postpartum depressed women: results of a randomized controlled trial. Annals Of Behavioral Medicine: A Publication Of The Society Of Behavioral Medicine, 35(2), 179-87. doi: 10.1007/s12160-008-9020-4
2 Ashrafinia, F., Mirmohammadali, M., Rajabi, H., Kazemnejad, A., Haghighi, K.S., Amelvalizadeh, M. (2015). Effect of Pilates exercises on postpartum maternal fatigue. Singapore Medical Journal, 56(3), 169-73. doi: 10.11622/smedj.2015042
3 Ashley Flores, LAc. Skype interview, February 11, 2016.
4 Patricia Daly BA, DipHE, NT Email interviews June 9-September 27, 2016.
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As the nation prepares for a new president in office many remain anxious and uncertain. Some are hopeful. Others feel despair. These feelings are characteristic of a period of profound transition; something with which mothers have a great deal of experience. So often I hear clients say “I was just getting the hang of it,” in reference to a child’s particular behavior or way of being, “and now I’m lost again.”
Early motherhood presents a rich opportunity to practice transition-management. One of the best ways to manage the stressors inherent in this life-change is to learn to be purposeful in nourishing oneself, figuratively and literally. Here, we focus on literal nourishment—food. Becoming a mother is a unique time to reflect not only on what mom eats, but also on how she eats.
The way a mom eats can be a healing force. This is scientific fact, not fantasy. A 2014 article in the International Journal of Childbirth Education reported on a study of pregnant women who had experienced gestational diabetes in previous pregnancies. Mindful eating, a specific approach toward food, in combination with yoga, was found to lower blood glucose levels in the current pregnancies of those women in the study.
Since the default setting for so many women is distress or disappointment when looking into a mirror, here is some uplifting science to chew on: The American Journal of Health Promotion published a study in which a mindfulness based eating program was implemented in a work-place setting. At the conclusion of a ten-week series on mindful-eating skills, the women who participated in the program were shown to have significant improvements in body appreciation over peers who did not take part.
So what is mindfulness exactly? More specifically, what is a mindfulness based approach to eating? Though not a religious practice, the idea of mindfulness draws on traditional Buddhist meditation practices dating back more than 2000 years. Mindfulness places focus on awareness and keeping attention in the present moment. When it comes to eating, a mindfulness based approach offers that the act should be multi-sensory and purposeful. In the hectic day-to-day life of a new mother eating is seldom an act unto itself. More often, eating is conducted in conjunction with other activities—checking a Twitter feed, SnapChat account, or even while traveling from one place to the next. Mindful eating is meant to be its own act, performed thoughtfully and singularly.
How might mindful eating look in practice? Imagine this: A simple bowl of penne pasta with marinara sauce sits on a table. Whereas the impulse might be to dive headfirst into the mound of tubular goodness, instead one chooses to pause for a moment. External distractions are limited. A cell phone is silenced, the lap-top is closed, and baby is placed in the bouncer. Then, the chunks of juicy tomato shimmering in the sauce are observed. One indulges in a deep breath in through the nose, inhaling the garlic and oregano-infused steam. Salivating yet? The experience could even be verbalized and shared with baby. “This pasta smells soooo yummy! The steam feels like a little kiss on the nose.” Gracefully, the hollow noodle is slipped onto the spear of the fork, as the sauce clings to its edges. Slowly, the fork meets the mouth as the warm and tender pasta slides onto the tongue and the parmesean flakes melt and disintegrate. This, in a very-simplified nutshell, is mindful eating. In limiting other distractions one is free to draw attention more fully to the food she is about to enjoy. Utilizing all the senses expands the experience of eating, making it more of a pleasurable activity not simply a necessity.
Eating in a mindful way offers the added advantage of slowing down the act of eating itself. This can have real implications for weight loss and weight management. When people eat quickly, they deprive the digestive and nervous systems of the chance to communicate with one another. According to dietitian Joanne V. Lichten, Ph.D., it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register that the stomach is feeling full. Eating quickly increases the likelihood of over eating. No one should be expected to be able to sit down on a daily basis for a leisurely two hour lunch (at least, no one who has any idea what early child-care entails) but the principle of pace-setting in a realistic way can be modified to work for moms. Even by placing baby in his bassinette or swing for ten minutes—five even—and employing all the maternal senses to focus solely on the meal at hand, the dining experience can be transformed. The result may be a more relaxing experience and perhaps one that requires less food to feel full. Ready to give more mindful-eating a try? Share your experience in the comments.
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Stadtlander, L. (2014). Mindful eating and pregnancy. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 29(3), 16-19.
Bush, H. E., Rossy, L., Mintz, L. B., & Schopp, L. (2014). Eat for Life: A work site feasibility study of a novel mindfulness-based intuitive eating intervention. American Journal of Health Promotion, 28(6), 380-388.
Roizman, T. (2016, February 22). “How Does Your Stomach Tell Your Brain That You’re Full? Livestrong.com Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/480254-how-long-does-it-take-your-brain-to-register-that-the-stomach-is-full/
This past Sunday, I had the pleasure and the privilege of running the Chicago Marathon. Somewhere between miles 18-20, I hit the proverbial wall—a moment when the physiological impact of the preceding miles makes those remaining feel insurmountable. And then it struck me. Motherhood is also an endurance test, a long-lasting exercise in which “hitting the wall” happens over and over again. Like marathoners, mothers need tools to fuel them along the way, to bolster them in those instances when the road ahead feels long, and the legs feel weary. So, this month’s Mother Matters post is dedicated to all the mother-marathoners, runners or not, who could use a quick and easy energy infusion for our well-deserving legs. After all, they carry us through motherhood, from one day to the next.
Developed 5000 years ago in China, acupressure is essentially a form of massage that works similarly to acupuncture. Instead of using specialized needles however, the practitioner uses fingers to apply pressure to particular points on the body. This makes acupressure an easy and effective tool for self-treatment.
Licensed acupuncturist Ashley Flores of Four Flowers Wellness in Chicago (http://fourflowerswellness.com) explains that treating the “Inner Yin” points on the body can enable healthy circulation, bringing blood from the legs back to the rest of the body, and can ease swelling in the lower extremities. These points are also treated in cases of lower abdominal pain and discomfort in the pubic and groin areas.
How to do it: Sit on the floor butterfly style, with the soles of the feet facing each other. Between the knee and the crease by the pubic area, right in the middle of the inner thigh, sit the Inner Yin points. Using the right elbow, begin by gently pressing down on the inside of the right thigh, above (but NOT on) the knee. Continue this application of pressure while working up toward the pubic area. Take about 30 seconds to complete one pass and then repeat four or five times, being sure to do both legs, one at at time. Those who prefer not to use an elbow may use a foam roller, or even a rolling pin from the kitchen. Treatment may be repeated twice a day, in the morning and the evening, for maximum effect.