When I told one of my best friends I was going on a meditation retreat in France with my five month old daughter, she said, “wow, you’ll have to let me know how that works out with a little one!” I know it’s not everyone’s idea of fun to take a young baby on retreat, but for me it was a brilliant experience (mostly!), and I’d like to share some of the highlights – and low points – here, on my long-neglected blog.
Can I do it alone?
Some good friends I know through mindfulness groups in the Netherlands gather every year for a Rock and Relax retreat – a week of mindfulness and relaxation in a beautiful French countryside house. I was keen to join, and even though it was not officially a baby-friendly event the organisers kindly agreed that I could come along together with my daughter, Lilly. My partner Thijs was due to join too, but in the end we decided it was best for him to stay home as we have just moved house (it has been a busy year!). This meant that technically I was parenting on my own for the week.
Except, I wasn’t on my own at all. Everyone on the retreat (we were a group of 14 in total) was so warm, welcoming, and – most importantly for any new parent – very practically helpful. People took care of Lilly while I attended morning yoga and meditation sessions, held her while I had a shower or enjoyed a delicious mindful breakfast, and played with her while I read my book in the sunshine. Oh, what bliss to have so many relaxing moments to myself! It felt like a real luxury as a new mama.
Help from the Mindful Village
The thing about parenting is, it is no fun alone. If you have to do everything yourself it quickly becomes very tiring hard work. From the sleepless nights to the poopy nappies, I have found it can at times just become too much for one – or even two – people to do alone, while still maintaining a healthy level of enthusiasm and general wellbeing.
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. I know my partner and I are very lucky to have active support from both of our families and some very sweet friends, too. I am really grateful to find that my ‘village’ also includes the wider community of people I know through practicing mindfulness.
There is unfortunately so much judgement of parents, and even in writing this I feel some sense of guilt and a need to justify the fact that I am not doing absolutely everything myself. But I also think this overly individualistic perspective of parenting is a damaging modern phenomena: humans are social creatures, and when we care for each other in community it is good for all involved. It is brilliant (and necessary) as a parent to have a rest and it can also be lovely for grandparents, aunts, uncles, or – in this case – for mindful friends to help out and enjoy time with a little one.
Of course it helps if your child is relaxed around other people, and thankfully Lilly is a very chilled-out baby. I jokingly call her a Buddha-baby sometimes. She definitely has her grumpy moments (don’t we all!) but she is surprisingly at home sitting quietly in a meditation circle, and everyone commented on how it was actually very calming to have her around – it turned out she was a great additional mini-participant at the retreat! This is something I am very grateful for, and gave me many proud mama moments 🙂
The Highs and the Lows
I do not want to falsely paint a completely idyllic picture of my ‘retreat with baby’ experience though. Even with a wonderful mindful village and a calm baby, this was not a completely stress-free week of relaxation for me.
One big challenge is that on mindful retreats the emphasis can often be on letting go: meditations are guided with, “you have nothing to do and nowhere to go… just relax into the moment”. Being there as a parent made me realise that this level of relaxation is actually a huge privilege. It is just not possible for many people, and at present it is not possible for me to completely let go, knowing that Lilly may need feeding, changing or attention at any moment.
There were times when Lilly got upset, and the whole relaxed retreat vibe crumbled quickly into tears (both hers and mine). When I tried to go swimming with Lilly she cried afterwards as the pool was a bit too cold. When I tried to relax with the whole retreat group by the pool on the last evening she cried because she was overtired. And there were a few nights she tossed and turned so much that I was unable to sleep.
Yet reflecting upon the challenges I am reminded of something that my Dad said to me not long after Lilly was born: “It is amazing how your kids always find a way to teach you something”. Lilly has already taught me so much: that joy isn’t always found in the moments you expect – with big groups, in the sunshine by the pool – but instead a quiet joy can be found in moments of napping together, lying in the grass (or in a hammock – see below 🙂 ) and paying attention to the gentle sights and sounds of nature. And a deep sense of joy can be found in knowing that I do not have to survive all of the ups & downs of parenting – and life! – alone.
Thank you very much to everyone who made this lovely experience possible. I hope that this is the first of many retreats I will take Lilly on.