Can I be both a contemplative and a parent?

Photo by my fantastic brother, Joe Aukeman. I love this photo so much that I just keep using it. :)

As I restructured the blog, I noticed that most of my posts for the past year have been about the work/family balance. Ha! I’m risking becoming boring here—or am I? From what I hear of other people’s lives, we’re not the only family struggling with this balance.

In fact, this is a dance that will continue and morph with every stage of our lives.

This week—this month—this season—our conversations have been mostly about sleep. Our little girl—who used to sleep through the night—is now waking up A LOT, and she wakes up for the day at 5am. Lately, she’s been adding the fun twist of toddler insomnia.

Toddler insomnia. She’s not waking up to play, but she can’t get back to sleep either. There’s no visible reason for it, and my mommy intuition tells me that her world is just too cool. She’s just learned to walk, she’s babbling more, and her word recognition is growing exponentially. She notices EVERYTHING:

Grass. Helicopters. Birds. Cats. Spiders. Ants. Dirt. Pens. Lift-the-Flap. Flags. Swings. Cement. Rocks. Butterflies. Bark. Dogs. Babies. These are a few of our favorite things.

The world is just amazing. Who could sleep?

Her parents could. We’re exhausted. But there is no Rivendell on the adventure of parenting. It is a 24-7 kind of gig.

And she needs us. She needs us to notice these things with her. To teach her the names of her favorite things. To show her how to put the rocks back in their place. To sing “itsy bitsy spider” over and over. To remind her to walk on her feet, not her knees. To show her how the trains move on the tracks. To teach her how to soothe herself back to sleep.

So we sit. We sit next to her crib and hold her hand as she wrestles with her giraffe to get back to sleep. We rock. We cuddle.

At our worst, angry and frustrated and sleep deprived, we stomp out of her bedroom and tag the other person in.

At our best, we’ve both begun to use this time to pray. We’ve started this independently of each other, only recently recognizing that we’ve both been praying her to sleep.

I’ve started to use this time to meditate, and I wonder what the contemplative teachers would think of this multitasking presence. It occurs to me that my meditation teachers (in book or person) are celibate monks, priests, or nuns: Sister Elaine MacInnes, Father Tom Ryan, Father Thomas Keating, Father Richard Rohr, Thich Nhat Han. No kids. No spouse.

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Han recalls a friend of his who was struggling because he didn’t have enough time to be. That he was always working or parenting. As he talked with Thich Nhat Han, he began to see the time that he spent with his family as “me time.” He began to be present with them. That’s mindfulness.

In Thich Nhat Han’s teachings, mindfulness is meditation in life. It’s a result of a meditation practice, not necessarily in place of. It supports the meditation.

What I’m doing next to my child’s crib is not the same kind of focused meditation I could do in a room by myself after yoga, but I believe it’s still meditation. Just like noticing the helicopters, spiders, and butterflies is also a practice of meditation or mindfulness. Being with my child is a form of attentiveness to life.

While she’s watching the world, I’m watching her, and I’m breathing. I’m practicing my breath prayer, bringing an awareness of God into this moment with her as she explores a weed or reads a book or falls asleep.

When I bring my breath prayer into that moment, I am making it meditation. I am choosing to block out my worries about a dysfunctional sleeper, what the parent literature might say, or the need to reply to yet another email, or compose my fall syllabi in my head, or think about the dirty dishes in the sink. It may or may not be able to replace a meditation practice, but it certainly complements. And it’s what I have right now. This is meditation in my stage of life.

I’m sitting with my daughter, yes, and I’m also sitting with God’s presence. Today, meditation is practicing the presence of both my child and God.

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