Self-Compassionate Parenting Through Addiction Recovery

The room is full of women and their babies. Babies are cooing and crying, moms are chatting, sharing diapers and parenting tips. It looks like any mom and baby class, but these moms have something else in common: they live in a residential addiction treatment facility. They’re fighting addictions to heroin, to meth, a few to other drugs.

Most have multiple children, many of whom have been surrendered to the foster care system or to adoptive families. Most of the babies herehave been exposed to drugs in utero. Some were born in hospitals, some in parks, some in parking lots. Many of them, at the tender age of one to five months, have themselves already spent time in foster care. But today, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. They are just a bunch of new moms and cute babies.

These moms — who range in age from 19 to 38 — have something else in common too: they are participating in a new and innovative program we call MP3: Mindful Present Perceptive Parenting.

The goal is to create an environment where these mothers can experience themselves with compassion, while they are with their children.

While they nurse, feed, change, rock and soothe, they are learning to cultivate the wholesome states of lovingkindness, self-compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity in order to give balance to a mind that is often preoccupied with everything that is wrong and not working – their past, the challenges of recovery, the uncertainties of a new, unmedicated future – while trying to parent an infant.

Sharon Salzberg says practicing lovingkindness is like planting seeds. You usually don’t see the benefit from the practice right away. But like a seed that is planted, cultivated and nurtured, over time it grows into the plant it was meant to be. The full potential for a tomato plant exists inside the seed even before it is planted. And once tended and encouraged in the soil and through the rain and sun, it grows into itself. This is true with loving kindness, and self-compassion, or any of the Brahma Viharas.

In MP3 we are creating the conditions for experiencing loving, connected presence. This is facilitated by the teacher and encouraged through the training of self-awareness in each mom while she interacts with her baby.

In each class we meditate together, do grounding practices, and direct compassion towards ourselves through the “Self-Compassion Break,” a meditation based on the “one for me, one for you” practice from MSC.

We also learn Tonglen, breathing in joy, experiencing it deeply, and then offering it up our children and others. The moms learn and practice infant massage with their babies as a way of engaging in an activity of parenting while making it a meditation. They also get lots of learning on infant development as well as issues they are dealing with in this phase of their lives.

Each class begins with the invitation to gather the attention in to just their own individual mom/baby space bubble. This is not always easy in a room full of moms and babies. Little by little, they absorb the instructions to feel the ground beneath them, then to feel the sensations of breath in their body. The room starts to settle. Today is Class One and one baby is crying loudly. He’s recently had a bronchial infection and it seems to have settled in his ears. He’s in a lot of pain and cannot be soothed. The wails of the baby are pervasive, and so I take it as an opportunity to give the instruction for everyone to be present and notice what’s happening. We notice the impact his cries have on each of us, and the natural impulse arising to want for him to feel better. This is compassion. We are in it. I invite the other moms to send both mom and baby some compassion.

In the inquiry afterwards the mother describes how she felt the love coming from the other moms, but she also felt self-conscious being the center of attention. This makes her uncomfortable. We all decide it’s best for her to go and take care of her baby outside of class and get him to the pediatrician.

We explore this real-time experience of suffering and the sending out of compassion to unpack what happens inside us when we are in the presence of suffering. The women identify elements of compassion, including empathy, acknowledgment, love and goodwill.

Now, we look at how and why they might want to cultivate those same things for themselves. We explore the MSC exercise called “How Do I Treat A Friend?” Most are shocked to discover how different they are with themselves. This gives us an opportunity to look at how bringing compassion to ourselves can allow us to parent more effectively. One mom chimes in, “it’s so true, when I’m crazy in my mind and feeling out of control, my baby totally picks up on it and then we’re both stressed out. Those are not my finest parenting moments.” Nods of agreement come from the other moms.

We’ve seen over the last three years of running this program that this is a typical experience in the MP3 program. Our intention is to give these mothers resources that will last a lifetime and will support strong bonds of attachment between them and their infants. To that end, we are working with the psychology department at the University of Oregon to look at the effect of the program on the physiological markers associated with attachment, namely oxytocin production in both mothers and infants.

Week two, and the sick baby is doing much better. The mother tells us how hard it was over the last week for her to calm herself down when her baby was so upset. But even with only being there for part of the first class, in the days since we last saw her she found herself becoming more aware of her inner critical dialogue, and able to call on some of her new skills to bring compassion to herself. “I was able to take a few deep breaths and remember that I could be a good friend to myself. That helped a lot,” she says.

This is a class they have to take as part of their treatment program. There are, not surprisingly, some problems with that. Meditation and self-compassion can never be mandated. But I believe in the power of those seeds, and the enduring power of compassion. Even if all a mother in the class gets is small taste of what it’s like to be in a friendly relationship with herself while navigating the joys and stresses of parenting, she will have learned something invaluable for her and her children.

I’ll never forget one mom from our first class, when we loaned the women small music players so they could listen to meditations on their own. Her baby got very sick at one point, and the two of them were quarantined in their room so as not to spread the infection to the rest of the residents. She ended up alone in a locked room with her sick baby for 36 hours. As any parent can attest, that kind of extreme parenting is very stressful. This mom, of course, was also in recovery. She was new to feeling her feelings. Heroin had always buffered them for her. Locked in that room, she said, she spent the day listening to those compassion meditations. “Without that,” she said, “I would have lost my mind completely.”

She told us that experience really shifted things for her and her understanding of how essential it is to “reign in my mind and feed it compassion instead of the criticism and junk I usually feed it.”

Mindfulness and compassion are not just self-oriented endeavors. Another benefit we’re seeing from this program is the ability of the women to express appreciation and love for the other women they are living with, and in so doing expand their web of community. One mother turned to one of the other women in the class and told her that she “was the model for her for compassion.”

“The way you lovingly treated me,” she told the other mother through grateful tears, “has helped me understand what a real friend was like. Now I can use the way you were with me to know how to be a real friend to myself.”

These mothers in recovery face the challenges as parents that most of us will never have to face. But they also face many of the same internal hurdles that bedevil all parents. We can learn from them, and with them, how learning to parent ourselves with mindfulness and compassion can help us engage with and recover from our own daily challenges in the amazing journey of being a parent.


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