Imagine what it might be like to parent without expectations – spontaneously responding to your child’s needs, genuinely enjoying adventures with your family, and bringing mindfulness to the day as it unfolds. Sound like a dream? Well, it is.
Idyllic images of healthy kids in nature, tidy homes and wholesome meals circulate on social media, set an impossibly high bar and mislead us into thinking the messy, unexpected, chaotic aspects of parenting are a mistake.
Yet, from a Buddhist perspective, there is a type of joy to be found even in the most unpredictable and difficult aspects of parenthood. It exists in the loosening of our expectations of ourselves and our children, and the willingness to move towards the way things actually are rather than how we believe they ought to be.
In Buddhism, all goals and ideals are to be held lightly.
The invitation is to work with reality as it presents itself moment by moment. Aspects of our lives may not be what we like or want, and parenthood can sometimes be sharp and unpleasant. It can challenge who we think we are and give rise to complex emotional and physical states. It can also be sublime and joyous. Yet it is in our most trying moments that we gain insight into ourselves, relationships, and life itself. Parenting is fertile ground for the development of meaning through care and connection and a deeper understanding of the mysterious and precious nature of this fleeting human life.
There is no doubt that the psychological, physical and social demands of being a parent in modern society are relentless and take a toll on our health and wellbeing. As we attend to our children, we are often forced to neglect our own basic needs and navigate financial and work demands, as well as a lack of social support.
On top of that, life can take unexpected turns that demand even more of us: trips to the emergency department in the middle of the night, unwanted health diagnoses, a death, a shock redundancy and so much more.
Of course there is also the pleasure of holding a sleeping baby on your chest, attending a child’s first sports game or finally enjoying time for yourself after a long period of intensive parenting. Buddhism invites us to show up for all these moments – the good, the bad and the ugly – in an undiscriminating way.
As parents, we constantly experience things that test us. Can we pause, attempt to open to reality, and respond from a place of presence and care rather than denial or aggression?
Another way parenting naturally challenges our expectations is by chipping away at the idea that we have full control of our lives. This truth becomes very apparent when you arrive home with a newborn who wants to feed, sleep and be held on their terms. And these moments do not abate, they simply take different forms.
My dear, headstrong child refused vegetables, a reasonable bedtime and any suggestions that were not accompanied by a robust rationale. It makes me smile on reflection but those early years seriously tried my patience.
From a Buddhist perspective, the erosion of our perception of control is a positive thing – it invites a spirit of surrender and trust towards the flow of what is. And the quicker we can learn this lesson, the easier things become.
I remember vividly the struggle of trying to place my newborn in his bassinet when he was wide awake in the middle of the night. Hours of pleading with him to return to sleep resulted in frustration and resentment and had the opposite effect: we all ended up so angry that we couldn’t get back to sleep. When I eventually admitted to myself what was happening – that he simply wasn’t tired – I could loosen the grip of my expectations and respond pragmatically and kindly to both of us.
But what happens when we can’t relinquish our expectations, or if reality is too tough to bear? This is where self-compassion is essential. Letting go of expectations is a long game, and it does not happen just because we want it to. Sure, some expectations, like that of your baby’s nap, might be easy to release, but expectations that run deep, like the hope your child will complete high school or stay in good health, take time, and perhaps will never completely leave us. These are natural hopes and wants. In these situations, we might turn our attention back to ourselves, acknowledge our emotions, and engage in self-nurturing mental attitudes and practices.
Ultimately, from a Buddhist perspective, letting go, cultivating an attitude of acceptance and self-compassion are skilful ways to try to relax with whatever is happening. The key is to try them on and see if they lead to a sense of inner freedom in the moment. A regular meditation practice can also help us to stay with what is distressing rather than trying to flee from a place of fear or resistance.
Parenting is tough. We all have days and moments that feel wonderful and others that feel like a real struggle. Yet, as the saying goes, you can’t control the waves but you can learn to surf.
Dr Nadine Levy is a senior lecturer at the Nan Tien Institute. She coordinates the health and social wellbeing program and the graduate certificate in applied mindfulness