My son Kendrick is about to turn 2 this Sunday, so I dedicate this story to him.
My own growth and healing always help me become a better mom. But just as often, the reverse happens. Learning how to take care of a child teaches me how to take care of me, too.
In one of my favorite books on mindfulness, No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Nhat Hahn uses motherhood as a model for how to handle suffering. He says:
“Suffering is a hurt child crying out to us…. The work of mindfulness is first to recognize the suffering and second to embrace it. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the child into her arms without suppressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgment.”
— Thich Nhat Hahn, No Mud, No Lotus
Reading this, I knew I was already doing this with Kendrick, all the time. In fact, these times, especially when they happen between midnight and 4am, have become some of my most precious moments with him. (No, really.)
It usually goes like this: Kendrick wakes up in the middle of the night, crying. We rule out hunger, thirst, and illness. For whatever reason, he’s just not feeling at ease.
So, I just hold him. I sit with him. Trying to shush him would feel like trying to force him to feel some other way–so I just breathe and embrace him, offering my loving presence, and waiting for him to feel it.
At some point, the crying stops–but I notice how tense he still is. His breathing is fast, his body stiff, hands clinging tightly to my arms. His eyes are wide as he stares, focused and alert, at nothing in particular. I wonder what he might be thinking. I continue to sit with him, holding him lovingly, and he’s feeling whatever he’s feeling.
Then, after ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, something shifts. I feel him relax, let go. Suddenly his body softens, and he feels slightly heavier in my arms as he allows me to support his weight. His breathing also changes. He lets out a sigh, after which his breath begins to flow more slowly, easily. He shifts positions, feeling safe enough to cling to me less and just lie down in my arms more comfortably.
I linger for another couple minutes, making sure he settles into that feeling of safety and calm. I give him kisses, and he stays calm yet awake as I lower him into his crib. (Now that he’s a toddler, and able to understand words, I give him a heads-up first: “Mommy’s going to put you back into bed now.”)
These times are favorites of mine for so many reasons.
I believe–and very much hope–that these moments help Kendrick know deeply that he is loved, and that space and time are healing.
They also feel like powerful little midnight meditation sessions for me, where my would-be tiredness and impatience give way to loving kindness.
And in those moments of sitting with him, being present, I feel incredibly on-purpose–as in life-purpose. I’m giving him nourishment, bringing all of my heart for him, and he’s responding to it. It’s the greatest expression of the love I have for my sweet boy, and the greatest gratification to feel him receive it.
Even further–these moments show me how to treat my own suffering, my own “hurt child”, with the same level of patience and care. When life inevitably has me feeling beat down, I think of these moments with Kendrick and I try to conjure the same compassionate presence for that part of me that’s saying ouch. And often, as with him, it does me so much good.
There’s a saying that “You can’t love others until you love yourself.” Yes, that’s sometimes true, but sometimes the converse is also true: That we find it easier to love others in certain ways, before we figure out how to give ourselves the same level of tenderness and care.
A teacher of mine who passed a year ago, Elaine Jaynes, once said, “I absolutely believe that, sometimes, we need others to love us until we figure out how to love ourselves.” So it goes all ways. Learning to love ourselves, loving others, and being loved, they all feed into each other and create healing. And that makes them the most worthy pursuits of all.
A final footnote: While writing this article, I realized my ancestors really had it right when they created this lullaby (which is about as ubiquitous in Chinese culture as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is in America):
In this world, mommy is the best.
A child with a mommy feels treasured.
When she gets into mommy’s embrace,
There is endless happiness to enjoy.