The Dharma of Motherhood

Dharma was the theme in yoga this morning, and Phil mentioned my Dharma Dinner post — quite an honor and a pleasure. We must have a bit of a symbiotic relationship, because this post grew out of class today.

He had a lot of great stuff to say about dharma, including the fact that based on the Sanskrit root, dhr, which means to carry, to bear, or to sustain, the word dharma can refer to a container. Dharma helps to contain you, contain your energies. It creates structure, boundaries. Although a boundary sounds like an obstacle — something limiting — you can’t actually find freedom without it. There would be no way to organize your thoughts or emotions, no real way to balance — no way to be you.

Phil also pointed out that you don’t necessarily have just one dharma. Motherhood, for example, is one of my dharmas, my roles. When I thought about that, I thought about Arjuna, the hero of the Gita, who really doesn’t want his dharma, to fight against and kill his loved ones. Motherhood isn’t as dire as all that (most of the time), but as a mother of young children, you do end up taking on a lot that you didn’t expect or want, things that are painful and uncomfortable. A lot of really difficult situations and emotions are involved, and you often find yourself in mental, spiritual, and physical spaces where you don’t want to be.

Being a parent is a huge responsibility, an important, critical role. It’s challenging and exhausting, but it can also be exhilarating and empowering, and ultimately just about the most gratifying thing a person can do. For me, it was literally the experience I needed to have to really know myself. I suspect it’s that way for most people — the life experience that teaches you the most about you.

One problem, however, is that at the beginning, there’s not much structure. Really, there’s none. Your life as you knew it, the way you got through your days, all the systems you set up that were humming along so nicely — all that goes out the window. When you have a young baby, any schedule or structure revolves around her. When the baby is awake, when the baby eats, when the baby poops, when the baby sleeps — that’s your structure. Even the structure of the clock doesn’t have any real meaning. Add to all this the fact that you’re totally freaked out, hormonal, and exhausted, and possibly in post-labor pain or just-started-nursing pain. It’s a surreal situation in which you have no bearings to speak of. In some ways, you have a lot of freedom — those first few weeks or months, no one really expects you to be doing anything except mothering. But since you have no idea what’s going on, it bears absolutely no resemblance to all those “what to expect” and “how-to” articles and books you read last month (or was it only last week?) — it just feels like a free fall.

Slowly, you gain some structure. The kid starts to fall into certain patterns. You start to understand what certain sounds, movements and cries mean. You figure out the best way to handle or even avoid what I like to call a poopsplosion. You get a bit more confident about your ability to nurse. You master the sling or Baby Bjorn. You take a walk at a certain time every morning. You meet some other new moms. You start to create some boundaries, a blueprint for your days. This all makes you feel more serene. Like life hasn’t totally left you behind. 

This is not to say that you won’t free-fall again and again as motherhood progresses (try adding another kid if things are feeling too staid). I am still constantly redrawing the lines, resetting the boundaries. As my daughters get older and they’re setting a lot of them up themselves (school, playdates, activities), my days have become more relaxed, more orderly; more free. Still, I create systems for myself — running on Mondays and Thursdays, yoga on Tuesdays and Fridays — expectations for my days that allow me to really let the freedom sink into my bones.

I’ve always been someone who likes rules and feeling in control, but I didn’t find real structure until I experienced a total lack of it. Maybe because I then needed to design and build that structure myself, from the foundation up, it feels like home.


2 Comments on “The Dharma of Motherhood”

  1. Sirena says:

    Just wanted to stop in and say hi. I found your blog a few weeks back (googling OM tattoo) and have loved reading your posts. This is such a great one, actually written the day after my daughter’s first birthday. It’s been a balance in finding structure in our new family life and I am still learning and growing.


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