The Mama Machine

Tonight my daughter pitched herself out of her chair at dinner with such rapid force, that I'm pretty sure she would have had a concussion had I not reached out and nabbed her by the neck at the last second. Here's the crazy part: I didn't even bat an eye. I was mid-dinner, fork halfway to my mouth, and I just stuck a hand out lightening-fast and saved her. I wasn't even looking at her. My husband, astonished, commented that I'm always aware of her, my child. No matter what happens, in the background the Mama Machine is humming away. When we're driving, when we're eating dinner, late at night... there is a part of me that is always alert, vigilant, ready to help my kid or heal her or save her or kiss all the boo-boos and scare all the monsters. It's an amazing gift, really, this multi-tasking ability. Even now as I sit and type, my daughter in bed, I can tell that I'm listening for her far-off sounds, ever alert to her needs. But I am never truly, deeply at ease or absolutely able to let go. And it's exhausting, all that being-on-edge, ready-to-mother energy. It wears me down and makes me forget the names of people or where my keys are or whether I sent the email I said I'd send. It also makes me not care about most of those things, too, because compared with keeping my daughter whole and well, they just don't mean as much. I have to use my scant energy on what matters most of all.

In yoga's sister science, Ayurveda, people are identified by personality types (called Doshas) that correlate with their innate constitution. Some of this is unchanging (we are who we are), but some aspects of who we are change with age or events or seasons. Of the three possible Dosha types, one is more of a distracted, creative, confused, happily flighty type (called Vata) who is also prone to anxiety. Doesn't this sound like every mother everywhere? All mamas need more rest, more grounding, more solid, calm, stillness. All mothers need savasana. (And someone to watch their babies while they take it.) I suspect that my Ayurveda-practitioner friends would confirm this, but new mamas must be the most Vata-imbalanced of all. So much change, so much worry, so much to think about, and so many reasons to stay vigilant.

Maybe this is why there are so many jokes about motherhood and wine: mothers are desperate for a chance to feel a slight release of the grip that motherhood always has on them. Mamas want that machine to hum just a little bit quieter in the background, and a sufficient amount of wine can do the trick (albeit briefly.) But alcohol comes with it's own issues: dehydration, more exhaustion, a headache, and so forth. Still, it's much easier to pour a glass of wine than to roll out your yoga mat or take two minutes to sit quietly and breathe: I know, trust me. Many a nights my yoga mat has collected dust in the corner while my cup runneth over with Sauvignon Blanc.

But the truth is that being alert and ON is a part of motherhood that we simply can't escape. This immediacy and attention is a central part of the experience. And I'm just a mom of a small kiddo, but from what I hear from my friends of older children, it shifts and changes as our babies age, but it's always there. The Mama Machine is turned on for life.

How you manage that energy, though, is important. It's productive to have the reflexes to save your kiddo from a moment of danger. It's not productive to wake at 2 AM and ruminate about safety, parenting choices, or fears of hypothetical dangers. I write a lot about the toolkit that yoga gives us, but that's because I find again and again that the tools of yoga keep me grounded when the Vata energy of motherhood threatens to take over. So, appreciate the power of your vigilance and presence and alertness, but when it tips into futile and frustrating anxiety, here are some ideas:

  • Try deep breathing. This is always my go-to, since I can do it anywhere: driving, sitting at my desk, lying in bed. If it's possible to be somewhere still and quiet, do that. Close your eyes and simply breathe your deepest, slowest breaths of the day. Maybe 10 of them. As you breathe, keep your attention on the sensation of your breath: how it feels to pull in fresh air into your nostrils, how it feels to be full of breath, the moment you begin the exhalation, how it feels for your belly to soften and your clothes to move against your skin, how it feels to be empty of breath. Repeat, as needed, until you feel a little shift.
  • Take a challenging yoga class. Recently, I taught a class of beginners where we worked on stepping through from downward-facing dog to a lunge pose. Since they were new to it, we practiced it over and over, probably stepping from down-dog to lunge 15 or so times on each leg over the course of the class. It was not easy. Everyone was struggling to return to their breath, everyone was negotiating moments of rest in child's pose, everyone was being challenged. And absolutely no one was worried about anything else than the immediate struggle of the moment. Hard yoga = better than wine. (And if you're postpartum and still healing your version of "challenge" may be a bit gentler, but you can find it, either on your home mat or in a class.)
  • Move at home. Don't worry about your mat or what you're wearing. Just move: stretch your arms overhead, tip your body from side to side. Drop down onto hands and knees on the nursery floor and do cat-cow. No, this is not a balanced and cohesive yoga practice that starts with meditation and end with savasana. But you're going to feel a little bit better, even with just 5 minutes of breath and movement.
  • Get some help. Higher levels of anxiety come with the territory, but anxiety all the time or anxiety that is affecting your quality of living deserves more attention and support. For some of us, the Mama Machine is just shifted to the wrong gear and it's humming louder and harder than it needs to. If you feel like this describes you, check out our new resources page, where you'll find links to local (and national) support agencies, groups, and organizations. (And if you think we're missing something useful, send us a message and let us know.)

There's nothing that will ever shut off the Mama Machine, and you wouldn't want it to be shut off anyway: you need the ability to respond quickly when you're called upon to care for your kiddo(s). But you can soften it, slow it down, chill it out, and help it be more productive. And yes, wine can help, so by all means drink wine sometimes. But the tools of yoga can help more and even better, and they can help you anywhere. Breathe, challenge yourself, move. And when you need more than that, find support.