Thanks for chatting to us Abi. Like many others in the Bluebell team, you had perinatal mental health difficulties as a new parent. Can you tell us a bit more?
I had postnatal depression with both my sons, who are now 14 and 11. Having a baby is such a monumental thing - no one can prepare you for it. It’s just a really hard time, and I had lots of other things going on in my life too. I had my first son abroad, and with my second, my Dad was terminally ill. But the second time round, I recognised my postnatal depression a lot earlier, so it was easier and quicker to deal with.
And that’s when you found mindfulness, right?
Right. I was referred to a mindfulness course and from the second session onwards I thought, ‘This is for me!’ I really felt like it gave me something – a way to take control over how I was feeling and how I was doing life. It genuinely helped me get over my depression the second time and it still helps me now.
Your initial impression of mindfulness wasn’t quite so positive, was it?
Not really! We were meant to do half an hour’s mindfulness meditation every day between the weekly sessions, which sounded impossible when I was a busy mum with a baby and a toddler. I remember thinking, ‘How can you practise mindfulness if you’re a parent to little ones? How will I ever find half an hour to do it? What’s the point in even trying?’
So tell us how you got on…
The first time I tried it, I remember very clearly putting my son down for a nap, closing the curtains and putting on the body scan CD. But as soon as I lay down, my son started crying. I thought, ‘Oh, this is just never going to happen!’ I was almost crying too because I’d wanted to do it so much.
What happened at the mindfulness course the following week?
I told the teacher what had happened, how I felt like a failure. Then I described how I’d sat down with my warm, snuggly, snuffly son and calmed him down, how I’d put my hand on his belly and felt the rise and fall of his breath, how I’d watched his little tears on his chubby cheeks. The teacher said, “Well, you did it! You used what you had in that moment. You couldn’t lie down and listen to a CD for half an hour, but you could pay attention to your son's breath. You could feel the warmth of him sitting on your lap. You did it the mindfulness.”
How did that make you feel?
I had goosebumps! Even others in the group were a little bit moved. I think it helped them realise that yes, formal practise is very important, but the other stuff is too - the stuff you build into your life on a daily basis. It was a bit of a Eureka moment. I realised I can find mindfulness anytime, anywhere.
You got so much out of that course that you decided to train as a mindfulness teacher. Can you give us some inspiration for finding a mindful moment during a busy day?
It’s good to practise mindfulness when you’re in one of your more humdrum moments. Let’s use the dishes, for example. You're washing the dishes and you’re paying attention to your breath - you’re noticing the fact that you're breathing and the sensations of breathing. You might also notice the heat of the water on your hands, the crackle of the bubbles, the clink of the dishes. You’re using all your senses to really notice what's happening. It’s about being in the now and noticing what's happening in you and outside of you.
Clearly I need to ditch the dishwasher! How can doing that make a difference to our wellbeing?
It’s all about practising noticing. The more you practise noticing external things – like the clink of the dishes – the better you’ll get at noticing things internally as well. You’ll start noticing your own behaviour patterns and feelings. If you’ve practised mindfulness during humdrum moments, you’ll be able to access it more easily when you’re in a stressful or challenging situation. There’s a wonderful analogy from the ‘father’ of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn which goes: Make sure you weave your parachute before you have to jump. I love that because it sums up the importance of practice so beautifully.
Can you give us an example of how mindfulness can help a new parent in a stressful situation?
Okay, let’s say my baby is wailing and I can’t make up their bottle fast enough. I’m sleep-deprived and I don’t have the energy to get out of the door and get to that new baby group I’ve been meaning to try. All of these things can be hugely trying on my patience, nerves, mood and outlook.
However, with mindfulness, I can plant myself in the present moment. I can notice the tears pooling in my eyes, the tightness forming in my throat, the clamminess of my hands. In the split second that it takes to notice these physical sensations, I can remind myself to take a breath, create a pause. I can be present, soften into what’s happening, and choose what to deal with first.
I might take some more deep breaths, maybe let the tears come, make the bottle, and settle down to feed my baby. I might even match my breathing to theirs, feel the warmth of their body against mine, allow my body to settle into the couch. Because I’ve created some space, I may be able to work more effectively with those challenging feelings before overwhelm hits. Then what could have turned into a ‘bad day’ just becomes a ‘challenging moment’ instead.
That’s great advice – thank you. What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned about mindfulness?
My world opened up when I realised I could practise mindfulness at any time. I don’t have to make a big thing of it – I don’t have to light candles and incense and have total quiet, as much as that would be lovely! Now that my sons are at school and I’ve got more time, I try to do a formal meditation every day after the school run. But if I don’t, it’s fine, because I know I’ll be able to use mindfulness elsewhere in the day.
Ready to have a go? Here’s Abi leading a short, simple mindfulness exercise on YouTube. Enjoy!