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Spirituality and Motherhood: The Challenges

August 28, 2008

This post proved to be a lot harder to write than its predecessor, Spirituality and Motherhood: The Benefits. That’s because I didn’t want it to come off like a long list of complaints about motherhood. On the other hand, I believe the foundation for any spiritual growth is honesty, so it’s important to acknowledge, and address, the challenges motherhood poses for those really trying to develop spiritually. It’s not an accident that most of the world’s acknowledged saints and mystics (both men and women) have lived secluded in monasteries (although I have tried to highlight some that didn’t in my 5 Religions, 5 Women Mystics series.)

So, here’s the list of challenges my friends and I came up with, along with some suggestions for dealing with them:

No Time: If you read almost any spiritual book, it will advise you to take ‘time out’ for yourself, create a ‘sacred space’, and develop a regular spiritual practice of devotions or meditations. What? What mom really has time for that?? Personally, I am a devoted meditator, and even teach meditation, but I started long before my kids were born, so it has been easier for me to adapt my practice. But it is especially challenging, and often unrealistic, for many moms to start a new meditation or devotional routine while they are in the midst of the busy child-rearing years. And thinking they should often causes them to abandon their spirituality altogether until their kids are grown. What can be helpful instead is to rethink what spirituality, and spiritual practice is. True spiritual insight requires powerful moments, not time. So focus instead on turning your attention to spiritual themes for just a few moments at key points throughout your day. This might be by focusing on some of the themes from The Benefits list, or it might involve some Shifting exercises. Remember that you can experience the sacred in any activity!

No Energy: This is a different, and even more insidious, problem than having no time. Children can be so emotionally draining that when you do have a moment to yourself, all you want to do is vegetate. Shifting your mind towards spiritual themes, even for a few moments, seems all but impossible. My friends and I had three different responses to this: 1) Exercise (which boosts your energy level overall) – especially yoga videos; 2) Some transition shifting activity like reading a spiritual book; and 3) (For myself) chakra meditation, which I think has an especially beneficial effect in terms of helping a woman regather her dispersed maternal energy (here’s a brief beginner intro to chakra meditation.)

Guilt: Modern motherhood is plagued with too many competing theories and too much advice, along with a slew of people (most of whom are promoting books) trying to make you feel that unless you do exactly what they say you will end up with sickly, insecure, and stupid children that will never be able to achieve happiness or support themselves. Give yourself a break! Guilt is a particularly draining emotion, a form of self-punishment really, in which you endlessly second-guess and berate yourself, instead of focusing on the present and what you can control or even improve. When you start to indulge in guilt, ask yourself, is there something I can learn here? Contemplate it for a minute, and then move on.

Anxiety: Even normally calm and strong women often find themselves plagued by anxiety when they become mothers. But, as Harriet Lerner points out in her book The Mother Dance, the things you most fear almost never happen, and the things you never considered, do. Bottom line – you aren’t ever going to be in complete control, so let go. This actually can be one of the great lessons of motherhood, because spirituality is also about letting go, and trusting there is a larger force at work. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Gangaji, was once asked, ‘what is spiritual maturity?’ to which she instantly responded ‘letting go’.

Momnesia: In her book The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine outlines some of the changes that take place in a women’s brain when she becomes a mother. One is the often-joked about ‘momnesia’ in which new mothers, and even established ones, feel like they lose their memory. However, there is also evidence that our awareness becomes more ‘dispersed’ as we raise our children – on the one hand, we are able to track three children at the playground without really thinking about it, but, on the other, we feel like our concentration is shot. Since many spiritual practices, such as meditation and devotions, rely on some level of focus, this can be disheartening. The key is to use those brain muscles regularly – make sure you have some intellectual stimulation in your life, whether it’s reading non-fiction or doing crossword puzzles on the toilet, to keep the ‘focus’ parts of your brain active.

Martyrdom: In her controversial book Perfect Madness, Judith Warner discusses the way certain parenting theories, particularly attachment parenting in its strictest form, has created a culture of almost competitive self-sacrifice among some mothers, with many all but giving up any right to their own needs in the name of ‘perfect’ mothering. Selfless service is a big part of many spiritual traditions, and so this kind of motherhood would seem to fit right in, but the problem is that the ego loves martyrdom. Our egos love to feel the sense of moral righteousness that often goes along with prolonged self-sacrifice. And spiritual growth is about overcoming ego. So, whatever your parenting philosophy, make sure it hasn’t morphed into a source of martyrdom for yourself, and make sure your own needs are balanced with those of your children.

Over-Identification: The ego also revels in recognition and reward, and it’s easy to make the mistake of over-identifying yourself with your kids gifts and achievements. While most of us would deny being stage mothers, it’s all too easy for maternal pride to mutate into a kind of possessiveness, where we focus too much on our own kids success, and begin to use it as a kind of measuring stick for our own life. Remember, motherhood is a role, not who you are. Discovering who you really are, in the spiritual sense, requires a certain amount of healthy self-focus.

Tribalization: Motherhood offers a great opportunity to open our hearts and experience a deeper love, and this is the same goal of many religions (at least in theory.) But it is easy to let our natural maternal protectiveness actually close down our hearts, making us so focused on keeping our own kids safe, and advancing their interests, that we become less, rather than more, compassionate in our daily lives. I call this ‘tribalization’, as in ‘I’ll protect my tribe at any costs, be damned the rest of you.’ The key is to explore our maternal love as a doorway to a greater, universal love, one that deepens our compassion for strangers, rather than building new walls.

That’s all! I look forward to any comments you may have. The sister post to this one is Spirituality and Motherhood: The Benefits.

Other motherhood-related posts include:

Multitasking to Enlightenment (or Avoiding the Spiritual Mommy Track)

Toddler Aikido: What I Learned About Parenting from the Martial Arts

Mommy Devotion

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