Finding the breath in the day-to-day routine of parenthood

By Steph Auteri
@stephauteri

Eyes closed. Body heavy. My limbs sink into the mattress, the weight of a top sheet, a bedspread, a blanket pressing down onto my ribs, my right shoulder, my sweaty neck. My left arm is trapped beneath me and I push it out from beneath the blankets, snake it out into the open air, shake it until the numb dissolves into pins and needles. I roll onto my back. Deepen my breath. Stretch. Hold my breath. Sleep still flattens me. I try to breathe it away, nice and slow.

The house is silent, so I place my hands on my belly and I feel the rise and the fall and I close my eyes again, start to count inhales and exhales, start to meditate, but then there is the jiggle of a doorknob, the creeeeaaak of her door opening, the thump thump thump as she runs across the hallway and into my room and around the bed and I can feel her next to me. My 3-year-old daughter. The small weight of her hands on the bedspread next to my body. I am desperate to hold onto the breath, to let my mind rest with my breath until I have eased into wakefulness, so I pretend to be asleep. I make my limbs go limp. I can feel her lean closer. I can hear her breathe.

My meditation practice these days is not sitting cross-legged, lengthening my spine, sitting in silence, following my breath. My meditation is her, her breath, the heaviness of my limbs, the warmth of my bed. My meditation is the first time I open my mouth, clear my throat to speak. Push the blankets down and swing my legs out of bed and rush to the bathroom so I can close the door behind me. Lock it. My meditation is this routine I sleepwalk through as the mother of a small child.

I take my first pee of the day. Reach for my vitamins. The room is so small I can lean forward and rest my forehead on the wall in front of me and I do, I hold onto the slow sludge of waking up as my daughter pounds on the door, shouts, “Mommy! MOMMY!” I breathe. I breathe. I breathe.

Then there is her vitamin. Our teeth. Her diaper. Her clothes. Taking her hand and walking her down the stairs.

After a joyless yogurt, I slip into my bathroom, slip out of my clothes, turn on the shower, let my body breathe in the wet and the heat. I hear the door click open. I hear her footsteps. The water drops to cold. Back to hot. Back to cold. My husband is washing the dishes. My daughter is calling my name. I sigh. I breathe.

Stepping out of the shower, drying myself off, the air makes my skin pimple up and I squeeze the wet out of my hair, dry beneath my breasts, behind my thighs. The door swings wide. My husband ushers my daughter into the bathroom and I can see straight across the hall through the dining room to the front-facing windows to the outside and I breathe, I tell myself that the entire neighborhood, the commuters inching down our street, the landscapers across the street, have already seen all of me. 

I make my way upstairs, dress myself, and I tell myself this. These 16 minutes. This is when I can actually meditate properly.

But there is coffee. And there is email. And there is my news feed and my Twitter and my Slack and my Facebook and my Instagram and there is coffee and email and news and Twitter and Slack and Facebook and Instagram and there are my hands on the mug, my face leaning over the steam, the coffee on my tongue and I inhale. I breathe. But I don’t stay with it. Routine tugs at me. Later, then. I’ll sit with my breath later. Three hours pass.

I leave my home office, pull myself away from my work. Reluctantly. I leave my house. Reluctantly. I drive to my daughter’s preschool and I pull up to the curb and there are ten minutes until class ends, so I read. I breathe. I read. I breathe. For ten minutes I belong to no one but myself.

I walk up to the school and I sign her out and she is running toward me, her smile, her hair swinging, her necklaces jangling, and she throws herself into me and this. I love this. This is what I love. I crush her to me and kiss her head and if my day could just be this, this could be my meditation. The smell of her hair. The soft of her skin. Her body crushed into mine, our lungs breathing together. If my day could be like this, I could allow myself to be subsumed by her need, her love, even if it meant losing myself.

“I’ll run and you catch me,” she says, as she says every day, and I watch her as she makes her way carefully down the stairs and hurls herself down the walkway and around the corner to my car and I stomp my feet and reach for her hair just to hear her squeal laughter.

But then there is lunch and then there is three hours of staring at my screen, editing content, breathing, breathing, eyes burning, breathing.

At 4pm, I push away from my computer, pull out my cookbooks, begin to pull food from the fridge and pantry and spice rack, and my daughter is there. “Mommy, can I help you cook?” And she pulls a kitchen chair from the table, pulls it squealing across the hardwood floor, over to the counter, and she climbs up, leans over, palms flat on my open cookbook and says, “Mommy, what are we making? What can I do?”

I chop onions. Crush garlic. My daughter and I rip lettuce, throw it into the bowl. I sauté. I boil. I stir. I breathe. I breathe in the smell of hot onion and garlic, scoop and pour salt, pepper, spices.

We sit around the table, every bite a negotiation between us and our daughter. The evening stretches out. The evening is a countdown. The evening is a countdown to the bathroom, her warm skin, the bath, my fingers kneading shampoo into her hair, pouring water over suds, watching it sluice down the back of her neck, over her shoulders, down her front. When I pull her out of the tub, I wrap her in a towel and she throws her body into mine and I hold her close to me, smell her hair, rub the towel over her shoulder blades, her scapula, the backs of her legs. I pull on her footie pajamas and brush her hair and dry it and then I take her hand and walk her up the stairs, walk her to my bed where we read together. My husband brushes her teeth and then I carry her in my arms, like a baby, lay her down light on her bed, pull the blankets up, kiss her forehead, close the door.

And then I slide into my own bed, propped up with pillows and books, the cat heavy against my feet and I read until I can no longer keep my eyes open, and I inch down deeper into the bed and turn off the light, and I breathe. I close my eyes and I breathe. I try to count my breaths. Try to scan my body. Try to make each limb fall limp and heavy. I place my hands on my belly and I feel my breath and I breathe. My mind is a cacophony and the more I watch my breath, the quieter it becomes, and I reach toward sleep. I reach toward sleep. I reach toward sleep. I reach…

Steph Auteri is a writer and mother who hasn’t been doing very much writing lately. Instead, she has been losing herself in the flow of other creative pursuits, singing with a women’s choir, learning the ukulele, and practicing yoga. She still struggles with meditation.

Artwork by Paula Langstein Art

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