Once, on a trip to Mexico, I was caught in a powerful undertow on a secluded beach. I was only about 15 feet from shore but there was a steep drop-off and when I swam out, I was sucked under. At first, I was completely disoriented—I couldn’t tell sea from sky. But despite the circumstances, I remained eerily calm. I figured out that I was traveling in circles. When I reached the surface, I’d take a large swallow of air—just enough oxygen to keep me alive until I resurfaced again. After 7 or 8 cycles, I could tell that the strength of the current varied from cycle to cycle. I waited for it’s power to wane and then broke free and swam back to shore. The undertow had snatched my bikini top so I lay on the sand topless and breathless, feeling vulnerable and exposed. I vowed to never to forget the lesson I learned from that current—nothing has absolute hold over us. There is always an opening…we can always find a way out.
Last week was a horrible week. I normally juggle a wide variety of tasks related to work, self and home but last week’s load felt substantially heavier. My daughter spent most of the week hitting her classmates. If that wasn’t horrible enough, she began to take aim at her gentle teachers. I also happened to be in the midst of renegotiating her preschool schedule and fees for the fall—and her behavior significantly reduced my bargaining power. All week long, I tried every parenting tool in the book but nothing seemed to work. I felt like I was swimming out past the drop off.
Little children swing wildly from angelic to demonic behavior as they test boundaries and learn how to be in the world. In the best cases, parents remain calm. They gently nudge their child towards a peaceful path. But this week, I did the opposite. As I neared Ayla’s school at pick-up time, I could feel my jaw clench and my shoulders tense. Rather than looking for an opening—a way out of our predicament—I was preparing for battle. Refusing to back down to a 2-year old usually carries disastrous consequences. Ayla had her first preschool tantrum that day. A small crowd bore witness to our battle of wills. Now I was at the mercy of the undertow.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, my daughter began stealing from our local coop and running outside to eat her bootlegged candy. She’d kick and scream if I tried to bring her back into the store to pay and apologize. I’d race back and forth between the cash register and the front door—holding up the line and apologizing to everyone—while bagging groceries and trying to keep track of my daughter. Even after a stern reprimand about stealing, she did it a second time that week. I was so angry that I seized up inside—and gave myself over to the current.
Life ebbs and flows. There are tough weeks and there are gentle weeks. I know that. I really do. But sometimes we get stuck. Life pulls us under and we can’t find a way out. For the rest of the week, I felt like I was gasping for breath. My life felt like it was too much to bear—the endless work of fundraising, travel, emails and meetings for the Reciprocity Foundation—alongside my personal responsibilities as travel planner, soothsayer, chef, cleaner, librarian, bath-wallah and play-date organizer in our family. Every night, I’d sit on my meditation cushion, wanting everything to get better. And every morning, it got a little worse.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the importance of not being at war with ourselves. We can’t force happiness when we’re angry, or force emptiness when our minds are racing. Instead, he suggests shining the light of awareness on our situation. Light illuminates dark—and light and dark merge into a state of lightness, a place where we are able to see again.
And so, I returned to my meditation cushion on Thursday night and shined a light into my angry, tense self. The first light was a memory of giving birth to my daughter. She was spirited from the first moment we met—bursting with energy and strength. She’s the sort of person who tries to kick down a door before turning the handle. But she’s also fiercely loyal and loving and cute as a button. The memory inspired my anger and my love to merge into something new: A clear awareness of the challenge of raising my child, with the confidence that I have the right mix of strength and softness for the job.
Then I remembered the undertow. I remembered that we are only given challenges that we can meet. There was a way out. If I breathed deeply at every opportunity, and waited for an opening, it would come. I could be free.
Parenting is spiritual practice--better than yoga or anything else I've tried. And as the challenges get harder, so do the rewards. Last night, I tucked myself into my daughter’s bed, kissing her hair, her forehead and feeling the warmth of her breath on my cheek. I had been caught in an undertow again—but this time, the reward for breaking free was better than resting on a sandy beach. I held my daughter’s body close to my own and felt washed clean by our love.