The Real Reason Parenting Is A Life-Changing Experience

This is an excerpt from the book Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, a groundbreaking guide to mindful parenting cowritten by seasoned educators (and parents!) Myla Kabat-Zinn, childbirth expert, and her husband Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D, scientist and pre-eminent meditation teacher. In the excerpt below, the authors describe how to approach the challenges and stress of parenthood as opportunities for growth and wisdom — for parents and children alike.

When we become parents, whether intentionally or by happenstance, our whole life is immediately different, although it may take some time to realize just how much. Being a parent compounds stress by orders of magnitude. It makes us vulnerable in ways we weren't before. It calls us to be responsible in ways we weren't before. It challenges us as never before and takes our time and attention away from other things, including ourselves, as never before.

It creates chaos and disorder, feelings of inadequacy, occasions for arguments, struggles, irritation, noise, seemingly never-ending obligations and errands, and plenty of opportunities for getting stuck, angry, resentful hurt, and for feeling overwhelmed, old and unimportant. And this can go on not only when the children are little, but also even when they are full grown and on their own. Having children is asking for trouble.

So why do it? Maybe the folk singer Pete Seeger said it best: "We do it for the high wages...kisses." Children give us the opportunity to share in the vibrancy of life itself in ways we might not touch were they not part of our lives.

Especially when children are young, our job as a parent is to be there for them and, as best we can, nurture them and protect them so that they are free to experience the innocence and genius of childhood, gently providing what guidance we can out of our own hearts and our own wisdom as they learn to find and define their own paths.

Children embody what is best in life. They live in the present moment. They are part of its exquisite bloom. They are pure potentiality, embodying vitality, emergence, renewal and hope. They are purely what they are. And they share that vital nature with us all and call it out of us as well, if we can listen carefully to the calling.

Once we have children, we are in touch with the rest of the universe in an entirely different way. Our consciousness changes, rotates from one way of seeing to another. We may find ourselves feeling connected to the hopefulness and the pain in others in ways that we might not have felt before. Our sphere of compassion tends to broaden. Concern for our children and their well-being may give us a different perspective on poverty, the environment, war and the future.

As for trouble, Zorba, the crusty old character played by Anthony Quinn in the classic movie version of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel Zorba the Greek, who, when asked whether he had ever been married, replied, "Am I not a man? Of course I've been married. Wife, house, kids, the full catastrophe, " also said, "Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is no trouble."

Ultimately, we make our own choices, mindfully or not, and we live with their consequences. Even so, we never know what is coming next. Immanent uncertainty is a big part of the full catastrophe.

The question is, can we learn to use all of life's circumstances, even the most trying and stressful ones, to grow in strength and wisdom and openheartedness, much as a sailor makes skillful use of all kinds of wind conditions to propel a sailboat toward a particular destination?

For our own ongoing growth is an absolute necessity if we are to serve as effective parents of our children over the long haul, so that they may be sheltered and grow well in their own ways and in their own time.

Cowritten by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is used in over 700 hospitals and clinics worldwide. A professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, he founded its Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. He is also the author of numerous books, including Full Catastrophe Living; Wherever You Go, There You Are; Coming to Our Senses, and Mindfulness for Beginners.

Copyright © 1997, 2014 by Myla Kabat-Zinn and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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