How Parenting Has Become My Spiritual Practice

These days, being a mom is what connects me to something greater.
Family At Dinner Table Illustration

Nathalie Dion

On Sundays, I used to go to church. Now I attend my sons' soccer games. I used to meditate for 20 minutes a day. That time was gobbled up years ago by domestic obligations that have become bigger as my two boys have gotten older. More laundry. More shopping. More cleaning.

So how do I feed my spirit, when I spend most of my time dealing with very corporal concerns? Lately, I've found that moments of grace have hit me in unexpected and profoundly ordinary ways. I don't doubt that a more formal, regular ritual would give me even greater insight and prepare me for recognizing more of these moments. And I hate to think that there are life-changing truths hanging around that I'm simply too busy or too spiritually lazy to recognize. But when I have to choose between contemplating eternity and changing the cat litter, the litter wins.

In other words, I'm taking my spiritual nuggets where I find them. As my sons and I walk to the school bus stop, I've started to practice mindfulness by pointing out foliage and wildlife. This is quite a switch, since I used to spend this time creating mental to-do lists -- or better, imagining myself on the French Riviera being fed strawberries by Javier Bardem.

My family lives in downtown Los Angeles, so our route is lined by apartment buildings and homes with small front yards. But I point out the purple trees and the spiky orange flowers. My 6-year-old, Murphy, has named one of the squirrels we encounter "Chipster." Murphy is thoroughly convinced that he can identify Chipster by a certain wink that the little guy gives him.

If walking the kids to the bus stop teaches me to pay attention to everyday delights, then dinnertime offers me an opportunity to marvel at the bigger picture. We live on the seventh floor of an apartment building, and every evening the sky turns pink and orange while people on the street below hustle home and the crows swoop past our window on the way to their nocturnal perch. Over dinner, we review our respective days at work and school, but we also take time to look out our window and feel a part of it all. As night falls and the stars come out, my sons invariably talk of life on other planets. Murphy is convinced that he will meet an alien some day and Spencer, going one step further, is working on a communication device that involves mirrors, flashlights, and double-sided tape. I've always considered life in this world complicated enough, so until recently I haven't thought much about extraterrestrial existence. But I've begun to understand that my sons' preoccupation with life on other planets doesn't simply reflect a yearning to hang out with little green beings. It's deeper. It's about believing in infinite possibility.

Listening to my children at the dinner table, I think of everything that might exist beyond my experience. Since I can't even conceive of a world beyond the intelligence of my cell phone, their list of possibilities is staggering. And, of course, one of these must be that we all are a piece of something larger.

I have come to believe that feeling connected is at the heart of any spiritual journey and, because we are already deeply bonded to our children, we get to connect to the world through them. My friend Cindy tells me that she will never forget the day her 6-year-old and a friend set up a cider stand in her front yard. The children sat and waited for customers. But business was painfully slow. Cindy wished fervently that someone, anyone, would stop by the kids' stand. Then, just as she was abandoning that hope, a few neighbors trickled out of their houses to clink change into the children's jar. And out of nowhere, a red convertible pulled up. The driver jumped out, stuffed a bill in the change jar, and downed his cider. As he sped off, the children crowed to Cindy that he had left them "TEN DOLLARS!"

"Despite everything that is wrong in the world," Cindy says, "it's hard to be cynical on a grace-filled day like that."

My friend Aliza says she feels that same kind of grace when she watches her son play baseball: "I become grounded and not distracted by my usual internal nattering conversation of how there's too much to do and I can't possibly accomplish it all, so why try?" Sitting in the stands at a game, she says, is her meditation moment. She's watching her son be exactly who he wants to be.

For me, that feeling came with my son Spencer, on the day he forgot his lines to a speech for his fifth-grade graduation ceremony. As soon as I saw him stumble, my heart lurched. I anticipated his humiliation and wanted to jump on the stage and save him. Instead of floundering, however, Spencer made a joke and the entire audience applauded while he whipped his notes out of his pocket and found his line. Of course, I felt pride in Spencer's achievement. But it was more than that. It was a moment when everything aligned.

These pockets of grace demand consciousness. In order to recognize them, we must be present. That evening, when the children were in bed, I sat on the couch in the darkened living room, the glow from the hallway light bouncing off the toys littering the living-room floor. There was so much more for me to do. Instead of picking up, however, I sat and remembered our conversations that day. Parenting, I realized, has become my meditation and spiritual practice. Some day, I will return to formalized rituals. But for now, I find that my children challenge me to think more deeply. And that's enough to make me feel fulfilled.

Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better
Family Dinners: 4 Tips To Make Them Better

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Parents Magazine.

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