There’s not much point in telling new parents to “Just relax.” Most new parents I’ve met worry about an awful lot and spend a fair amount of time planning, thinking through their actions or trying to decide what to do next. Their minds are busy, full of questions or ideas. They want to do it ‘right,’ and even if they are ignoring books or other advice, they pretty much want to do what is right by their baby. Generally by the time their first baby is older, many parents will have relaxed a bit and certainly as each new baby arrives in the family parents become more and more laid back.
Oh I was so stressed when I had my first baby! The piece of advice I heard the most was that I should just relax. I took that on board. But how? You might as well have told me not to blink! Not knowing how to relax made me more stressed. The desire to let go and just stop worrying became yet another thing to worry about. Relaxation became another stick to beat myself with.
The same problem crops up in Yoga and meditation. You sit and meditate. A thought arrives. You want the thought to go away, you want to clear your mind. The thought won’t go away. Suddenly you’re wrestling with the thought, giving it a power that it never had when it first arrived. Your involvement with the thought is what makes it so powerful. On the other hand, detached observation of the thought lends it no power, and eventually it will drift away. Sometimes we use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, when a much lighter tool would have worked.
Within the last two years I have started learning how to play the piano. I look back at my first piano book and songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Old MacDonald Had a Farm bring it all back to me– how hard it was to learn a skill that other people seemed to do so easily, how clenched and tense my body became as I hunched over the piano, my clumsy fingers hammering out the notes (Twin…kul…Tweeeen……kul…..Li…..tul………star), how I breathed a sigh of relief when the piece (if you can call it a piece!) was over. Learning anything new takes time, diligence and patience.
And at least with the piano, getting up and walking away, then coming back tomorrow, often reveals unwitting progress. As in meditation, the willingness to welcome all experiences (including tension and worry and anxiety) is often the key to removing their power over you, and soon they exit.
As I look at those old piano books I wonder how I ever could have struggled with something so simple. “Whaddya mean, I couldn’t play eee-eye-eee-eye-oh?! Look, it’s easy!”
When I help one of my children with her reading books and when I sit with another as she learns to knit, it can be hard to remain a neutral observer while they struggle with learning a new skill. I want to jump in with the correct letter sound or word, I want to seize the yarn and needles and say, “Here let me show you again.” It’s difficult to rein myself in; at times my skin is almost crawling with discomfort as my child struggles with something that is so easy for me. Seasoned parents and grandparents must, in some measure, feel the same way when their beloved friends and children are having parenting struggles. The urge to say, “The answer is…” or “Here let me show you…” can be positively overwhelming. But humans learn by making mistakes, and to some extent new parents need to make those mistakes, have those anxieties and think everything through in order to progress in their parenting journey.
I think when people told me to “Just relax” they were encouraging me to let go. It didn’t come easily to me, and as with anything like meditation or playing the piano, letting go takes a lot of practice. Progress may seem meagre and mistakes many. Sure, try to relax if you can. But relaxation comes with mastery and mastery takes time. Fortunately, with children, there are copious opportunities to practise.