Here’s Alan Kaishin Crawford’s account of dealing with “baby brain” and the other delights of first time fatherhood:
“Sitting down to think and write something about practice and everyday life as a new parent, the first thing I notice is my impaired capacity to actually think! My mind feels slightly fuzzy and dull through lack of sleep and general ‘baby brain’. Kind of like the opposite of the post-sesshin clarity that feels like a very distant memory.
I haven’t been on a retreat for such a long time; I wanted and needed to be nearby and easily reachable during the pregnancy – we tried for over two years to have a baby, before having to go through a very tense, stressful, but ultimately successful IVF process. There were just enough scares and concerns throughout the pregnancy to keep us from ever really relaxing in to and getting excited about what was happening. Practice helped me to to just take it one day at a time and be there for Lynsey as best as I could. It helped me allow space for the many fears and anxieties that came up and continue to come up. To face and acknowledge my strong, fear-driven and near obsessive desire to be the perfect parent, to always say and do the right things to nourish and cultivate a wise and compassionate human being… Practice helps me to honour the intention whilst at the same time seeing and accepting the delusion inherent in this desire; practice helped me to realise that perfection is unattainable, and to sit with the underlying fear – the existential fear of accepting responsibility for another human being’s safety, health and well-being.
Practice also helped me to come to terms with what can only be described as something of a grieving process for my old life. It begin as my wife’s pregnancy progressed and the reality of what lay ahead of me began to really dawn on me. The small self rallied against the notion that I would no longer be the centre of my own universe! The sheer thought of it felt blatantly absurd! It was accompanied by a sense of loss about the things I would no longer be able to do, and a sense of panic about the many things I hadn’t yet got round to doing – visiting India and Japan, spending a month at a residential Zen Centre. Some part of me wanted to run away, do something crazy, have an affair, I don’t know, something selfish and irresponsible before life as I knew it ended, it was like an early mid-life crisis. Having a baby felt like much more of a commitment than getting married did. A marriage can be dissolved, even if the process is messy and painful. Marriage is symbolic, it’s a concept, an agreement on a peace of paper, not something as tangible as creating a human life! Practice was sitting with the fear, panic and confusion without reacting. I didn’t run away, I didn’t have an affair. I wasn’t really ever really going to do any of those things, I knew that deep down, but practice allowed me let these various scenarios and their associated feelings come and go, reminding me that everything is impermanent; that my fears and emotions, no matter how sharp or overwhelming, were just passing energies that arose and passed. Letting them be in this way took their power away.
Practice has also helped me notice the ways in which I compare my real, actual experience with some internal fantasy and the suffering this causes. I keep catching myself comparing how I really feel with how I ‘should’ feel. I didn’t cry at the birth. Was I unfeeling and cold? Unable to bond? Practice meant giving myself the space to recognise that I was a little stunned by the drama of the process, and quite how many people were in the room when Lynsey gave birth. My own tears of relief came later when I stepped out of the hospital to go and get something from the car! Similary in Morgan’s first few months, I often felt a little dis-connected and surplus to requirements. Morgan just wanted his mum, and to be breast fed, not just when he was hungry, but whenever he needed to feel comfortable and safe. I felt a primitive, instinctual urge to look after and protect this tiny, fragile little person, but I didn’t feel the emotional connection that I felt I ‘should’ have. I felt like the dad in ‘The Dinosaurs’, a childrens’ TV show from the early 90s in which the baby rejected all of his dad’s attempts to connect with him with the catchphrase, “not the mama!”. Again, practice enabled me to come home to what is real right now rather than some idea about how it ‘should’ be; to let myself feel how I felt and for that to be OK.
Practice helped me to feel compassion for my wife and to bring this in to how I communicated with her as we processed the inevitable changes in our relationship, some temporary in these first few months, some probably longer lasting or irreversible. Although I could empathise, I had no way of truly understand the life-altering, perception-changing transformation in her whole sense of identity and purpose. But practice did help me to notice when we were taking our tiredness out on each other or making it a competition about who was more exhausted, working harder or having to make bigger adjustments in their life. Practice means noticing the habitual urge to react, to score a point or be ‘right’, but taking a few moments to find the space to do something different.
Similarly, when I’ve had a long, draining day at work and am just looking forward to sitting down with my tea and Morgan starts crying, or I just started to reply to an email from an old friend and Lynsey says she needs a break, or those times when Morgan becomes inexplicably inconsolable and none of our usual approaches are working… practice means noticing the irritation, stress and frustration rise up in me and breathing through it – this too shall pass.
Before Morgan came along, I discussed how important Zen practice is to me with my wife and said that whilst I knew I would have to make sacrifices in all areas of my life, I would really appreciate her support in enabling me to continue to practice. I’ve mostly been able to maintain my sitting practice, getting up before Lynsey and Morgan in the morning to sit. There are occasions where Lynsey has had a particularly bad night or just needs extra support and I have to skip my morning sit, but I am really grateful that I still get to sit regularly. And when my formal sitting practice is disrupted for some reason, I simply try to be present. To do what I’m doing while I do it! I sometimes catch myself trying to read my book with one hand while walking Morgan to and fro on my other shoulder to settle him. Practice is reminding myself to put the book down and enjoy the warmth of my son’s soft cheek against my neck. Before I know it he will be too big to nuzzle in to my neck. Practice is appreciating my life. As it is. Right now. Not to wish to fast forward to when I can engage more with Morgan, show him things, hold a conversation with him… that time will come. Practice is reminding myself to enjoy what is hear now, despite my habitual pull towards some other place in the future when everything will be just right.
As Morgan continues to develop, he’s now nearly 6 months old, I’ve come to feel more involved and certainly more connected to him. First he started to make eye contact, and then to turn his head towards our movements or voices. Then I found I could sooth him by singing to him – this made me feel needed and useful. In one moment of desperation after some time of inconsolable crying where nothing else seemed to work, I discovered that chanting the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo is incredibly effective at soothing Morgan. In fact, my wife, an atheist and sceptic when it comes to any suggestion of the spiritual or mystical side of life, has come reluctantly to agree that chanting “Kanzeon” is the second most effective technique in our arsenal, second only to the breast. Lynsey and my dad have even tried to imitate the mantra when they couldn’t settle Morgan but can’t usually remember more than the first few words! Chanting the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo for Morgan, and hearing him settle, feeling him relax in my arms as he listens to the unusual sounds of Sino-Japanese and feels the rhythmic vibrations in my chest feels very satisfying – it brings my Zen practice and my parenting life explicitly together for a few moments as I close my own eyes and feel my own energy settle, and I feel close and connected to my son. I’ve read that Hakuin suggested that the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo is associated with healing and prolonging life. I don’t know if there is anything in this, but I know that Kanzeon is the one that hears, sees and responds to suffering with compassion. I like to think that chanting Kanzeon carries something of that energy, or perhaps helps me harness the place of bottomless compassion within myself, if just for a moment soothing and being present for whatever discomfort Morgan is feeling and allowing him to feel safe and comfortable in my arms.
Now when he smiles at me or I’m able to make him laugh I feel a joy that makes all the tiredness and sacrifices seem worthwhile. Just today, when mum was upstairs, and I was just sat talking to Morgan and looking at him, I felt a spontaneous and unexpected wave of wordless emotion. As tears came down my face, I smiled back at my son and just enjoyed this moment of connection. I think practice allowed me to do that too, to have a soft, open heart even though my conditioning tells me to ‘man up’, ‘be strong’ and ‘not be a big girls blouse’. When I took Jukkai 3 years ago Sensei gave me the Dharma name, Kaishin, which translates as Ocean Heart. I see parenting as a very real opportunity to try to manifest, embody and practice having a heart that is vast like the ocean. To be open-hearted and wholehearted enough to let my son really see me, with all of my imperfections, and to hopefully let him feel seen, loved and accepted by me with all of his, wherever his path takes him. I’ve started to realise that whilst practice won’t make me the perfect parent, it will help me to be a good enough parent. At the same time parenting brings my practice to life in a very real, immediate way.
I’ve also resolved to remind myself next time I change a dirty nappy, that, “In sacredness, nothing is mundane”, not even cleaning caca poo poo from someone’s bottom. (Zen Master Dogen)”