by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Softcover, 394 pages
Reviewed by Edith O Nuallain
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 5, September-October 2001, p. 192
Everyday Blessings, by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a different type of parenting book. Unlike books that focus on techniques for handling children's behavior, the authors of this book direct readers to what they call "the inner work of mindful parenting." Mindful parenting means nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening in our lives and in the lives of our children from moment to moment, coupled with a deep and concentrated attention to those moments. It describes an inner process that calls for an ongoing commitment of the part of parents to be fully present to their children. The daily interactions that parents experience with children hold the promise of many blessings and much richness, if parents can learn to be open to them. Every moment spent with our children can be special if we allow it to be - we don't have to wait for the "big" moments in our children's lives (like their first steps or words or smiles) in order to experience the "aha" feeling that this is what it's all about.
The roots of the authors' approach lie in the Buddhist concept of "mindfulness," which means deeply paying attention to the present moment. Applying this concept to family life, the authors present a series of reflections or meditations on different aspects of parenting, including the way parents teach and guide their children. When mindfullness is applied to the continuum of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and nurturing infants and children, these intimate experiences of the female cycle of life are seen through a new lens.
Along with becoming educated and informed about available birth options, the Kabat-Zinns suggest that learning to be open to the present moment is the best possible preparation for birth. Pregnancy usually turns a woman's focus inwards and she enters a state more of "being" than of 'doing," and experiences the world in a slower and more conscious way. Opening oneself to this experience makes it possible for mothers to sense the deep interconnectedness with their unborn baby and with the other people around them. The authors recommend a non-interventionist birth as far as possible. Birth, they write, "can be a powerful affirmation of our own psyche, an invitation into a new domain of being" (161). They also caution against any expectations for the perfect birth or perfect baby, since such expectations "get in the way of what is actually happening to us and with us in each moment" (163).
But it is when the baby arrives that the work of mindful parenting begins in earnest. Now, for the first time ever perhaps, new parents are called beyond themselves to be responsible for the beautiful new life they brought into the world. So, when the baby hasn't stopped crying for two hours and a parent is tired of walking the floors, or when the baby interrupts sleep for the third time in as many hours, then parents "can acknowledge our feelings of anger, resentment, and frustration, and also our feelings of empathy and understanding. We can choose to recognize our resistance to meeting our child's need in that moment, drop down below our either/or thinking, and respond with greater wisdom from our hearts" (167). This "greater wisdom" might be just what is needed to get out of bed one more time, sing one more song, and put the moment into perspective. Having rocked the baby for two hours, parents may find in themselves a surprising ability to rock the baby for two hours more! To be open enough to choose this path means that a parenes well-being is nourished at the same time as their child's, "as we grow against the envelope of our limitations" (167).
When the authors write about breastfeeding, they place particular emphasis on the quality of attention that the mother brings to the moments of feeding. By giving babies attention at this time, the "art of gazing" is cultivated, which is "a meditation in itself" (170). They call toddler nursing "soul food" because of the comfort their own little ones derived from nursing, as well as the deep, continuing connection with mother. On the subject of nighttime parenting, they note that they had to work hard to find a balance between meeting their own needs and the needs of their children. This balance grew from the realization that they "parented out of the conviction that deeper things were being fed than [their] need for uninterrupted sleep" (180).
It is this attitude that permeates the whole of this book, whether the authors consider babyhood, older children, or teenagers. In the end they believe that all the challenges 'can be incorporated into a view of parenting as a challenging, disciplined, deeply satisfying practice" (I 80). This is not a book of techniques: not the book to consult if you need suggestions and need them fast! This is a book to read slowly and on which to reflect. It is a philosophical book for anyone who is open and ready to turn all of the stresses and the joys of parenting into the means 'to grow in strength and wisdom and open heartedness" (90).