Parenting by the Fuel Source of Gratitude

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAPeople often ask me how I survived the early years of motherhood when our firstborn son woke up between ten to twelve times a night and needed more than the breast to go back to sleep. Part of what allowed me to survive was an extraordinary partner who shouldered the nighttime challenges with me for the first year. Part of it was a fierce commitment to eating nourishing foods and eliminating sugar and caffeine completely. But most of it was learning early on in pregnancy that actively connecting to the free and sustainable fuel source of gratitude powered me through all challenges associated with motherhood.

My gratitude practice began in my first trimester of pregnancy when I was taken down by a sickness nobody could have prepared me for. And the more I interviewed women for my Birthing a New Mother program, the more clearly I saw the direct connection between gratitude and a woman’s ability to ride the storms of mothering more gracefully. As I write in the program:

If there is any antidote to the first trimester tests, one resource so powerful that it acts like an elixir that literally alters a woman’s chemistry, it’s gratitude. When a woman connects to gratitude, she breathes more deeply. When she dips into this well, she cannot help but smile, which relaxes the face and releases the tension in the brow. With regard to nausea, many people have to endure weeks of it while undergoing treatment for cancer battling death. Pregnancy nausea, as difficult as it is, is supporting life. It is the body’s response to strong hormonal levels as it grows the placenta that nourishes a child. In the throes of nausea a woman may feel like she’s on death’s door (as a part of her symbolically is), but the truth is that her body has never been more alive. Just viewing the discomfort through this lens can help re-direct her mind’s tendency to dwell on the suffering and instead focus on the blessing. This is not to glorify the extreme challenge of managing nausea for weeks on end. She’s allowed to hate it, feel trapped and overwhelmed by it, cry and rage about it. But when she’s done hating it – or perhaps alongside it – she can remember to make room for the stunning awareness that there is a miracle growing inside her body…

…If a woman is disconnected from gratitude, the joy and excitement of bearing, birthing, and raising a child quickly degenerates into resentment and a sense of drudgery. Among many other things, motherhood is a sacrifice, and the sacrifice begins during pregnancy. A woman hands over her body to house the growth of a new human being; she births the baby to the best of her ability during the ultimate initiation of her life; and then she must lovingly care for the child day and night, sacrificing sleep, freedom, separateness, and sexuality to varying degrees for various lengths of time so the child survives, thrives, and hopefully grows into a caring, compassionate, confident adult. What a task! And none of it would be worth it if we failed to see the miracle inherent to every stage of this process. 

I still rely on gratitude as a reliable energy source. Ten years into parenting with a second son in tow, our kids still sleep with us, and there is rarely a night when I’m not awakened multiple times, even if only for a few moments. We homeschool, work full time, prepare all of our meals, and of course attend to the daily tasks of running a life: bills, laundry, household maintenance, not to mention finding time to nourish a marriage and other friendships as well as to exercise, meditate, etc. It’s no small task! And if I didn’t consciously and actively tap into the fuel source of gratitude, I would no doubt be swallowed up in exhaustion and resentment.

Just the other morning I woke up at 6:15am and remained in bed while my little one slept in the crook of my arm. I tried to will myself to go back to sleep but nothing worked. So I stared into my five-year old’s precious face, and smiled. I said my morning gratitude prayer. Our cat curled up on my chest and delivered her purr into my heart. The warmth of the love-fest filled me up and I smiled again. Gratitude feeds on itself. You touch into it for a brief moment, acknowledging your blessings, and it grows. Sometimes it comes unbidden in moments of grace, but more often it’s a practice, like everything else worth growing.

One of the misconceptions about gratitude is the belief that you have to feel it in order to connect to it. You don’t. Sometimes gratitude washes over us like a water, and the feeling floods you like warm sun on a cold winter’s day. But more often than not, especially knee-deep in the often-overwhelming, usually-exhausting years of raising children, gratitude is something that you must reach toward until, like a steady hand, it reaches back to you. Just like smiling even when you’re not happy can bring a moment of calm to your nervous system, whispering “thank you” to the invisible forces of the universe, even if you don’t feel grateful, can help you tap into and activate the current of gratitude inside of you.

We do this by remembering to slow down and say, out loud, thank you. We do this by looking with eyes that see and hearing with ears that listen. One of the many reasons why I’ve loved co-sleeping is that it’s built-in time of lying down next to my kids and seeing all of the day’s stresses and frustrations unravel and float away until only the soft, angelic face of sleep is left. And the two words then naturally emerge from my lips as I stare in awe at their peaceful beauty: thank you.

If you’ve been blessed with a child entrusted into your care, you are blessed indeed. When you take the time to acknowledge the blessing, the negativity is absorbed into the positive stream of love and you open the channel for gratitude to fuel your days.

14 comments to Parenting by the Fuel Source of Gratitude

  • Clara

    This touched me in so many ways… it stirred up hopes, regrets, memories, dreams, and brought a beautiful flood of tingles all over my back and heart. Because I know, in the cells and nerve fibres of my body, that what you write is true. Connecting to gratitude – when I finally understood what that meant – turned my life around. It is powerful beyond words. And your first paragraph gave me a timely reminder, as I move further into my first round of client work myself, as a fledgling psychologist…. to focus on what’s working, because there is always a lot that is working.

  • Kim

    So powerful to think of gratitude as a fuel source. I can come replenish myself when the life’s uneasy, tricky, disappointing. I feel the earth holding me as I lay, and that’s all I need tonight. Finding peace, is the best gift of all. I’m sending some to you Sheryl, and all the readers here. Love, Kim

  • Bella

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you for another powerful article.

    I grew up in an environment that was connected to resentment and emotional abuse, causing me to develop a very little self love and esteem. It took me years in therapy to love and accept myself. My mom reminded me frequently that as a baby, I kept her up during the nights and cried a lot. The things that babies/children naturally do were held against me for most of my life, and having a baby/child was made out to be an ungrateful and exhausting task.
    At one stage I decided that I should not have a baby, because I have no idea how to be a nurturing and loving parent and didnt want to cause anyone the kind of harm and hurt that I grew up in. I lived with the false belief that having a baby would ruin your life and body, make you resentful, mean and unkind to your child, make him/her feel thoroughly unloved and eventually your child ends up with a nonexistent self esteem and in therapy for years. I would not be able to forgive myself if I did that to my child.

    Another part of me often thinks about having a baby with my husband. I know that just because my mom treated me badly doesnt mean that i will repeat this behaviour with my own child, but i am so scared that i might. Is there anyway to make sure that I would be a nurturing, loving mom and not a resentful/mean one? Can I prepare or practice gratitude in advance? And if yes, how would I know that I was ready to be a good mom?

    Thanks again for this article. Your words continue to give me hope and have changed the way I think about starting my own family.

    With love,

    Bella

    • We re-wire by learning to parent/mother ourselves in loving and nurturing ways, with gratitude and a focus on what’s working at the forefront. Just having the consciousness that you have is one safeguard against repeating the intergenerational patterns, but the best work is to continually bring consciousness to your process as a parent. It’s an on-the-job learning process, for we learn about ourselves at each stage of our babies/kids’ development as they trigger that stage of our own wounds. You may want to read “Parenting From the Inside Out” in preparation.

    • I also want to commend you for bringing this much consciousness to the process of considering bringing a child into the world. If everyone thought the way you’re thinking, we would have a very different world :).

    • Laura

      Hi Bella,I read your comment and was reminded of how I myself felt before, during, and even a short time after pregnancy. It’s a scary feeling. I remember feeling scared I’d be the same kind of mother my mother was /is and at the same time I felt incredibly guilty for feeling that , because my mother has been a great mum on many levels – I just haven’t felt she loved me. Something I most definitely would want my own child to feel and know for sure that I do. So I feel your uncertainty and fear. But as Sheryl replied, I believe that the fact that you are already conscious of the way you want to be / or not to be, I’d a huge step. Remember : you are not your mum. It sounds like you are a very conscientious, empathetic , thoughtful person – so how would you ever act like your mum did towards you ? It’s not in your nature. It’s natural and very healthy to think about what kind of mother you want to be. I hope you dare to take the step because it is a beautiful experience, to become a mum. And it is most definitely full of moments of gratitude! !
      On that note, I will also share that although I definitely loved and felt protective of my baby when he was born , it took me four whole weeks to fall in love with him. It pained me. During those weeks I cried a lot and was scared that I didn’t love him enough. Then suddenly everything fell into place. I think it must be a taboo…because we all expect to fall head over heels in love with our baby from the moment we see them. Anyway…that’s a while other story I guess.
      But please, don’t let your fear stop you Bella. 🙂

  • Angela

    Dear Sheryl,
    What a beautiful read. Feeling grateful is such a beautiful energy, I’m grateful for everything in my life. Thank you is a word we all use and it’s an important. Even just a smile can lift your energy and somebody else’s. Sheryl, your an amazing mother. My only wish is I become a first time mother this year. I’ve been waiting a long time and I’m more than ready to love, care, sacrifice, for our child. My husband and I are waiting excitedly for the positive result. Nothing would us our world complete.xx

    • Sending you love during the process of waiting, Angela, which is so, so challenging. Thank you for your presence on my site, and for all of the words of encouragement and support that you so generously give to others.

  • Katie

    Dear Sheryl,
    As a first time mom of a one year old baby girl who, jut like your son, woke up several times a night, this touched me deeply. Sometimes I resented it, specially when people or friends told me their children slept the whole night since they were three months old! This is why I think that with children and motherhood it’s very important to avoid comparisons, each of us is a unique individual, with it’s own rythm.
    Thank you for reminding me that gratitude, just like love, is a beautiful choice!

    • Comparisons in motherhood, as in all aspects of life, are so dangerous and damaging. We each take our own path, and there are so many ways to mother with love.

  • Jenny

    I love how you worded the most basic detail of being pregnant how a woman gives up her body to house another life . The giving up continues after birth as she sacrifices time, sleep, seperateness& sexuality for varying lengths of time to ensure the health of her child. It is what all mammals do to support life. It is an enormous gift & responsibility. While most mammals will so naturally & instinctively for their offspring us humans seem to muck it up the most. Almost as if our free will urges us away from our natural instincts. I was keenly aware during my pregnancies how much I really did not enjoy sharing my body 24/7, as much as I love my children the loss of seperateness was keenly felt by me, a lot of people never understood this. Being a mother is the most significant event ever to happen in my life I am blessed to have housed my children and for being given the opportunity to care for them until they could care for themselves. Precious gifts we are given as mothers whether we carry them in our own bodies prior to their births or not.