There are certain things about motherhood that I really struggle to accept. The relentless nature of housework, the critical or patronising remarks of other people who assume that my life is one coffee morning after another, the mind-numbing nature of playground small talk and gossip… all of these make me want to put my skates on and flee in the opposite direction. I find that that the more I dwell on these irritations and the more I struggle against the things I don’t like, the more unhappy I become.
When I am at odds with my children it is often because I am struggling to accept them as they are now. I want them to listen to me and to do as they are asked; but they are focused on other things and want to exercise their autonomy. They are only just learning about considering another person’s feelings. I want them to treat others with gentleness and kindness; but they get irritated and react in much the same way as I would– we all get short-tempered! They are only just learning about constructive ways to problem-solve and express their feelings. I want them to share with each other; they feel a strong sense of ownership over their things and find it hard to live communally…. When I accept them as they are now, I feel at peace. When I expect too much, when I resist who they truly are in this moment, I feel frustrated and worry wraps itself across my shoulders like a well-worn shawl.
Many years ago I read one of those magazine columns where a mother writes in with a problem and lots of other mothers send in their own experiences and words of wisdom. Two letters remain in my memory. The first writer expressed her frustration that every time she took out an art activity for her children they made a huge mess, and she felt resentful that it became yet another clean-up job for her. In reply, one mother said that she considered it part of her role as a mother to clean up after the children (at least when they were small), and accepting this really helped her. Another letter writer expressed her worry that she was still spoon feeding her three year old: she wondered whether her child would ever feed herself independently. In reply, one mother said that she considered it part of her role to feed her child and that she did so without a thought. And yes, her child did eventually choose to feed herself.
The women who replied shared something in common: their willingness to accept their dharma and their childrens’ dharma. Dharma is a Sanskrit word that refers to one’s path, one’s vocation, or one’s own Truth. Your dharma isn’t just your station in life or your role, but the expression of Universal Truth through you. When you follow your dharma, you do what you were meant to do. When you accept your dharma, you let go of ‘shoulds’ and accept what is. When you fulfil your dharma you fulfil a greater plan that has love at its centre.
When I talk about acceptance, I don’t mean to say that we should all become passive martyrs, letting go of our own volition. After all, the principal text on acceptance and dharma (the Bhagavad Gita) was never far from Ghandi’s side (in fact he read it every day of his adult life), and of course he did not simply accept that which was unjust. Instead, following one’s dharma means lovingly accepting the gifts that life gives you in whatever form they arrive. It means letting go of resistance and embracing your true nature.
In this context, I have been thinking about my own dharma and my child’s. I really can’t stand housework. When I look around my house I feel helpless. I feel cross that everyone else makes such a mess and my internal monologue rehearses my irritation that I am the one who ‘always’ has to clean it up. How dare they be so inconsiderate, and *sigh* look, there’s a mouldy apple behind the sofa. And who sprinkled wet porridge all over the sitting room floor? But I stop, and breathe. I see that part of my dharma is sharing a living space with people I love. I want that space to be relatively hygenic and welcoming. And in this spirit, I accept that housework is something I must contribute to in my home. I also accept that my two year old’s dharma is to be impulsive, exploratory and totally present in the moment (this manifests itself as amnesia vis-a-vis the porridge). Resisting the menial tasks that go with being a stay at home mother makes me unhappy. Releasing this resistance fosters a sense of peace.
Acceptance isn’t something that you can magically force yourself to do. It’s a bit like my students’ experience of meditation (and my own, for that matter). You sit and watch your breath… the mind wanders and suddenly you realise you’ve spent the past 3 minutes planning tomorrow’s dinner or analysing that snappish remark someone made earlier. Ooops! I was supposed to be meditating… right. Start over. Watch the breath… and again, the mind wanders. This time I’m getting frustrated. Why can’t I just do one thing without the mind wandering away? Have I no concentration? Who’s in charge here anyway? I begin to wrestle with myself, trying to force my mind into submission. But the more I struggle with the thoughts, the more power I give them, and the meditation becomes another excuse to beat myself up rather than an opportunity to invite myself into stillness.
The same could be said of parenting. When we resist what is true and real in our lives, when we try to see into the future and change the now out of fear or dread, we are resisting our dharma, our Truth–and wrestling with these things can make us miserable. At the moment, my Truth is that I am a mother to three young children. With this goes sibling arguments, nighttime waking, tiredness from said nighttime shenanigans, endless tidying and cleaning up after small people, constant meal and snack preparation, cleaning up after food preparation, meal planning, wiping bottoms, wiping noses, wiping fingers, wiping faces, wiping windows that have been smeared with the aforementioned sticky body parts, helping with homework, going to the shop to buy items for my child’s homework, cleaning P.E. kits, cleaning up a two year old’s wee from the floor when he ‘missed’ his potty, making requests of my children that they (for example) put their shoes on, asking again, and again, and again. These are all part of the joy of being a mother, but sometimes I wonder how my education prepared me for this vocation. Sometimes I wonder whether my children would be better off with someone who didn’t get quite so resentful. Sometimes I wish I could be sitting in a library instead of sitting on the sofa as my toddler picks his nose beside me. I yearn for a conversation that doesn’t revolve around bodily functions or hair clips.
It is in these moments that I know that I am struggling with my dharma. Peace comes with acceptance. Rather than berate myself for my resentments or wish myself away, I allow myself to have these feelings. Then I gently draw myself back to what I can see, touch, smell, hear and taste: back to this present moment. Before me I see the soft, buttery skin of my baby’s legs as he sits on my lap. I hear the giggles of my daughters as they try to remember a song they learned in school. I touch the never-cut softness of my toddler’s blonde curls. I share a look with my nine year old as she raises her eyebrows at me, and we sing the song together. My dharma, my Truth, my path and my vocation: to be here in the now, experiencing this moment of my child’s life and my life as a mother. Soon enough, the next moment arrives: resistance is a memory, acceptance is my Truth.
Photo credit: Guy Wareham, Wikimedia Commons.