8 keys to Mindful Presence in Parenting and Marriage

Who of us is mature enough for offspring before the offspring themselves arrive?

The value of marriage is not that adults produce children,

but that children (and marriage) produces adults.   Peter De Vries

Being truly present while being close to those we love is no easy feat.  It requires practice, intention and patience.  Practice being mindfully present in parenting has been my focus in project momfulness for the last 2 weeks.  I often teach mindfulness to clients in my marriage and family practice, but practicing what I preach is another story.  So for this time I intentionally closed the laptop, put away the iPhone and ignored the laundry with the aim of truly being with my family in the moment with my body, mind and soul.  Here are 8 truths I discovered about mindful presence as a parent and as a partner:

  1. Kids can teach us a lot about mindfulness and presence. Being present is easier for kids than for grown ups.  Kids have a natural mindfulness and wonder that we lose as adults. They are constantly discovering, exploring, playful and naturally present in the moment.  I tried to learn from them as I observed how natural the “here and now” is for them.  They rarely live in the past or the future…they are just here…and now…and that’s all there is.  When do we lose this gift?  Is it parents who squash childhood wonder with our focus on success, performance and future planning?
  2. Mindful presence is a “practice” that continually reveals the need for more practice.  Focusing on being present increased my awareness of my lack of presence.  I would continually “wake up” to myself and (try to) gently redirect myself back to the moment and out of the past, future or to-do list. I suppose this is the norm in any practice. In order to improve, we must take an honest assessment and intentionally address the areas needing improvement.
  3. Being present with children is different from being present with a partner. While the practice of being present as an individual works the same no matter who we are with, the implications, motivations and impact changes with the role we play in the relationship.
  4. Children need presence more than adults. A child’s need for a present parent is greater and more complex than a partner’s need.  The kind of intimacy we have with our spouse is different from the kind we have with our kids.  My husband is an adult. I am an adult.  Both relationships require authenticity, openness and self-awareness, but with him, my job is to truly be myself, my best self, and not simply a presentation of myself..or the me he would like me to be.  It is not my job to heal him, correct him, protect him or help him feel ok about himself.  My role as a parent is completely different.  I am the only mother they have. My job is to love them, protect them, teach them, care for them, feed them, help them develop a self and so much more all while modeling what being a healthy well-adjusted woman, mother, wife, worker, friend, etc. looks like. In this responsibility, he is my truly my partner since he shares the same role as their father. He is a grown up…they are not.
  5. Real presence requires a balanced view of attachment. In order to really be present with my children I must be able to recognize them as separate from myself.  They are their own individual people. Yes, they are under my care and being shaped by my values, but they are still their own. Their choices are still theirs and not mine.  Respecting their need to be both connected and separate means we are all more able to really be ourselves when we are together. When they feel the need to change themselves just to please me, they actually lose themselves. My role is to help discover the best in them instead of trying to turn them into what I think their best should be or find the best of myself in them.  The same balance is true with marriage. Great marriages respect the drive both have for connection and for separateness.
  6. Being present with another means being present with oneself.  The more someone matters to us the more we care what they think.  This means we are more likely to become reactive, anxious, upset or emotional when we are with them.  Our perceived identity is deeply interconnected to those with whom we are intimate.  We call this co-dependency…which is the opposite of being an authentic present adult.  Co-dependency is an inability to be ok by ourselves without the presence of the person that matters the most to us.  With my kids, being presence means I stay grounded and calm, as an adult, no matter how they act.  In my marriage, mindful presence means I act like a grown-up, regardless of what he does or doesn’t do.  Mindful presence with family is impossible without effective self-regulation. 
  7. Parental presence in childhood has a life-long impact.  We only have one childhood. Usually we only have one mother and one father. The dynamics of these relationships have a life-long impact…either positive, negative or somewhere in between.  A lot of adults spend their adulthood trying to heal the wounds of childhood. A lot of spouses try to get their unmet childhood needs met by their partner (without much luck).  In therapy, we help adults learn to “re-parent” themselves.  The reality of this impact makes being a present parent so important.  Sadly though, even the best parents have kids who wish their parents had made different choices in their childhood.  Like many things, the true aim of effective parenting is not perfection.  Parenting is a practice, like medicine and basketball. That doesn’t mean we don’t strive for excellence, just that we must tolerate the reality of our own limitations and the right of others to interpret their own experience however they like.
  8. Being a present partner is one of the best presents parents can give.  Added awareness of our parenting has its pros and cons…sometimes it seems they have little tiny video cameras in their minds. They can read me so well…and they are learning from me what it means to be present in a committed romantic relationship. (They learn this from him too…but that is out of my control).   In my marriage therapy practice,  I ask couples about healthy relationships they have observed. Sadly, many times the answer is no where. Many people have never observed a real-life healthy marriage.  As marriage is one of life’s most rewarding and challenging endeavors, when we are blessed to be able to model what happy (and hot) monogamy looks like–we give them a gift that keeps on giving.

The beauty of both marriage and parenting is the more we practice, mess-up and try again, the more adult-like we become.  In the words of Dr. David Schnarch, “Marriage is a people growing machine.”  At some point in most marriages, the relationship hits a rough spot that seems impossible to move through, but it is working through the mud and muck that lays the path for growth. Similarly, parents are destined to make mistakes, but because we don’t give up we end up growing up. After all, Parenting, like marriage, is not for kids, but for grown-ups.

Up next in project Momfulness:  ALONE TIME!!!

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