How Practice Can Actually Get Better after Having Children

Even in the daily insanity of parenthood, your Buddhist practice can thrive. As Sumi Loundon Kim explains, it’s all about how you see it.

Sumi Loundon Kim
27 February 2018
Sumi Loundon Kim with her husband and children.
The author with her family. Photo by Sunshine Scoville.

Most of us with Buddhist backgrounds assume that the dharma will help us become better parents. Mindfulness, for example, restrains reactivity in favor of a more well-considered response. But perhaps we’ve got it backwards: parenting radically changes our dharma – and, if we let it, much for the better.

For Buddhists, the most immediate effect of motherhood or fatherhood is on our cherished quiet, dedicated time for practice. Whether we meditate, chant, or study texts, between the sheer lack of time and profound levels of exhaustion, it’s nearly impossible to sustain whatever daily practice time we had before. And retreats? Forget about it! As one Zen teacher mom shared, you can be away from your child one day for every grade they’re in. This means it could be 5-10 years before you’re on silent retreat again.

For non-parents, the idea of giving up daily practice and retreat time is horrifying – enough to dissuade some from even considering child-rearing. But this perceived loss forces us to rethink what we consider core Buddhist practice and — perhaps — diversify our practice portfolio. In the early years of caregiving, I had to develop a much more integrated form of meditation. I practiced during nursing. I practiced while putting the kids to sleep. I practiced while showering. I practiced when I took the baby for a walk. Everyday applied mindfulness became much more important. Instead of half-assed “mindfully” chopping vegetables, it became really mindfully chopping vegetables. Folding laundry was not a time for lazy mindfulness. Really tune in, girl.

As parenting and practice develop over the years, that hard distinction between practice time and everything else blurs.

As someone who’d prioritized sitting meditation as “real” meditation, this shift toward intentional, applied mindfulness built a critical bridge between formal sitting and performing in a way that had been theoretical before. As parenting and practice develop over the years, that hard distinction between practice time and everything else blurs and, in time, dissolves. We end up going where our teachers were pointing us all along: to the understanding that there’s no distinction between practice time and every moment. Every moment is practice.

And, that scarcity of time and energy makes the opportunity to formally practice all the more valued – dare I say, sacred. I remember, a few years after childbirth, the first time I was able to attend 40-minute meditation at a nearby temple. The silence, the chance to sit quietly, the occasion to practice with other adults, and the opportunity to listen to a full dharma talk all felt like warm water flowing from the heavens and washing through me. Knowing that ten different arrangements must be made in order to create that window of practice spurs us to use our time wisely and more seriously than when we had more leisure. And knowing that the personal transformation that happens in formal practice has a direct impact on the quality of our parenting can motivate and focus us to use the time more fully than when less was at stake.

But, more significantly, family life may force us to expand our ideas of practice. Sometimes, the body becomes so exhausted from the labor of childcare – the early years require immense physical exertion – that certain forms, such as sitting still, are almost impossible. It may be that bowing or hatha yoga are more appropriate on a particular day. At other times, the mind is exhausted: try formal practice after dealing with a child’s temper tantrum. For that, chanting may help collect the scattered mind and move frustrated energy through the system. There may be other days in which one’s mind receives precious little stimulation. Childcare can be mind-numbingly boring, particularly before the children are able to speak. On those days, reading or study can provide helpful perspective and rejuvenation. Over time, we can bring balance and richness to our path by incorporating more of these different forms.

Anything that turns a competent adult to a puddle of tears and snot tends to be good for awakening.

As our children develop into their own little people who can exert their will and communicate with us, our notion of practice expands yet again. We are now interacting with another being much more intensively than anyone else, except perhaps our partner, than ever before. We find a need to understand the relational nature of practice and awakening. In essence, we make that critical shift from me to we. As our children push us to engage with our community in new ways, that “we” expands further, and the “we” of a family unit becomes the “we” of a community. This opening of relationship leads to a felt sense of interconnectedness. We might find ourselves reflecting on how that toy we purchased at Target created air pollution around the factory outside Beijing that someone else’s equally beloved child now breathes. I found that the teachings that spoke most to me shifted from ones addressing individual, personal suffering to ones on interconnectedness and compassion.

In addition, the intimacy of this relationship often reveals our most vulnerable, immature, and wounded places. With a partner, we can negotiate, explicitly or silently, what gets touched and what we let lie. That simply doesn’t happen with a child. We get exposed whether we like it or not. This is especially true if we’ve been using the dharma to bypass the stuff that scares us. No longer. Many parents remark that their children are inadvertent Zen masters, reducing them to heaps of humiliation as they fumble their way forward. Anything that turns a competent adult to a puddle of tears and snot tends to be good for awakening.

As the kids grow and begin making their own choices, our path takes a new turn. Now, teachings on ethics and character formation become highly relevant. Whatever we have concluded is the best way to proceed for ourselves, we now have to articulate that for our children. Why is it harmful to take stuff that isn’t ours? How is speaking honestly and kindly good for relationships? Why is generosity important? Having to verbalize – to teach – these points to our children forces us to become clearer and more articulate. We also find we can’t be hypocritical; whatever rationalization we had before for being naughty, now we’ve got someone watching us. In sum, parenthood turns up the heat, baking our ethics into us. And, in explaining all this to our children, we essentially become their first spiritual teachers.

Through teaching our children, in direct and indirect ways, we find ourselves becoming deeper and more intentional in our practice.

Which brings us to the final point. Someone told me that Chogyam Trungpa said that, at some point, a student’s path plateaus: to deepen further, the student must then begin to teach. That has certainly been true for me. I became a much better student of the dharma once I began teaching, about eight years ago. The same holds true when we serve as our children’s first spiritual friend and guide. Through teaching our children, in direct and indirect ways, we find ourselves becoming deeper and more intentional in our practice.

Parenthood can radically transform the path, revealing our limited preconceptions about proceeding as a Buddhist, and opening up new possibilities. In the end, we may find we have a more dynamic, engaged, and complex understanding of our own Buddhist life as we nurture the lives of our children.

Sumi Loundon Kim

Sumi Loundon Kim

Sumi Loundon Kim is the Buddhist chaplain at Yale University and founder of the Mindful Families of Durham. She is editor of the anthologies Blue Jean Buddha and The Buddha’s Apprentices, from Wisdom Publications, and the author of Sitting Together: A Family-Centered Curriculum on Mindfulness, Meditation, and Buddhist Teachings.