Zen and the art of losing it

I guess there was a certain inevitability.  Mindfulness as a parent is hard work, it’s discipline, it’s continual practice.

It all started with the trees.  I tend to drive in some kind of reverie – caught up in lists, planning, evaluating, daydreaming.  In the spirit of everyday mindfulness I kept trying to bring myself back to the present, to notice the different shapes and shades of the trees along the journey.  Trying, trying, trying.  It wasn’t gentle and it certainly wasn’t very peaceful.  I found myself increasingly frustrated with my flighty mind and its insistence on fleeing back to the future or the past.

As best you can.  It’s a mantra often repeated during mindfulness-based therapy and I see it written down a lot in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books.  Cultivating a compassionate mind towards myself, can I accept that in each passing moment I will bring my attention to the present as best I can?

Moment by moment parenting.  Now there’s a challenge.  In the ‘spaces’ before and after school there is time pressure, competing demands, a structure and a schedule needed. Little One has a completely different schedule to mine. It consists of “play babies until it’s time to leave for school”.  Breakfast, getting dressed, phonics – mere distractions, taking mummy away from the important business of pretend play.  In contrast my mind is ticking over – lists, lists, what next, what time is it, has Eldest done her homework, how can I give her some time and attention before she skips out of the door to meet her friends?

I held it together before and after school yesterday.  I made a conscious decision to set aside time to be absorbed alongside Little One in ‘baby world’.  It wasn’t very long, perhaps ten minutes in the morning and half an hour after school, but still trying, trying, trying to be present and not planning the dinner or the work e-mail or the blog post.

I’m going to be honest, I felt proud of myself but also depleted.  It takes energy and commitment to shut out the world and play.  I think it takes practice too, and wisdom.  For me, the sensory world of playdough is better at the end of the day than the demands of the imaginary ‘baby world’.  Little One has learning difficulties, and so she likes quite routinized scenarios for playing babies yet often flits from one topic to another.  One minute we’ll be feeding baby in the high chair and I’m taking on the role of granny, the next minute Little One is ‘Jan Vann’ the paramedic rushing the baby to hospital.  It can be at the same moment boring, repetitive and difficult to keep up.

The rupture

Things reached boiling point after dinner.  You know those moments where it all feels perfect and delicious and then you’re suddenly plunged into a power struggle?  Eldest and Little One were sharing a bath, which doesn’t happen very often nowadays.  I was just looking at their beautiful bodies, enjoying their sisterly love and simply feeling grateful for them.  Time for a hair wash.  Trying to imagine my best mindful parent I gave Little One the choice, “shall we wet your hair with the pot or the shower?”  She chose the pot.  Wriggled away, climbed over her sister, resisted the water at all costs.  Patience, patience.  “This isn’t working love, I’m going to use the shower OK?  Put a cloth over your eyes and tip your head up”.

More wriggling, arching her back, standing up, turning around.  Absolutely no looking up or sitting still. Lather up, with help from Eldest.  “It’s time to sit really still now OK?  We need to wash the bubbles out of your hair”.  Climb over sister, arch back, wriggle away, stand up, repeat.  After imploring her three times to sit down with a cloth on her eyes I just lost it, spraying water directly above her head and down her face.  Shampoo in her eyes, stinging, shock and crying.  I felt so guilty and drained.  Too late after the event I tried to ask her why she didn’t sit still for the shower.

Children need to experience this, too, namely that their parents are human, that at times we can be insensitive, misattuned, even unempathic – that we can get upset and angry.  Much can be learned from such moments of stress and disconnection, and from the important process of repair and recovery… the strength of the parent-child relationship… is based as much on this tumultuous process of rupture followed by repair as it is in feelings of closeness and safety

Everyday Blessings, p.73

The repair

Little One dried her own hair with the hairdryer.  I gently toweled her body and told her I was sorry.  She said she didn’t like the shower, so I asked her if she would like to play with it a bit while brushing her teeth, to get the feel of the water.  We shared a story, a song, a goodnight kiss, an “I love you”.

As best you can.  It’s all we can ask of ourselves.

Mushrooms, mindfulness and multitasking

I took down my copy of Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef from the shelf this evening. When it was printed back in 1999, Jamie was a fresh-faced TV chef fond of sliding down the banisters of his trendy London flat and zooming around on his moped.  I was a newlywed girl with a kitchen full of beautiful new stainless steel cooking equipment and Denby crockery carefully unpacked from our wedding gift boxes.  Nothing gave me greater pleasure in those days (and still does) than leafing through my recipe books and planning something delicious to cook for my husband.

I wanted to make risotto today.  The cold air has returned and a bowl of something rich, warming and simple seemed fitting.  I chose mushrooms, thyme, parsley and garlic to flavour the creamy arborio rice.

The real secret of a good risotto, I’m afraid, is that you have to stand over it and give it your loving and undivided attention for about 17 minutes, but it’s worth it. (The Naked Chef p.170)

Undivided attention.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently as I read about mindfulness practice and mindful parenting.  I’m part way through Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings and am finding myself really challenged to give my full attention to my daughters in our everyday moments together.

Back to the risotto – how did I get on with the ‘loving and undivided attention’ it needed? The recipe calls on the cook to add the stock ladle by ladle over 17-20 minutes. Each time a ladleful is added, you stir smoothly and continuously until the stock is absorbed. Over time this gently and slowly swells the rice giving the risotto its creamy texture.  Here is what actually happened after each addition of stock…  I clearly still have some way to go in practising everyday mindfulness!

Ladle 1 – stir, clear up the vegetable peelings, realise the food waste bin has a gross blob of Weetabix inside the lid, take off the lid and wash it, tie up the food bin bag (in between nipping to and from the hob to stir)

Ladle 2 – stir, turn the heat down, kiss husband hello, look at Little One’s picture, ask Eldest to put some TV on for Little One and please set the table

Ladle 3 – stir, shove cardboard for recycling into the cupboard, stir for a little while and enjoy the waft of white wine and celery rising from the pan, congratulate myself on a moment of mindful attention (!)

Ladle 4 – stir, think about this blog (!) and make a mental list for the grocery shop tomorrow

Ladle 5 – stir, wipe the table and kitchen surfaces, look at Little One’s house-point certificate from school

Ladle 6 – stir, chop parsley in a cup with scissors, taste the rice to see if it’s cooked, wish that I was better at just staying still and paying attention to the risotto

Ladle 7 – stir, think about what I’m going to cook for the rest of the week, grate cheese and put it on the table, shout the family to tell them dinner’s ready

Although in many ways this is a funny example, it really got me thinking about how my modus operandi is multitasking.  I have this idea brewing…  What about using a 17-minute ‘risotto space’ to practise just stopping for a while to give what I’m doing my full and undivided attention?  Little One loves to play ‘babies’ – but we often need to set a timer to help her understand when the game has finished and mummy needs to do the next thing. Why not set a timer for 17 minutes and be fully present, holding a baby doll and changing its clothes, watching my Little One smile up at me, listening to her little names for the dolls, being grateful that she loves to nurture?  Could I manage a 17-minute cup of peppermint tea with no smartphone, no agenda? How about 17 minutes to sit down with Eldest and hear about her day, or look through our baking recipes together?

I do want to make a risotto without multitasking.  I want to create and enjoy moments where I am fully present with my girls and my husband.  Life means that there won’t always be 17 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, but maybe there will be 17 minutes to live just that bit slower and more purposefully.

A short script: The Mindfulness Meditation

Toast: Hello body, where can I feel my breath? Nostrils? Belly?

Critic: I’m sure by now you should have decided which one to focus on. You’re just playing music in your head, honestly how hard can it be to focus on your breath?

Toast: Ok try again, in… out… in… out…

Mouse: I’m not sure you should be using words… Let’s try silently

Radio: “la la la doo doo monsters all up in my head, doo bee boo dee”

Toast: Shut up radio

Critic: Seriously? Thinking and music? You’re supposed to be quietening your mind and it’s just getting noisier

Mama: Shhh darling it’s OK. The mind will wander off 100 times, just gently escort it back to the breath

Toast: Hello body. How are you? I think I’ll choose the belly today. Rise and fall, rise and fall… Rise… and fall…

Mama: You’re doing great

Mouse: I’m sure this is supposed to be making us feel peaceful. Do you feel peaceful yet? Try and remember how your therapist talked you through it, I’m not sure we’re doing it right.

Toast: Goodnight Mouse, try and get some sleep. Goodnight body…

Mama: Sleep well honey. I’ll see you in the morning.

Gap year reloaded

As we draw near to the end of 2016 I have some time to reflect on lessons learned from my year off being a job seeker.  I guess the first thing is that since seeing bipolar disorder written down about myself for the first time, I need to acknowledge that a relapse can hit at any time. September 2015 hit me hard with a huge change of role for me as Little One started school. I missed the company, missed the routine of being a stay at home mum with groups to go to and friends to meet up with.  I had to build a new structure into my life and that took a number of iterations to get right.

The Occupational Therapy service in hospital was a godsend for me back in May.  Using OT components of self-care, leisure and work helped me to plan my days more effectively.  I realised how important work-related activities are for me in having a sense of self worth.  I started to develop a broader definition of ‘work’ to include volunteering, blogging and journalling about my future aspirations for paid employment.  In November the next part of the jigsaw slotted in to place as I began being supported by Workways.  Meeting regularly with an employment specialist has been a huge boost to my confidence, and has helped me to identify where I want to be in the future.

When 2017 gets underway, I will be spending 4 hours a week working as a support assistant for a dear friend who lives with M.E. – one pleasure of this role for me is that it will involve fortnightly meal planning and preparing healthy, nutritious food.  I get to putsky around in the kitchen and make lots of soup (I think I just made that word up but it kind of means experimental pottering!)

In March 2017 I have been invited to be a co-facilitator on a mums mental health course at Devon Recovery College. I am hoping this will be just the beginning of part time work as a trainer with this fantastic learning community.  At the end of January I will finish an online Level 2 course in Supporting People with Mental Health Needs.

What about the other aspects of occupation?  Self-care is something that I realise has been seriously neglected in my previous life.  The trendy concept of Hygge has been really useful to me in creating physical space for self-care in our home.  As I type I have my bare feet on a sheepskin which used to line Little One’s buggy and am siting in my hyggekrok (cosy corner) with a soft red blanket.  I really should light the candles and then I could be Danish!  Both of the kids have embraced hygge and we have recently spent more time playing board games and watching slow movies like All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride

My self-care aspirations for 2017 are to read more, reinstate my practice of mindfulness meditation and book in treatments at the beauty salon more regularly.

Leisure was a tricky one for me initially.  I really felt that I was wasting time if I wasn’t doing something that had an immediate sense of productivity.  I didn’t like trying to do leisure on my own.  However, in balance with the right amount of work related activity and self-care, I’m beginning to get the hang of leisure now.  Metafit HIIT workouts in the local village hall have made a huge difference.  30 minutes of intense exercise at the start of the day gives me much more energy and creativity, and also fulfils that need for human contact!  I was given a beautiful daily sketch journal by a friend for my birthday, and my aspiration is to treat myself to some nice H and B pencils for sketching.  Blogging counts as leisure too, right?

Some of my ambitions for the gap year were unfulfilled, like redecorating the girls’ bedrooms.  However the last year has taught me that this can happen in stages as energy and finance permits.  Just yesterday we collected a lovely pine dressing table for Eldest, an absolute bargain at £5 from a Facebook selling board.  Slowing down has given me the time to watch out for second hand things, and to look on Pinterest for decorating on a budget.