Birth, Motherhood, and the Power of Mantra

Today, my 2-year-old daughter didn't want her diaper changed. As I leaned down to pick her up, calmly explaining that this was a necessity, she nuzzled her head into me and bit down onto the softest part of my thigh. My instinctual, holy-goodness-that-hurt response was to curse (loudly) and push her away. She wound up on the floor, looking surprised (and a little scared), and I instantly felt terrible. Instead of moving into guilt or spirals of thought of how I "should" have handled such an unpleasant surprise, I just sat down next to her and said "Cancel and bless." Those three words are one of my favorite mantras. (It was offered to me by an ethereal yoga teacher friend who said she employs it when people cut her off in traffic.) In the case of S chomping on my leg and my unprepared response, I meant: Cancel the cursing and shock, bless myself and this sweet, exploratory, sharp-toothed child. One deep breath, one mantra reminder, and I was on a new path of sternly explaining why biting wasn't OK, but I was doing it calmly and without attendant guilt over my first outburst. That's what "Cancel and Bless" as a mantra is for me: a momentary do-over, whether it's a do-over of negative thinking, judgement toward myself or others, crankiness, or biting-induced curses. Cancel and bless. Find the right path, move on. All is forgiven. I like mantras. Another of my favorites is "Not Today, Motherfucker," inspired by this brazen and brave woman who fought off an attacker, in part by using that repeated mantra. I've only employed that one in my mind (or an empty car) so far, but it's helpful when you encounter negativity that's about to set you off: not today, dude. I'm not going to get upset, involved, or have my happiness thieved. The cursing makes it powerful, and recent research supports that bad words do, indeed, have some magical properties, in some cases even causing the swearer to feel less pain.

Mantra is serious stuff: repeated phrases can sway you, whether you're speaking them to yourself or using them to convince someone else. Our children know the latter intuitively. My daughter chants for the things she wants, employing the same phrases again and again, knowing that the act of repetition itself is powerful: powerful in sending her message, powerful in wearing me down, powerful in manifesting her desires. From her bedroom every morning, it's "Mommy, come in, Mommy, come in, Mommy, come in." And when I do finally arrive, a few rounds of "Milk-a Mommy? Milk-a Mommy? Milk-a Mommy?" greet me. (And who are we kidding: Those question marks I added here are just to make me feel better. Her breastfeeding mantra is a demand, not a request. The strongest mantras are the unwavering ones.)

“Milk-a Mommy!”

“Milk-a Mommy!”

Mantras are useful for birth, too. A few that I like for that purpose: "This is What's Happening Now," "I Can Do Things That Are Hard," and "Own My Power." I used a variation of the first one for my daughter's birth, but eventually it just became "This, this, this" in my brain. There wasn't room for much more than that, as the contractions intensified and my grip on what was happening shrank to just that: this. This is indeed what is happening now, and there's no room for anything else at all. This is What's Happening Now is a pretty useful one for the first year of motherhood, too. I employed it during night feedings I felt should be past us or on nights when my daughter was awake more than she was asleep. Getting out of bed, exhausted, I felt my resistance to this little being waking me, crying, needing me again. This is What's Happening Now brought me back to the moment and helped me release the resistance to what was happening. "I Can Do Things That Are Hard," serves much the same purpose, and it's helpful to repeat this one when things feel nearly impossible. It's a mantra that can remind you of your own deep-well of perseverance: I've done things that are hard before. I can do this thing that is hard, too.

My mentor Sage is an endurance athlete. In her hardest races, she uses "secret mantras" that she pulls out when she feels especially run-down or when she feels like she needs a deep, psychic boost. I love that idea: having a sort of rip-cord mantra that only gets employed when the wheels are coming off the mama machine. That's not a bad idea for birth either, actually. It's an important act to even ponder that question: when I'm at my weakest, my most exhausted, what words would be a balm? What words would remind me of my own strength?

Because the best mantras are the ones that resonate deeply, you have to find your own. I have a list I keep in the notes section of my phone, and I add to it when I hear something in a yoga class or from a friend or in a book that strikes me as capital-t True. The list grows, but I generally come back to the mantras that speak most loudly and profoundly to my heart's desires or my life goals or my deepest focus. These mantras are personally meaningful to me.

Mantras don't have to be in your native language, either. Plenty of Sanskrit mantras abound in yoga. One of my favorites of those is "Om Mani Padme Hum." The literal translation of that phrase is something like "the jewel in the lotus flower of enlightenment," and different schools of thought attach different meanings to it. I like the way the six syllables roll of my tongue, and the melody that often gets associated with it through chanting generally accompanies it's repetition in my mind. One idea behind chanting a mantra is that the more you repeat it, the more you disassociate from it: the words become almost meaningless in a way that puts you in a zone of presence. You're calming, you're repeating, you're present. Om Mani Padme Hum does that for me.

If repeating mantras seems like an odd or unfamiliar idea, I encourage you to try it: the next time you're up at 2 AM snuggling a fussy baby, repeat one— out loud, if you can. But if not, in your head or just by moving your lips. Watch how the repetition alone begins to shift you: the acknowledgement of the words might help you focus on the larger mamahood values you believe in (when you're not insanely exhausted)— or, if you're choosing a mantra that is in another language, like Sanskrit, just focusing on words that sound beautiful may help connect you to the moment. But watch the shift happen: it will. Mantras are another tool, like yoga asana or breath, for creating a little bit of space between what's happening and how you choose to respond to it. And in birth and motherhood, we need as many of those tools as we can get.