“It’s not an old-fashioned if you leave out the bitters.”
Some people think that kids, with their yet-to-be-closed minds, free from all that baggage and hardened options and shoulder chips, are naturally mindful. Others think mindfulness can and should be taught to them. Indeed, there’s been an explosion of interest in mindfulness for little ones. (Watch this space for Headspace for Kids!) But I’ve recently been wondering how these little beings, and this whole parenting thing in general, could perhaps teach us adults to be a bit more mindful. Hey – if morning meditations are going to be replaced with potty training and making dinosaur-shaped sandwiches, we might as well get some mindfulness out it.
The first thing I’ve learned, or rather absorbed simply by being near it, is the absolute joy of watching a genuinely open mind; a mind experiencing things for the first time without the weight of preconception or expectation. Take the much-moaned-about process of travel. Admittedly, changing nappies in a stuffy airplane toilet cubicle ain’t a picnic. But it’s so refreshing to observe your kid’s utter delight over a baggage-scanning machine (“Look mummy, it sees teddybear skeletons in my backpack!”), or how mesmerised they are by the luggage carousel (“Mummy, Mummy, can we get a ticket to ride that?!”), or how excited they are to arrive at a grey drippy Heathrow (“Wow mummy, are we on another planet?!”).
And once you get to your destination, it feels good to know that an afternoon at a dinosaur-themed golf course can be just as life-enhancing as a cultural immersion in the centre of a city (with all the pressure of expectation and decision-making that the latter entails: Where shall we go first?! How much can we cram in?! Will we get a table at X hipster restaurant or tickets to X hot exhibition?!?). The kids’ delight at the dribbly volcanos and wobbly raptors, dense traffic humming through the drizzly air, feels more meaningful than all the external cultural/architectural/culinary delights I was initially desperate to gorge on.
Equally, it’s wonderful to watch how easily the stuff of everyday life provokes wonder. Who needs Disneyland when you can journey through the frothing jaws of a carwash or dress as a tiger to do the weekly supermarket shop?
I guess this is the literal “beginner’s mind” in action – a mind so intensely curious that the discussion of nearly any subject provokes an ensuing chain of “whys?” A mind obsessed with knowing what beavers dream about, why some goodies turn to baddies, and what kind of pet Godzilla has. I confess I can’t answer these queries with any degree of certainty, but it’s fun to try, and it feels good to engage that playful, inquisitive bit of my mind (which can get pretty dogmatic and narrow, I confess) and remember my childhood self.
Not that it’s all joyful. It’s amazing how such playful minds can suddenly be so ferociously opinionated that the smallest deviance from what’s desired can provoke a terrifying tantrum. But maybe there’s something to be learned, or at least observed, in the way those powerful emotions dissipate as rapidly as they arise.
There’s so much about having kids that gives your mindful muscle a workout, from being vigilant and not checking your smartphone for hours on end in the playground, to retaining empathy in the face of a MEGA pink sparkly meltdown, to generally balancing work, marriage and parenthood. And there’s so much about kids that’s just lovely to be near: their sensory snuggly joy (unencumbered by a hefty prefrontal cortex) and their simple enthusiasm for the day (unshaped by marketing messages and unconcerned by a desire to display something clever and pretty on Instagram ).
And then there’s TIME. Goodness, how I appreciate the occasional slice of time between work and motherhood. What a machine of (comparative) efficiency and (momentary) monster of indulgence I become when a half hour is presented to me. Time is also marked out so rigorously week by week in the pregnancy/early child process, and in the creeping, utterly compelling growth of their feet and language and identity. I want to drink every moment in, even the rubbish ones.
Lastly, and I find this hard to admit as an ardent feminist who used to fear the spectre of “the pram in the hallway,” but there is something liberating about having one’s choices restricted, and there is profound satisfaction to be had in caring for others. Although there are undoubtedly problematic ideologies about motherhood – don’t get me started! – I can’t help but admit that even through the mundane washing and folding of mini vests, the constant management of bodily fluids, and the selfless warming of milk in the wee hours, it’s downright thrilling and an absolute privilege to be a creator and custodian of a life. This reproduction thing is a complex and contradictory mixture of dilution and amplification of the self, and there aren’t words to describe what unconditional love feels like.