Let’s just say that 2014 was an interesting year for me. And, by interesting, I mean, “Dear God, please don’t let me have another year like that any time soon.” Less than two months after giving birth to my son, Lars, I filed for divorce and relocated from Minneapolis to Duluth to live with my folks. Not exactly the timeline of events that I had envisioned for my life. Nevertheless, it was the reality I was faced with…scratch that, smacked in the face with.
Fortunately for me, I have some very wise people in my life who I turned to during that time. Getting divorced is hard. Being a mama to an infant is hard. Doing them at the same time is awesome. Ha, not. These wise friends gave me some super helpful advice. I believe they offered it specifically to help me cope with divorce. Looking back, though, it was just as helpful, if not more so, to help me navigate my journey of motherhood. Their advice?
Choose a mantra.
Okay, so, what exactly is a mantra?
In all honestly, I don’t know the nuances of the historical definition of the word. I’m frankly probably subscribing more to the Oprah version which is just fine with me. How it was suggested for my situation, and how I chose to apply it, was to find a saying, phrase, or prayer that I could repeat over and over to give me strength during tough times. For anyone who has gone through a divorce and/or cared for an infant, you know that tough times are par for the course.
I ultimately chose the Serenity Prayer—something fairly short and to the point yet also extremely profound:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I typed this up, printed out about 10 copies and pasted them all over my world: in my car, by my bed, on my mirror, etc. I put a copy anywhere I might glance so that I could be reminded of and thinking on these words.
While brushing my teeth.
While waiting at a red light.
Every day, I fed my mind, heart and soul with these helpful words. And, I experienced peace and joy in the midst of challenges.
Over time (my divorce took 2 years, which was essentially my son’s first two years of life), I was amazed by how these words that I had repeated countless times really had shaped my responses to both the details of my divorce as well as motherhood. Both of these seasons, which I just happened to experience concurrently, were full of situations I couldn’t change, circumstances where I did have some influence, as well as many times where I needed to weigh the options before responding.
For about a year after my divorce was final, I still reflected upon and recited these words. But, as life as a divorced mom settled into a routine, my sweet 2-year-old turned 3. Without being able to articulate it quite yet, I was in need of a new mantra.
My new mantra found me a few months ago as I scrolled through my Facebook feed. I was intrigued by a quote posted by the Gottman Institute. For those unfamiliar with their work, the folks at the Gottman Institute are the gurus of all things relational. The quote was accompanied by a simple graphic of a parent and child and read:
Many believe that parenting is about controlling children’s behavior and training them to act like adults.
I believe that parenting is about controlling my own behavior and acting like an adult myself.
Children learn what they live and live what they learn. L.R. Knost
This was the new focus I was ready for. Let’s be clear, I don’t think I really “outgrew” the lessons of the Serenity Prayer. But, as I had grown and changed over the course of the last couple of years, so had my son. I don’t know about your little ones, but in my experience, there has been a BIG difference between ages two and three. Three has been a blast and a battle, full of the longest and loudest belly laughs as well as the saddest and shrillest tears. And, our situation is compounded by the back and forth reality of two different homes.
Consequently, I’ve needed SOMETHING to keep me patient and sane during what often feels like a roller-coaster ride.
In comparison to my first mantra, this new one is fairly long. So, honestly, in the heat of battle, i.e. when my son is kicking and screaming as I strap him into his car seat because he wants to play in the car but we’re already running five minutes late, I find myself silently repeating over and over:
I am the adult. I am the adult.
As good as it would feel to kick and scream myself, I can honestly say that having these words in the forefront of my mind DOES help me from screaming and losing my cool. That doesn’t mean I don’t lose it occasionally! But, truthfully, remembering that I’m the one who can show him a different way to respond by keeping myself together is actually really empowering. And, given that as a divorced mom I have 0% control over how my child is parented when he’s not with me, it gives me some power back to know that I have 100% control over my behavior all of the time.
So, in addition to the thoughts I’ve already shared, here are a few more reasons why having a mantra has been great and why I encourage others to choose one, too.
Mantras aren’t that out of the ordinary.
For those of us who have practiced yoga, the concept of finding a drishti, a point of concentration to help maintain physical and mental balance, is paramount. For me, a mantra has been akin to a verbal drishti, a thought that keeps me balanced as I navigate life. Many diet plans have mantras, too. So if someone can have a mantra to help them pass on the noodles or butter, I say having something we tell ourselves to avoid screaming at our children is that much more essential.
Practice won’t bring perfection, but, it will increase intention.
Just as someone who trains for a marathon can look back at how their ability to run distances improves with each jog they take, being deliberate with the messages we fill our minds with, I believe, does increase our capacity to be calmer and less reactionary parents over time. For me, reminding myself over and over that my son will “Learn what he lives and live what he learns” really does influence the words I say to him, the faces I respond with and tone I use. Being an adult and keeping my cool when he is an erupting volcano of emotions is difficult, but, over time, it gets easier and easier for me to stay calm and subsequently, he takes less and less time to calm himself down. Essentially, my response can either throw sand on the flames of his behavior or gasoline; I strive for the former.
Outgrowing a mantra feels great.
Again, let’s be clear, I haven’t completely mastered the concepts of acceptance, wisdom and courage. But, I can say that I’ve come a long way in those areas since the fall of 2014 when this particular journey began. To recognize a few months ago that I wasn’t in survival mode anymore, and was ready for a new mantra, was an encouraging realization for me.
So, I encourage you to consider picking a mantra. Whether you’re in the midst of a divorce, drowsily sauntering through life averaging 3 hours of sleep per night, struggling with a teenaged child, painfully walking the path of infertility, or if you’re single, retired, or anywhere else on the journey of life, I believe choosing a mantra that fits the season you are in right now can be incredibly powerful. As I learned through my experience, your situation may not change, but you and your responses to the situation can change. If you’re interested in finding a mantra but feel overwhelmed as to how to go about choosing one, feel free to borrow either of mine… they’ve both served me well thus far.