Parenting with Presence

Reporter Susan Freinkel follows two expectant couples from their first class in mindfulness-based childbirth to the blessed (not to mention painful) event. They learn things on their journey to parenthood that can help us all navigate life’s transitions.

mom holding baby
Kateryna Rakowsky, a mother in Nancy Bardacke’s Mindful Birthing program, cradles her daughter, Taia Wetmore. Photograph by Michael O’Neal

“This isn’t your usual childbirth-preparation class,” Nancy Bardacke announced to the 23 expectant mothers and fathers seated in a circle on a late September evening in San Francisco. Bardacke won’t be showing birth videos or demonstrating how to diaper a baby. During this first session of her Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting course she hardly talked about labor at all. Her lesson began with a raisin.

“You’ve all seen a raisin before, but you’ve never seen this raisin,” she said as she passed out samples for the exercise she has long used to introduce her students to mindfulness. “One of the first practices we learn is beginner’s mind—to see things anew.” To see, in fact, the way a newborn would—without judgments or preconceptions. Examine the raisin closely, she urged, use all your senses to take it in. People squinted at the raisin in their palm, rolled it between their fingers, held it close to their noses to inhale its sweet, musky aroma.

The class has drawn a diverse group of parents-to-be, and some are more at ease with this encounter with the raisin than others. There are strait-laced lawyers, right-brain scientists, a mortgage broker, and a free-spirited couple who sell their own brew of kombucha. Some are planning conventional hospital births attended by obstetricians; others are going a more alternative route, with doulas or midwives or even home births. Some have years of meditation under their belts, while others are utterly baffled by instructions to pay attention to their breathing and notice the quality of their thoughts. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing,” one of the prospective dads complained one night.

Amy and Arnold Wong closed their eyes in deep concentration as they explored their raisins. Amy, petite and blonde, is a life coach with the bubbly, optimistic personality to match. Arnold is quieter and more reserved. Though he has done less formal meditation training than his wife, as a chef he appreciates the idea of bringing one’s attention to food.

While everyone else in the class are first-time parents, the Wongs already have one child, now 4, who is a daily reminder of children’s effortless ability to be in the moment. Their son’s birth was stressful, sterile, and filled with interventions that Amy never questioned until after the fact. Like the epidural that hit a nerve, causing searing back pain “that was so consuming I couldn’t breathe to push.” By the end, she recalled, “I was so delirious, I don’t even remember him coming out.” To avoid a repeat of that experience, they are hoping to deliver at home with a midwife. This time around, Amy wants to be fully present, as sharply aware of what is happening as she is of the tang of the raisin on her tongue.

group participants relaxed, lying on floor.
Bardacke leads her class through some exercises on the yoga mat. She says mindfulness practice can make all the difference in managing the emotional stresses and uncertainties of pregnancy and the sudden plunge into parenthood. Photograph by Michael O’Neal.

Across the room, Amanda and Zack Miller (names changed) seemed flummoxed by Bardacke’s directions. Zack, a quality auditor, grew up in a hippie household and has little patience for what he calls “new-agey stuff.” Fidgety and anxious by nature, all he really wants is the nuts and bolts on labor to quell his worries. But Amanda, a lawyer, signed them up for this class precisely because she wanted more than the basic facts. She’s thinking about parenthood and is worried her impatience, high expectations, and Type A penchant for control could be a problem in raising a child.

“I want to bring some calm and acceptance to my parenting style,” she explains. If tonight is any indication, the course will prove to be a challenge. Zack popped his raisins into his mouth immediately without any scrutiny, while Amanda lost one and after minutes of frantically searching, quickly looked at the other and then handed it to her husband. She never liked raisins and didn’t want to eat it.

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Nancy Bardacke doesn’t care whether people love or loathe raisins. The point of the exercise was to raise their sense of awareness. She wanted them to experience the raisin simply with their senses, without preconceptions or judgment. “Mindfulness is being in the moment,” she said. “And guess what? That’s where childbirth is!”

Over the next nine weeks, Bardacke would be teaching them a variety of ways to cultivate that kind of awareness, including meditation techniques, a body scan (a head-to-toe check-in with oneself), and basic yoga poses. But the core practice would always be the simple yet powerful action of paying attention to the breath. Following it would keep these parents-to-be moored in their bodies and provide an anchor to the present.

“Whatever is going on, the instruction is always the same,” she would say. “Be with it and just breathe.”

Bardacke has been leading expectant parents through these kinds of exercises since 1998. At 70 she moves with the energy and ease of someone much younger. She has a gentle voice, stylishly cut short grey hair, and the nurturing if slightly noodgy air of a Jewish grandmother (which she is). She was already a longtime meditator and nursemidwife when she attended a workshop led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation for patients suffering stress and chronic pain. Listening to him, Bardacke had one of those electrifying life-altering moments when she realized that she could combine her life’s two passions: meditation and midwifery. She spent several years learning Kabat-Zinn’s curriculum and tweaking it to address the specific needs of expectant parents.

Course participants with their babies.
Some of the families who took part in the Mindfulness-Based
Childbirth and Parenting program in the fall of 2012, from left: Ross, Abby and baby Samuel Harold Davisson; Rana and Aaron Lehmer-Chang with baby Justice Tabriz Lehmer- Chang; Erin Hetrick- Hohenner and Andy Hohenner with baby Éire; Dan Wetmore and Kateryna Rakowsky with baby Taia Wetmore; Mike and Deanna Horner with baby Elaney
Ryanne Horner. Photography by Michael O’Neal.

Tonight marks the start of Bardacke’s 69th course, and it will be one of her last. She’s begun training Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) instructors in San Francisco and elsewhere. Her recently published book, Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond, makes it possible for people who can’t take the course to do the program on their own at home. It has also attracted the attention of other professionals working with childbirth and parenting who are looking for innovative ways to counteract the persistent medicalization of birth and help parents-to-be make a deep human connection to what they’re going through.

Bardacke encourages expectant parents not to get too attached to plans when it comes to their babies.

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Pregnancy offers an ideal time to begin practicing mindfulness. Bardacke says it can make all the difference in managing the emotional stresses and uncertainties of pregnancy, the physical pain of childbirth, and the sudden plunge into parenthoo