slow parenting & zen child lessons

Parenting for me has been a journey of self discovery. Never have I questioned myself so much or wanted to be more of a better person than since my son was born. He has taught me a great deal about life and about how truly selfless and selfish I can often be.

I was originally going to write this post about how my husband and I are such great models of slow parenting. We have both dedicated time away from work to be with him, I nursed him for 2  1/2 years (a major badge of pride and an unfortunate fate for my breasts), we make a lot of our food from scratch with organic local ingredients etc., and blah blah blah. You would be so proud. Or, even likelier, sick from all the self congratulation.

Instead, I’d like to tell a story about how my little boy has taught me the greatest wisdom I have learned in all my life. All the things I think I have given him are actually lessons he has taught me.

My son was born at 5pm on the 13th of June in 2011. He was born several weeks early because I had a complication and the cure was his birth. I have never loved another person so much in my life. I had been pregnant years earlier and had lost it (another boy I named Ethan) six months into the pregnancy. His heart just simply stopped beating. There was never an explanation. So the second time around every excruciating day of my son’s gestation I worried I would never meet him. We counted every one of his kicks. We considered every nutrient I put in my mouth. Our specialist discussed statistics on outcomes. People said we were just anxious and babies are born every day. “Don’t worry” they’d say “everything will be fine.” We knew that the opposite could also be possible, but didn’t bother sharing the details of why. And, in the end it was “fine”. During the final game of the hockey playoffs, the same night of the Vancouver riots, my son was born. I have never been so grateful for anything in all my life.

What I learned from that experience was a courage that came from deep within my heart. I had been terrified of the deep pain of losing another child. A kind of grief that transforms all the molecules of your body as if your entire insides had shattered like broken glass. Even when taped back together they can never truly be whole again. I felt the terror of that potential pain all the way through my pregnancy, but a calm deep inside me counseled me to forge on, to have faith, to be brave. If courage is being afraid of something and doing it anyway then what I learned from my pregnancy, from my son, was a quiet courage that I have carried with me since.

When my son was born it was immediately obvious that he would be a force to be reckoned with. He was born with club feet which meant his feet were twisted inward and without treatment he would not be able to walk. The procedure for fixing club feet is to cast the legs and feet for a period of time and then put their feet into what they call “boots and bindings” for twelve hours a day. It’s kind of like being tied really tightly into snowboard boots and a board but without the thrill ride of a cool breeze and a steep slope. You have to tie the shoes tight and it hurts and confines them. It is incredibly hard to know you are hurting your child even when you know it is for their own long term good.

My son would have none of it. We were gifted an early window into his strong character when he refused to wear them. He was still a baby but he had already grown into his stubbornness and fierce will. He wiggled and squiggled until he would be half way out of those tightly tied shoes. The doctors had never seen anything like it. He kept giving himself huge and tender blisters the size of a curled up thumb on the backs of his ankles and after several doctors visits and reviews of our method all that was concluded was that our son was simply the most determined infant they had ever come across.

We were among the lucky ones. His feet were fixed in six months instead of the four years some other parents and children are committed to. His feet had been squished in the womb – it wasn’t neurological – and therefore our time in the clinic was short lived to everyone’s relief.

Our son taught us a valuable lesson through this process though that we continue to keep learning as he grows older. The harder we push him to do something he doesn’t want the harder he digs in. If we go with his energy and soften our approach we are usually able to find a compromise. There is no other way with him. In the end we figured out that if we put his boots on while he nursed and let him spend most of his “boot” time sleeping and nursing he suffered a great deal less. He fought the boots less overall. We got through the six months.

In another hard lesson firmly taught to us by our son we tried to “sleep train” him.  He was so determined not to stay in his bed or go to sleep that he found a way to get stuck half way through his crib bars greatly hurting himself. The “cry it out method” had been quickly rejected by him and then by us.  We learned through these and other experiences to sway like reeds in a river rather than insisting on standing strong as the current battered and wore at us. He is a strong current of a child. We love him for it.

What I have learned through this has carried over into many other areas of my life. The harder I push people, situations, or projects, the harder the push back. By stopping and taking the time to assess a situation I find I can see where I should bend and sway rather than stand strong. When I lean into a problem rather than bucking against it somehow everything becomes easier.

One last but likely the most important lesson my son has taught me has been the practice of mindfulness. He sometimes patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, teaches me to sit still in a moment. Children are always in the moment. It is a rare occasion where my son gets caught in some past or future event. He is almost always focused on the here and now. My husband and I joke about how the endless hours spent at play parks staring into space while our son runs around have been powerful lessons in just being. Sitting and playing with Lego on the basement floor for hours or reading the same books over and over and over and over have taught me how to sit in the quiet of the moment much better.

When I forget to be in the moment and play with my phone or begin to daydream the boredom of a “play with me” moment away, my son quickly corrects my wandering mind with a whine or a tug of my arm and a pair of cute batting eyes. “Mom! Plaaaaaay with me!” he demands. “Your not paying attention to me” he’ll add. He is like a much less polite version of the gong they ring in meditation practice. And, when I do stop and sit in the moment – like this evening when I cleared my head of work and just brushed his hair while he fell asleep (his request) – I felt a sense of peace and happiness that seems to only come in these moments of complete presence. In these moments I feel like I am truly bonded with my son. Time slows down to a near out of time pace and a stillness settles in, like the feeling of the pause between two breaths, where in the quieter evening moments I can feel our heart beats slowing to a gentler rhythm. My heart doctor told me essentially it was mindfulness or a pacemaker. My son helps me find the space for mindfulness on a daily basis.

To me slow parenting is about literally slowing down. It is about stopping and being present with whatever is happening in my heart, my body and my mind and being mindful of how my presence, or lack of, impacts my son and our relationship. Going slowly, listening to what he is saying, learning about him as a person rather than trying to fit him into a cookie cutter type from a parent self-help book, and learning to parent in a way that works for him and for me is what slow parenting means to me.

As his first day of Kindergarten approaches I know he will teach me more about how to cultivate courage, patience, compassion, determination and resiliency. He is a firm but committed teacher and all I have to do to learn is pay attention.

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