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None of us brings a child into this world with a degree in parenting. I have at times been thankful for my teaching degree, having studied and practiced teaching before having children. But I’ve also been at a loss more times than I can think! I’ve worried so much. I’ve been angry. I’ve been disappointed.



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The Zen Mama


I am a wife of 23 years, a mother to three teenage sons, a daughter of wonderful parents, an aunt to 6 nieces and nephews and a sister to three siblings! I am a preschool teacher. And finally, what I’ve always wanted to be ... a writer!

None of us brings a child into this world with a degree in parenting. I have at times been thankful for my teaching degree, having studied and practiced teaching before having children. But I’ve also been at a loss more times than I can think! I’ve worried so much. I’ve been angry. I’ve been disappointed.

A point in my life came when I knew that I had to parent differently.  My husband and I had just finished a challenging year with two of our three children; grades had fallen, limits were being tested. We were angry with our teenagers all the time. While anger isn’t the only stressful situation, it’s often one of the most damaging. It definitely affected the relationship with our kids. They didn’t want to be around us. When we came into a room, they’d find a way to leave. At the table, they’d ask to be excused right after they ate dinner.

The teenage years are not easy, as anyone with even one teenage child will tell you. Being a positive and optimistic person, I tried to find the lessons in all of our experiences and understand where we had made mistakes. I couldn’t continue to be the person I’d become over the summer and the new school year. I was a frantic, nagging mother worried about my kids in this modern world with text messaging and Facebook and our demanding culture that wants them to be volunteers, super athletes and ivy league students.

Yet, at my job as a preschool teacher, I felt more Zen-like, giving out pearls of wisdom to those overly concerned parents of my 3-5 year old kids. I decided at that point that I had my own life to live and needed to let my children live their lives. If I let go, maybe we’d all be happier. I decided to combine the two ideas: the frantic mother and the Zen like teacher, and become one, become a “Zen Mama”.

So what is a Zen Mama?  She is a devoted mother who has tried to stop worrying, who has let go of the attachment of an outcome and in doing so has become closer to her children
When you’re not worrying that their life is a mess, you stop criticizing and being mad at them.  Slowly they feel that you’re trusting them more and they open up and want to be around you.  It’s amazing and it does work.


By the way, being a Zen Mama doesn’t mean you have no limits.  It means setting limits with calmness, not anger and distrust, not worry.
As my husband and I applied the principles that would eventually become a book, "Zen Mama," he said, “Here’s the book you’ve always wanted to write!"  I wrote down what those chapters would be on the back of an envelope and those original 13 ideas became my 13 chapters.

The first thing we worked on was getting them to stay longer at the dinner table so we could all talk again. Using humor, jokes and riddles worked immediately. Some other benefits came later. For a while I had to start out a sentence saying, “I am not angry but....” They would still think I was mad about certain things. And I was for a while but after practicing not getting angry, you really do stop.   By the way, being a Zen Mama doesn’t mean I don’t discipline.  It just means I say and react to things in a different way.

Another thing that was helpful - and a significant challenge for me living in a houseful of males - was truly learning what they were interested in.  For me, a few of the things I learned was how to do was camp, watch football and baseball and listen to and learn their music .  You have to find ways to connect to your children on their level. One of the best ways to connect with another person is to learn about something they are interested in! 

I wasn’t always a Buddhist;  I’ve had an interesting upbringing. I was christened Catholic. Back in those days the wives of Catholics promised, at their weddings, to raise their children as Catholics. My mother was a philosophy major and the daughter of a Christian scientist. So on Sundays my siblings and I were Catholics, the rest of the week we were raised with my mother’s philosophies.   So to really answer the questions...I love to look through all religions and see what I like the best. So far the Buddhist path is my favorite and I so enjoy reading and practicing the Buddhist way.

It took about 10 months to write and edit Zen Mama. It flowed once I started. I mostly wrote in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep when I was worried about the kids. When I’d edit and reread at night, I’d find advice for myself. It was kind of funny! Now I’m sleeping well again and can’t find any time to write!

A week ago, a friend asked me if the Zen Mama principles had really worked for our family. I told her how great the change has been for me. The change has really worked well in our family, too, according to me. As a Zen Mama I’ve learned to stop worrying so much.  I’ve let go of many negative habits, like anger, disappointment, doubt and negative thinking.  It’s been about two years.  So, I thought I’d ask my kids to write a paragraph on how life has changed since I became a Zen Mama.  (That sounds like the teacher in me!)  Here’s what they wrote to me:

My Youngest Son, 13 Years Old
“I enjoy having a Zen Mama because then I can be a Zen Son. She is so calm about everything, and doesn’t get mad when I do things wrong or if I get in trouble she doesn’t get angry. My mom used to be worried about everything, but then she decided to change her ways.... and even write a book. Now she isn’t nervous, angry and stressful.  The other day when I got in trouble, she didn’t yell.  I told her, “I’m glad I have a Zen Mom.”... and as the wise 13 year old once said... "It's true that we don't know what we've got until we lose it, but it's also true that we don't know what we've been missing until it arrives."

My Middle Son, 17 Years Old
“Everything was so stressed out back then.  Now things are a little more laid back and relaxed in general, more zen, more simple.  Like tonight when I couldn’t figure out my chemistry, my mom said, “Whey don’t you take a break and I’ll help you tomorrow after school or even on Saturday.”   When everyone is happier with everyone, a lot more can actually get done.  Now we have good dinners together, too.  Dinners are a great “debrief” for the day.  A lot of good conversations reveal themselves.  They say it’s a proven fact that family dinners help kids get better grades and it turns out they are very fun as well.  Sometimes, my mom has told me to be a Zen Kid if I feel angry.  That has also helped me not be stressed out.”

My Oldest, 19 Years Old
“Growing up as a rebellious child, I was always right, regardless of the situation. In my mind I was the only person who could tell myself what to do, and much of the time I didn’t even listen to that authoritarian. Reflecting on the not so distant past, I must not have been easy in my adolescence.
After an especially difficult year of growing, my mother discovered an idea, to let go of the negative and grasp what matters.  Being the astonishingly effectual teacher she was before this realization, she developed a system of speaking, presenting ideas, imparting knowledge upon her children strikingly similar to that of the monks of old. With kindness and understanding, our family has never been the same and will keep growing.”

So in just two years a transition  has occurred.  Life is simpler and less stressed.  Oh, I fall off the Zen Wagon occasionally.   But we’re close again like we were back when the boys were in elementary school.  And there's no greater gift than that…the gift of connectedness.


Told by Betsy Henry


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