There is a general assumption, being the mother to four kids, that I am some sort of expert.
That I will have settling answers to many of the common questions that surround parents to young kids. There have been countless ones asked.
Here are some:
How do you keep your kids from getting sick? I don’t have that superpower. Aside from fresh air, nourishing food, and plenty of rest, they get sick. I actually believe kids are supposed to get sick. We all need to build immunity.
Do you give your kids vitamins? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It mostly depends on whether I remember to buy them or not.
How many cookies do you let them have? Depends. Is it Christmas? Or just a regular day?
Do your kids watch TV? Often, yes. Four kids…is a lot of kids. They pick out movies and watch them together. Sometimes I need to get dinner ready. I love my kids, and they can also watch television. These two truths are both valid.
Did you immunize? Yes, yes I did.
Did you cloth diaper? No, sorry, too gross.
How did you deal with tantrums? Ugh, we’re still there. Too soon.
Being through three pregnancies, four infanthoods, four toddlerhoods, and now having four young school-age kids, I am certainly armed with a fair amount of experience. But let me tell you something: most of the time, I don’t know what I’m doing. I am figuring it out one day at a time. I question myself, pivot, try different things out, and lie in bed at night wondering how I failed them.
The day I birthed my son, I might have technically been a mom, but in reality, I was a naive 27-year-old who, somehow, someone trusted with a baby. I am growing up with my children.
Of all the things I’ve figured out, the most important is that parenting is highly personal. Books, magazines, parent friends, blogs, social media posts, and other well-meaning sources of parenting help can be incredibly supportive—or insanely frustrating, as we try to execute their advice, only to feel a sense of failure when it doesn’t work at home.
Bootcamp potty training, attachment parenting, co-sleeping, tandem breastfeeding, veganism, screen-free living, essential oils for everything, homeschooling: beautiful, well-intentioned methodologies that work for many families. Truthfully, I was banging my head against the wall. And you know what? That’s okay. It took me a long time, and lots of trying and failing, to realize that I don’t have to parent like anyone else. My kids aren’t like anyone else’s, I am not like anyone else, and my family isn’t exactly like any other family.
The hard part is now I have to make my own choices. I have to trust my own gut.
Parenting, and tuning into this gut instinct (which, I’ve found, is not always as innate as they make it sound) is hard enough as it is. Now there’s another layer: parenting in our current, overly transparent, posting-happy society. We are making choices while seemingly being watched from all angles.
Thanks to prevalent social media, swirling methodologies, their strong believers, and ever-mounting pressure to raise, not just healthy kids, but super-kids, it can feel like an enormous amount of pressure to make choices as a parent. I must take into account not only what I feel I should do but what others will think about what I do.
I trust my kids to go out and play alone; what will the neighbors say? I let my kids watch TV; what will the Waldorf teacher think? I am currently choosing public school; will I be met with judgment from friends who homeschool?
Talk about a straight path to self-doubt.
This is not to say that if I were asked, I would tell someone, “Sorry, you’re on your own.” We’re all in this together, so what’s the harm in sharing my experience? Whenever I get approached for some nuggets of wisdom (a few times at baby showers, among others), I recall these words spoken by one of my yoga teachers. I had asked her for some solid advice on taking my yoga off the mat, and her only response was “Yamas and niyamas. Yamas and niyamas.”
Yamas and niyamas are two pillars of the yoga philosophy, teachings concerned not with poses or even the body at all, but with “right living.” Ethical guidelines to follow. A path to living well. The yamas are concerned with the relationship with the world, the niyamas are concerned with the relationship to self.
For the purpose of this article, a look at the yamas, and how they have guided me in my choices as a human being and a parent.
Ahmisa: translates as “non-harming.” Non-violence, loving-kindness applying to the level of speech, thought, and action. I feel that the obvious can be left unsaid here. But ahimsa runs deeper than the physical; it’s a profound concept that truly is the heart of the yogic teachings. It is love. Love for self, love within a family, love for friends and community, and love for the world at large. Ahimsa reminds us that we are all in service to each other and to this earth.
How can I embody this? How can I help my children to understand ahimsa? I can catch myself in judgmental or negative thought patterns and turn these into words of inclusivity and understanding. I can learn about people and things that are different.
Ahimsa is breaking down walls of “better than” or “too good for.” It is speaking to a stranger, befriending those I once judged, picking up litter, performing a random act of kindness—however small. Ahimsa is giving—for example, donating gifts at the holidays, or donating to a food drive—but never at the expense of my own family, and it is involving my children in this giving.
Non-violence means bodily respect, respect of personal space, and the power of saying, hearing, and honoring the word “no.” It is channeling emotions and energy into constructive outlets. It is listening to others, resting when needed, and making informed choices. It is remembering that wellness contains many layers. How money is spent, what foods are eaten, the words used when speaking to one another, and the acceptance of different choices and beliefs can all be done in the spirit of non-violence.
Aparigraha: translates into “non-grasping.” An attitude of non-attachment, of letting go. There are all sorts of metaphors out there for this. A well-known one is the imagery of holding sand tightly in our hand, only to see it slip faster and faster through our fingers the tighter we grasp.
This is a hard lesson in parenting. Like, so hard. What I want for my kids and what they choose for themselves are often at odds. Who I envision them being, and who they really are, may be vastly different. I must choose my response carefully. Do I hold on tightly, project my desires onto my children, and struggle? Or do I accept what they’re showing me and take their lead?
Aparigraha teaches me to trust that they know what they need. This yama also asks me to constantly reevaluate my beliefs and strategies. What worked yesterday, or last week, or last year, may not work now. What was true for my son isn’t necessarily true for any of my daughters. I must be willing to let go of the old and make room for the new. From this shedding, from this willingness to ride the current, comes lightness and clarity. Clarity to see my own ideas, and clarity to help them discover theirs. As Kahlil Gibran writes in his work, The Prophet, “You may house their bodies but not their souls…”
Brahmacarya: translates into “the path to the essential truth.” Brahmacarya can be seen as moderation, or living the middle way. It is allowing our choices to energize and fuel us, not create obsession or guilt. It is from this place of temperance that we can move more deeply toward our truth and live with ease. This is a lifetime of work.
At this point in my evolution, both as a human being and a mother, brahmacarya feels a lot like healthy boundaries, balanced with the spirit of allowing. Some things are not optional in my house: sun protection, vegetables, helmets, seat belts, picking up litter, table manners, chores, bodily respect, reading, sleep, kindness. Some things are: what to wear, what to read, what activities to pursue, what snacks and sandwiches to eat, what music to listen to, the state of their bedroom (please just shut the door so I don’t have to see the mess). Sometimes it’s cookies for breakfast and green smoothies for lunch. It’s feeling rooted in and comforted by our family’s rhythms but also acceptance of all experiences. Shaming and demonizing, of anything, violates brahmacarya.
Like a seed needs solid earth to protect it so that it may grow toward the sun into a strong plant, so I have found that my children thrive most when they can trust their stable foundation. From this steady base grows personal freedom. Watching them ground themselves, trust their footing, develop a sense of autonomy, and learn to listen to their own wisdom is such a joy.
Asteya: translates into “non-stealing.” I’m not talking about stealing snacks or hiding the ice cream, because I do that all the time. Again, I assume outright theft can be passed over here. Asteya concerns stealing at a deeper level—stealing time, stealing meaningful interaction, hoarding resources, knowledge, or experiences. Violating asteya means operating from a mindset of lack, specifically from fear that there is not enough, that we will not get what we need or want.
Honoring asteya means trusting in abundance, trusting that the Universe will provide when needed, and that there is more than enough (money, time, fame, love, and so on) to go around.
Acting in accordance with asteya asks me to be fully present. It’s giving my children my time and attention, even when I have a hundred other things to do. Am I answering an email instead of looking them in the eye while we talk? Am I scrolling Facebook while they show me their artwork, and stealing their moment of pride? Am I only half-listening to their question? Am I disengaging, mentally or emotionally, because it’s easier? These may seem small to me, but they’re big to them.
Parenting is like having a mirror reflecting all of our darkest corners back to ourselves. What am I avoiding? What do I do when I feel anxious? What am I afraid to give up? How am I cutting corners? This mirror never lies in what it shows: either we notice it, our kids call us out on it, or we see them adopting the same behaviors and wonder where they came from. Asteya means sitting with these (often uncomfortable) truths and allowing them to be.
Feeling the reality of the moment is often the hardest choice, but these everyday moments are it; they’re what this life all about. Memories and connection are made here. There will be more time to check social media; there will be more times for me to write this email. I don’t have to hoard my time. There will not be another moment exactly like this one.
Satya: translates into “truth.” This is the heart of it all. Truth in words, truth in action, honoring commitments while honoring personal needs. Aligning choices and actions with values and goals. Silencing the external opinions and chatter so that the inner desires can be heard.
Guys, this is hard. This instinct is like a muscle; I had to find it, awaken it, and I still work every day to strengthen it. It requires trying some things out and pivoting when it’s not working. It requires gauging reactions, watching bodies and behaviors to assess how things are going, every day. It requires fluidity and openness to change. It requires sifting through the myriad of options and making a decision that works at home. When I lie awake at night (because let’s face it, while my husband is snoring away, that’s what I do), I wonder what isn’t sitting right? Where do I feel like I’m compromising or trying too hard? Am I sacrificing one thing to try and make another work?
Satya, too, is a lifetime of work; tuning into and honoring personal truth is hard and often uncomfortable, and there are no shortcuts. It requires the willingness to look in the mirror, see dark corners, and hold space for them. It asks a level of intimacy with self that is brutally honest. From this rootedness comes clarity, strength, intuition, and confidence—as a human being and as a parent.
Give them vitamins, or choose smoothies instead. Make whatever kinds of cookies they like. Let them watch television, or don’t. Immunize, or don’t immunize. Use cloth diapers, or disposable. Homeschool, or send the kids to public school. Eat meat, or just plants. Use essential oils, or bring them to the doctor for those antibiotics. Sleep however the most sleep is gotten. Do what works. Make a different choice when that one doesn’t work any more. Things change; we change; our children change.
Let the yamas be a guide; remember that love is the only constant.