About the author
Rebecca Ryan is the author of Mindfulness for Mothers, a renowned Meditation Teacher and Pre and Postnatal Yoga Teacher from Australia. Rebecca also supports the work of IFWIP as a member of the Board of Advisors.
Mindfulness as a Shelter for New Mothers
We have been warned by the popular media and psychology academics to “mind the hype” surrounding mindfulness and meditation. Any practice that has been lavished with praise and attention, as mindfulness has, is bound to attract criticism. And rightly so. It’s appropriate to test the veracity of claimed benefits of mindfulness, and also to question the safety of these practices.
Mind the Research
Researchers from the Hannover Medical School, focusing on the effects of mindfulness in the postnatal period, concluded that mindfulness “may contribute to a mother’s psychological wellbeing.” The benefits were evident across five key themes.
1. Attention to the present moment
2. Breathing practices
3. Acceptance of psychological states and events that are unable to be controlled
5. And, the previously unreported benefit, mindfulness as a shelter.
By asking open-ended interview questions about the participants’ experiences of mindfulness, this qualitative study has provided support for four known areas of benefits and unearthed another, which will require further investigation.
As a meditation teacher, who has taught pregnant and postnatal women for more than 10 years, I was not surprised to hear mindfulness described as a shelter by new mothers. I’ve heard women describe the experience of mindfulness as ‘like coming home” to themselves, and of feeling “safe and held” during meditation practices. These gushing, biased, and totally unsubstantiated claims are exactly what you have been warned about!
So let’s be clear. Mindfulness is NOT a universal panacea for everything that ails us in the 21st century. It is, however, a simple tool and skill, that has the potential to be a widely available resource to enhance the wellbeing of mothers. It is most effective when taught by an experienced teacher, and safest when practiced with the caveat that it is not a substitute for professional medical support or treatment.
Access to Mindfulness
All participants in the Hannover study had completed a Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting Course (MBCP) and in addition, met certain inclusion criteria. In this case, the course was provided free of charge. It is worth noting that the MBCP course often requires a commitment of time and financial resources that many women do not have. The cost and availability of mindfulness courses is an issue.
How do we ensure that resources for pregnant women, mothers, and their families are available globally? This is one of the core questions posed by the International Forum for Wellbeing in Pregnancy (IFWIP).
I invite you to contribute to the discussion and share your ideas.
Pressure to be the “perfect” mother
The study also raised the question of how mothers can be supported by mindfulness practices without being put under unrealistic pressure to be a ‘mindful mother’ who meditates daily and lives her life mindfully. Guilt for not being able to practice mindfulness as much as hoped was a reported side-effect of the MBCP course.
Anyone with personal or professional experience of the postnatal period knows that guilt is already a prevalent emotion in this vulnerable time. We don’t want to add pressure to women at a time of change and at a time when we know their mental health is most at risk.
If mindfulness is to be a shelter for mothers, then it needs to be taught with compassion for mothers and includes a focus on ways that mothers can foster self-compassion. Without self-compassion, mindfulness can become yet another thing for mothers to achieve and excel at, rather than a tool for increased self-awareness and a source of calm.
Sometimes the context and the teachings of mindfulness are stripped back to such an extent that all that remains are attention and focus exercises. Whilst there is value in learning to pay attention, and in honing your ability to focus, these are surface level skills. Many other benefits lie beneath this surface and require an experienced teacher to guide and encourage you so that you can uncover them for yourself.
Choosing a teacher
So you’ve heard the hype, checked the research, and now you are ready to learn to meditate. Your next step is choosing a teacher. Ideally, your teacher will have both an established meditation and/or mindfulness practice and a teaching qualification. They also may be a member of a professional association. In Australia where I teach, this is largely a self-regulated industry. There are so many courses and lists of accreditation, that it is often difficult to determine the quality of the training available.
There is no substitute for time spent on the cushion, so feel free to ask your teacher about their practice. Recently I saw a “Mindfulness Teachers” accreditation that the Dalai Lama himself would not have met! He wouldn’t have qualified, because he hasn’t completed a specific course! Be wary of such restrictive definitions of mindfulness that ignore the value of spiritual practices and ancient wisdom traditions in favour of quick-fix courses.
Likewise, if you want a practice that has no spiritual or religious references, then you should check with your teacher to see if the course offered meets this requirement.
An encouraging word
I believe that it is possible for mothers, and all of us, to find shelter in the practice of meditation and in the experience of meeting our daily lives with an attitude of wonder, curiosity, and self-compassion, that we can develop through mindfulness.
There is clearly much more research required, especially in the area of understanding the mechanisms through which mindfulness works.
In my view, we have a strong enough foundation to build on. We have a growing understanding of the benefits and we have an increased awareness of the risks and safety precautions that we need to consider.
One of the next steps is improving access to this promising tool to many more mothers.
Roy Malis et al., (2017) Effects of an antenatal mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting programme on the postpartum experiences of mothers: a qualitative interview study, BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 17:57, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-017-1240-9
Van Dam et al., (2017) Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation, Perspectives of Psychological Science, Volume: 13 issue: 1, pp 36-61. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617709589