Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
A Beginning Definition
Why Momfulness Matters
Developing a Practice
Breathing Meditation
I See Me in Your Eyes
Rolling Hippo Meditation
How a Mom Prays
The Alone Hat
Porch Swing
Plan B
The River
Mouth Yoga
The Ideal vs. the Real
Clearing Clutter
Late-for-School Practice
Pier Pressure
Walking the Night Hallways
When Someone Deeply Listens to You
No Good Very Bad Day
Mobilize the Mothering Instinct
Hugging Meditation
Body Blessings
Water Blessing
Ponytail Practice
Laying On of Hands
Gratitude Practice
Coming-of-Age Blessing
Seven Nights in a Row
Generations of Bodies
Saved by Wonder
Close toThings
The Sacred in All Things
Where Does the Wind Come From?
Lobster Tale
Framing the Day
Morning Offering
Evening Prayer
Nurturing Family Spirit
Family Circle
Sacred Circles
Our Many Mothers
The Holy Family Commutes
Are All the Children In?
The Mother Is Standing
What Do Trees Have to Do with Peace?
A Final Word
Suggested Reading
The Author


To all who bring the passion of a mother
to their work on behalf of the children
and of the planet

You have to find a mother inside yourself.
We all do. Even if we already have a mother,
we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

So there I was, twenty-seven-years old, waddling down the aisle to the front of the church to receive my diploma. I carried my eighteen-month-old son in my arms and my soon-to-be-born second son in my belly.
After four years of studying at a seminary, I was receiving a Master of Divinity degree. I wanted to be a minister, to put into practice the teachings and values of love, compassion, forgiveness, peace. What I was just beginning to grasp, as a very new mother, was that my spiritual practice was ultimately not going to involve preaching to a choir but, rather, preaching to my kids! It was not going to take place primarily in a church, breaking bread and sharing wine; more often than not, it was going to take place in the kitchen serving up graham crackers and chocolate milk.
As the mother of four children (and the foster mom of a fifth), I can attest to the fact that motherhood leaves stretch marks on us—in so many ways! I have been stretched physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. My limited notion of what constitutes a family has widened, and I have been pulled (sometimes kicking and screaming) into the present moment. Through great challenges and even greater love, my heart has grown to hold more than I ever thought possible.
Motherhood continues to stretch me to this day, and I see no end in sight. It teaches lessons that many spiritual disciplines teach: the transforming effect of true presence, the importance of close attention, the need for deep compassion, the celebration of embodiment, the recognition of the sacred in all things, and the power of community.
Momfulness is the word I use for this spiritual practice of conscious mothering. When we mother with mindfulness and compassion and a willingness to let this vocation awaken our hearts and transform our lives, we walk a spiritual path. We discover that care for our children and family is not a distraction from sacred practice but is the very essence of it.
My husband and I conceived of the word Momfulness at (appropriately enough) our kitchen table, and since then I keep discovering more and more what it means to be Momful. My oldest son Ben calls it entering the “mama zone.” That may be as good a characterization as any. Words can’t capture its full meaning, because Momfulness is best understood through experience. The reflections and practices in this book are designed so that you can deepen conscious mothering in your own life.
And so I invite you to join me in exploring the spiritual practice of Momfulness, whether in the midst of sticky kisses or at the point of sheer exhaustion, at the moment when your heart is broken or at the point when it stretches wide open, as together we cultivate a mindful, compassionate, mothering presence with ourselves, with our children, and with our world.

I want to be straight with you. Momfulness is not about perfection. It is also not about motherhood as bliss. Nothing is bliss all the time. I love being a mom, and at the same time, motherhood can be incredibly grueling and frustrating, often pushing me to my limits.
Momfulness is also not about adding another thing to your to-do lists. So if you think you’re too busy to engage in a spiritual practice, think again. You can do this right where you are. If you’re steeped in dirty diapers, if you’re dealing with acting-out teenagers, if you’re trying to balance work and home and it feels like you have time for neither, this is the practice for you.
You can’t practice Momfulness by sitting on a meditation cushion all day (not that there’s much danger of that happening!). Momfulness is practiced in the trenches—while carpooling and cooking, working and waiting, crying and celebrating. Sometimes it will mean carving out moments of solitude and stillness so that you can listen to your heart and your deepest longings, but most of the time it will mean learning how to meditate in motion in the midst of your family life.

A Beginning Definition

So what is Momfulness? Let me offer a beginning definition, and then we’ll briefly look at some of the key concepts:
Momfulness is the spiritual practice of cultivating
a mindful, compassionate, mothering presence.

Momfulness Is Mindful

Simply put, mindfulness is being aware of whatever is happening in the present moment without making any judgment. We observe what is happening here, now, including in our own body and mind. Are we feeling boredom? Anger? Fear? Delight? Are we telling ourselves how things should or should not be? Just notice it all. When we are mindful, we become aware and accepting of whatever is there.
What’s not so simple is the actual practice of mindfulness. I don’t know about you, but I probably spend 98.9 percent of my life not having a clue about what is really happening in this present moment. As moms, we have gazillions of thoughts: we worry, we feel stress, we become attached to life going a certain way. We race from one job to another without being in touch with our bodies or with what we need. Many days we barely make eye contact with our family. We tend to live mindlessly, caught up in the world of our thoughts, judgments, and obligations. We think that this is reality, and we end up missing so much.
See if you can spend a day, or even a few minutes, eavesdropping on your mind. My guess is that you’ll discover a continual tape recording going on in your head. You might be thinking about something that happened yesterday, or you might be worrying about something that could happen tomorrow. You might be telling yourself that you’re not good enough, smart enough, or thin enough, or that your child is spoiled. Just relax and be curious about it all.
In this book we’ll be doing a number of practices that can help us be more mindful in our daily lives. These, however, are just a beginning. There are many other valuable resources that can help you develop a mindfulness practice, and I encourage you to explore some for yourself.

Momfulness Is Compassionate

The English word compassion comes from the Latin, meaning “to suffer with.” It is defined as a deep awareness of the suffering of another, together with the wish to relieve it. In Hebrew, the word for compassion is raham, which comes from the word rehem, meaning “womb.” To be compassionate is to feel for another with your womb, to hold the person with love, as you might hold a child in your womb.
In practicing Momfulness, we cultivate compassion, not only for others but also for ourselves. We increase our ability to see our own suffering—how tired we are, how hard we are working, how much we don’t know. We develop the capacity to forgive ourselves, to love ourselves, and to give ourselves some of what we need. Our hearts open, and we make friends with even the most difficult experiences of our lives.
As we become more tolerant and compassionate with ourselves, we are able to extend that compassion toward our children. We recognize how they suffer, and we are able to better understand what underlies some of their difficult behavior. This awareness increases the chance that we will respond in a helpful, rather than reactive, way.
Our compassion extends beyond our family; we feel in our wombs the suffering of so many in our community and in our world. Rather than let this overwhelm us, we continue to practice, strengthening our capacity to hold suffering instead of avoiding it or numbing ourselves to it. As our hearts open, we awaken into helpful and compassionate action.

Momfulness Is Mothering

Becoming a mother changes us forever. Our psychological, spiritual, physical, and emotional boundaries all undergo a profound shift. As Elizabeth Stone, now a professor at Fordham University, once said, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” It is no longer only about us. The “I” has become a “we,” and nothing is ever the same.
Mothering (in case you don’t know!) is not just about apple pie and sweetness. The archetype of Mother is a complex one. Our mothering can be nurturing, protective, and creative—or fierce or destructive, if necessary. In practicing Momfulness, we pay attention to how our mothering might need to shift with various circumstances. We learn how to step into an empowering mothering stance and develop a wide range to our mothering. As poet Zelma Brown articulates:
I have hands big enough
to save the world,
and small enough
to rock a child to sleep.
In practicing Momfulness, we mother not only our children but also ourselves. When I work with clients (who are mostly moms) in therapy, often the work is in helping them find a mothering and nurturing parent within themselves. Too often their inner voice is a harsh and critical one. As they develop a positive mothering presence within themselves, they are better able to soothe themselves when they are feeling stressed or anxious. Then they are able to mother their own kids in a much more compassionate way.

Momfulness Is About Presence

When I ask moms in seminars, “What is it you long for?” the number one answer I hear is, “More time!” So I pretend to wave a magic wand that gives us all twelve more hours in each day. After the glee and downright giddiness of imagining twelve more hours to nap or exercise or empty the “In” basket or the laundry basket, reality begins to hit the women. They realize that by tomorrow, their calendars would start filling up again, and in about a week or so they’d be complaining that they still don’t have enough time. Amazing how quickly those extra hours would disappear!
So, if it’s not more time that is the magical solution, what is it? I suggest that much of the problem at the root of our longing lies in the fact that we don’t feel really present in the time that we do have. In the limited twenty-four hours of this day, are we showing up? Are we really here? Now? Are we home, in the deepest meaning of that word?
Our ability to be present has a profound effect, not only on the quality of our own lives but on our families’ lives as well. As mothers, our interactions with our children quite literally shape the structure and the functions of their brains. This fact alone suggests that the practice of Momfulness, in which we work on connecting with ourselves and with our children in a fully present way, has important long-term implications.

Momfulness Involves Cultivating

Cultivate is a gardening term; it is from the Latin word meaning “to till.” Dictionary definitions include “to improve and prepare,” “to loosen or dig soil around,” “to grow or tend,” “to promote the growth of,” “to nurture or foster,” “to seek the acquaintance of,” or “make friends with.” All these definitions are apropos to Momfulness: we cultivate a mindful, compassionate, mothering presence. We loosen up the ground within us, we turn it over, we tend it, we promote growth, and we get to know ourselves in a friendly way.
Cultivating, like gardening, is not a linear process, where we start at Point A and move in a straight line to Outcome B (sorry!). Cultivating works with all the earthy elements of life: rainy seasons, droughts, pests, sunshine, weeds, the good, the bad, and the ugly. No matter what happens, it’s grist for the mill; we can use it all to our benefit. We simply begin noticing, listening, and observing what’s happening inside us and around us, and develop a mind-set that says, “Oh, isn’t that interesting!” instead of making judgments about it all.
As we cultivate mindfulness and compassion, we strengthen our ability to understand what we need, what our child needs, what a moment needs. We also begin to realize that we can’t pull on growing things to make them come up any sooner. Patience is a key to cultivating things in a healthy way. As you probably already know, patience is one of those qualities of parenting that we will be invited to experience, like it or not, each and every day!
So here we are—cultivating our own little plot of mindfulness, of compassion, of a mothering presence, guided and supported by grace. We practice Momfulness for our children, being mother to them in such a way that they might thrive. We practice Momfulness for ourselves, being a mother to ourselves in such a way that we might thrive. And we practice Momfulness for our world, mobilizing the powerful, fierce, wise, and nurturing mothering presence in such a way that all children—all beings—might thrive.

Why Momfulness Matters

My three sons—all now young adults—were science majors in college. Ben studied neuroscience, Dave received his degree in microbiology, and Matt is completing his studies in biopsychology. I was an English major, and science was never my area of expertise. But I have learned so much from my sons, and now I often find myself interested in scientific findings that shed light on everyday experience. I’d like to share a couple of these with you because I think they underscore the importance of a practice like Momfulness in this day and age.

Stress Is Contagious

Entrainment is the term coined by a Dutch physicist in 1666 who was working on pendulum clocks. He noticed that the pendulums of two clocks, which had been swinging at different rates, began swinging at the same rate if placed in close proximity to each other.
This principle of entrainment, whereby one object affects another so that they begin to move “in sync,” is also found in other areas of life. If two heart cells are placed near each other, they will entrain to a common beat. When women live together in close quarters, they discover that their menstrual cycles tend to coincide. When we sit by the ocean, we feel ourselves literally slowing down because we are entraining to the in-and-out, in-and-out, rhythmic movement of the waves.
Now think about times when you lovingly hold your child or partner. Are you aware that your breathing becomes synchronized? You may not know it, but even your heart rates and brain waves are entraining to each other’s. Through your close physical connection, you are having a profound effect on one another, literally shaping who the other is becoming.
So far, so good. But if we ask ourselves, What rhythms are we being entrained to by our modern-day world? we begin to understand why we are exhausted so much of the time. Technology has transformed our day-to-day lives, filling them with constant noise and speed and way too much information. We live under the influence of powerful, though invisible, rhythms that can, if we’re not conscious about them, easily dictate how we live our lives. The stress around us can be, quite literally, contagious.
A curious event at the San Francisco Zoo several years ago reminded me of how easy it is to become entrained to a frenetic rhythm. Six small, sweet, and docile penguins were transferred from Ohio to join forty-six large, fairly lazy, and sometimes ornery penguins at the zoo in San Francisco. As soon as the six were released onto Penguin Island, something changed.
Within two hours, the six Ohio birds somehow convinced the forty-six old-timers not only to join them in the pool but to begin a great migration—to nowhere. Even though the San Francisco birds had never migrated anywhere, the new arrivals persuaded them, within the course of a couple of hours, that this was the way to go.
So for almost three months the fifty-two penguins swam’round and ’round and ’round, making visitors dizzy. They only came out to sleep for a few hours, then back they went into the pool. Nobody knew when this was all going to stop. Prior to the arrival of the six newcomers, the forty-six penguins could not be coaxed from their homes. “Before, it took a grenade to get them out,” said Jane Tollini, their puzzled keeper. As they kept swimming ’round and ’round in circles, Jane joked, “I keep thinking they must be going, ‘Didn’t we just see that palm tree? Haven’t we been here before?’”
The frenzy didn’t even stop when the pool was emptied. The penguins simply jumped in and bumped into one another on the dry bottom. Feeding time was, in the keeper’s words, hell. “I am kind of like a drive-through restaurant now. They see me, see the fish, run past me, grab the fish, and keep going.”
It’s easy to laugh at the penguins and the seeming insanity of their pool migration. Yet we can also recognize ourselves and our own tendency to swim swim swim swim swim. How often do we stop and ask ourselves where we are going and why we all seem in such a rush to get there? Are we aware of how we are being entrained by the pace of life around us?
Many moms know they’re doing too much, but they don’t know how to get out of the pool! They say they’d like to get on another track, but they don’t know how. It seems as if everybody else is in this race to somewhere, and it’s so easy to get caught up in it. Even our kids are being entrained to the stressful and endless rhythm, and we’re beginning to see the cost.
Through practicing Momfulness, we have a chance to help ourselves and our families become just a little bit saner. We experiment with shifting the rhythm of our lives. We practice becoming more mindful of what we are doing and what is driving us. We discover that awareness is often all we need to free ourselves to make other choices. Granted, we don’t have as many choices in some areas as we do in others, but my guess is that there are lots of things that we could shift in our families’ lives that would slow us down to a healthier and less stressful pace.
As just one example, we might notice a lot of “shoulds” inside our minds that keep us moving in frenetic activity: I should be a perfect mom. My kids should be involved in lots of extracurricular activities. Birthday parties should be big extravaganzas like everyone else’s. The moment we become curious about these internal messages and observe the power they have over us, they become a little less powerful. And as we begin to experience compassion for ourselves and for others as we race around the pool, perhaps we begin to see another way.
The good news from the story is that it took only six penguins to influence the behavior of the forty-six. Imagine if more and more mothers began to ask, “Is this working for me? Is it working for my children? What societal changes could I help support so that this frenetic pace isn’t the norm?” As more and more of us shift into a healthier pace, it is not only our own families who will benefit; it is also society at large.

Relationships Shape Us

Less than five miles away from the penguins at the San Francisco Zoo are three psychiatrists at the UCSF Medical Center: Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D. They have written a book titled A General Theory of Love, which draws on the latest research showing that from the time we are born, we are deeply affected by the people close to us. The authors show how our brains link us with the people we love; as a consequence, who we are and who we will become depends, in large measure, on who we love. In a process of entrainment, our brains connect with our loved ones in a rhythm that shapes and changes the very structure and function of our brains. We also sense each other’s emotional state and attune ourselves to that.