The birth of her second child, a decade after the first, in your own words, left Shonda Moralis “feeling slightly unhinged”...
“As a second-time mom I believed I had a handle on what to expect with a newborn, so I was surprised and humbled to experience post-partum depression,” she recalls. “In order to get through this rough patch, I needed to let go of expectations and strip my life down to the bare necessities in terms of prioritizing my time. Practising mindfulness, grounding myself with the breath, offering myself compassion, and reminding myself that it was temporary all helped me weather the storm.” This time in her life inspired her to write a book, Breathe, Mama, Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms, which teaches mothers how to establish a daily five-minute meditation habit and also takes you through over sixty mindful breaks – simple pauses and reminders in our day to be aware of what is happening in the moment, rather than running on automatic pilot (which, apparently we do 47% of the time). We spoke to Shonda about how to manage anxiety, what mindfulness really means, and how to overcome the loss of identity we often encounter when we become mothers. Go to www.shondamoralis.net
How would you describe the reality of becoming a new mom?
In some regards, new motherhood varies wildly from woman to woman, though there seem to be some common threads. It can feel isolating if you are not in touch with other new moms, which is why I encourage finding a community — in person or online. There is a steep learning curve for new moms, from breastfeeding to coping with sleep deprivation, to figuring out how to fold up the d#%$ stroller. Until you are a parent of a newborn, you cannot fathom how finding six minutes to take a shower is such a win! Motherhood stretches us in ways we can never imagine beforehand – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. As a new mom, I was blown away by my depth of love and protectiveness. Motherhood is empowering in that we discover and access an inner strength we never knew we had.
Talk us through your book 'Breathe, Mama, Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms' and what tools we will walk away with after reading it?
The first part of Breathe, Mama, Breathe teaches moms how to establish a daily five-minute meditation habit, as this lays the foundation for a more mindful personal and family life. The second part is filled with over sixty mindful breaks, which are pauses and reminders in our day to be aware of what is happening in the moment, rather than running on automatic pilot. From the Coffee Mindful Break to the After the Meltdown (Yours) to the Homework Mindful Break, there are tools for calming, connecting, noticing, and savouring. Even better, they are designed to be incorporated right into the midst of our busy days and can be adapted for all-aged families.
What is mindfulness and what is the opposite of it?
Mindfulness is the opposite of running on automatic pilot, which is how we tend to operate most of the time. Research shows our minds wander 47% of the time — nearly half of our lives! In contrast, mindfulness is being aware of what is happening in the moment with an attitude of curiosity and kindness. When we are aware of our thoughts, emotions, and behavioural patterns, we are able to choose how we respond in situations rather than react out of habit, choose where we place our attention, and what we prioritize. Meditation, in contrast, is carving out time to practice the skill of mindfulness. We do this by choosing a point of focus (for example, the inhale and exhale of the breath), noticing when our mind wanders off (which it does many times), and repeatedly returning our attention back to the home base of the breath. Research shows regular meditation changes the shape and function of our brains. It literally is exercise for our minds.
Most women naturally fall into one of the two leadership camps – masculine or feminine. What are the personality traits of both?
Common masculine traits are being competitive, assertive, goal-directed, and thinking logically. Feminine traits are about being collaborative, grateful, intuitive, and relationship-directed. It’s important to be clear that these are stereotypical and society-reinforced traits, and, of course, do not hold true for each individual. There are women whose leadership style is quite masculine, yet the majority of women naturally fall more into the feminine camp and could benefit from adopting some masculine traits. This is not as easy as it sounds. Women often find themselves in a double-bind — if they exhibit masculine traits they are referred to as the b-word and advised to be nicer, yet if they act in more feminine ways they are told to speak up and stop apologizing.
How does mindfulness help us deal with either personality type?
First of all, women need to assess with whom they are interacting. Armed with this awareness, they can either choose to ramp up assertiveness and confidence (masculine) or soften the approach (feminine), as needed. This does not mean being someone you are not, but authentically shifting the approach a bit in order to accommodate the situation and relationship. Just as we communicate differently with our spouses, children, and colleagues without much thought, we can intentionally shift the balance between traditionally masculine and feminine leadership traits at work. Mindful leadership offers women the opportunity to strengthen awareness, their voices, and the ability to lead more confidently and successfully. With mindful awareness, women can more easily balance competence with likability, which, essentially, is the mark of a great leader — male or female.
There is often competitiveness amongst women – why does this arise and how can we all be softer and kinder to one another?
In a primarily male professional environment, women can become competitive with one another due to a sense of scarcity for leadership opportunity. To counteract this instinct, we can intentionally connect, support, and promote one another’s interests in the workplace.
What about things such as our posture – how can we use this to create better energy/interactions?
By being mindful of body language, women can use more assertive power posing (deliberately taking up more space) and a stronger, more confident voice or, conversely, tone down the volume and soften the stance. Women might also exercise caution when communicating strong emotion. Although the occasional expression of anger or frustration is fine, research shows it is important to include reasons behind it, in order to be viewed as legitimate, not simply as a woman being “emotional.”
Many women experience a lot of self-doubt and self-criticism – we often feel we are not taken seriously both in the family home and at work - how can we help manage these feelings and build confidence?
Many women leaders find it challenging to be genuine and vulnerable in a male-dominated work world, feeling they need to be “on” all of the time. With mindfulness practice, it is easier to observe the self-imposed barriers impeding performance, such as self-doubt, self-criticism, and subconsciously altering ourselves out of fear of being disliked or not taken seriously. Only when we recognize the existing barriers can we adjust our behavior so is not driven by fear or negativity, but by deliberate, authentic action. Not only are women leading companies, but they also tend to take on the role of manager of the home — organizing, planning, and remembering countless details, which can overwhelm and distract. Mindfulness practice reminds us to pause throughout the day to take a few deep breaths, slowing the seemingly urgent pace to one that is more sustainable and calm. Mindfulness trains us to notice and savor more of the pleasant moments, while helping us prioritize what really matters. Rather than constantly putting out fires, we can pause, assess what is truly urgent, what can wait, or what might be delegated.
A lot of mothers experience a loss of identity when they become mothers – what is your advice to these women?
Once you find your bearings as a new mom, make sure you are carving out time for yourself. We must schedule and protect this time as family responsibilities can easily seep into the cracks of free time. Meet up with girlfriends, find a way to move and exercise, and keep one foot in your work, hobbies, or interests. If you’re not sure where to begin, consider what you liked to do as a kid or go out and try something brand new. It is vital that we hang onto who we are as women in addition to the new, demanding role of mom, regardless of how much we love motherhood and perhaps how uncomfortable it might initially be to spend time away from our child. We need to model full lives for our children — we are inevitably happier and more engaged when we return home after having spent some time on self-care.
Talk us through ‘mindfulness breaks’...
Mindful breaks are reminders to bring present-moment awareness into our daily activities. For example, instead of folding the laundry and either unhappily grumbling about the task itself or mindlessly running through our to-do list for the day, feel the texture of the clothes as you fold, inhale the freshly laundered scent, notice the size of your growing children’s clothing, and gratefully reflect on your little blessings. A mindful break can transform a neutral or unpleasant task into one that is (at least somewhat) more enjoyable. We can take a Mindful Coffee Break, Shower Break, or a Driving Break. The options are limitless. I recommend starting with one or two mindful breaks at first. Once you have incorporated them into your day over the course of a week or two, you can slowly add another every few days. Keep it simple and doable. The last thing we need is to add one more thing to our list. Mindful breaks are about changing our attitude, perspective, and awareness of what is already present in our lives. It is a more calm, attuned way of being.
Many people check their phone very regularly – what is this doing for mindfulness – what are some of the negative effects of our digital addictions?
Countless devices, tasks, and people compete for our limited attention. It is sometimes painful to wrench our attention away from the task at hand to listen fully. It helps, however, to remember that it is a gift to offer someone our full attention so she feels understood, respected, and worth our time. It is also an essential element of successful leadership, requiring intentional practice on our part.
“ When we breathe and relax our muscles, we are able to engage in more open-minded communication. Hesitate before you speak. Be curious about what the person is sharing. If your attention drifts off, simply take another breath, and redirect your focus back to the conversation ”
How can we all be better listeners?
Take a deep breath, make eye contact, and relax your muscles. This is important because when we are stressed, the part of our brain in charge of executive function (responsible for paying attention and thinking flexibly) is inhibited, which means attention wanders and we are not as receptive. When we breathe and relax our muscles, we are able to engage in more open-minded communication. Hesitate before you speak. Be curious about what the person is sharing. If your attention drifts off, simply take another breath, and redirect your focus back to the conversation.
Can women have successful careers and be present mothers? How, in your opinion, do we achieve this?
Women certainly do not need to choose between motherhood and meaningful work. This sounds so elementary, but the myth remains in our society that a woman will not be a valuable leader if she is distracted with birthing or raising children. Women can do both. Out of necessity, moms hone the skills of efficiency, multi-tasking, organizing, and creativity and do it better than anyone, in my opinion. Mothers who work outside the home need to enlist help and recognize that they cannot do it all. They need to put their own oxygen masks on first with mindfulness and self-care so they can be there with quality (not necessarily quantity) of time and attention for their families. Ultimately, all moms need to support and lift one another up, regardless of whether we are stay-at-home or career women.
What meditation apps would you recommend?
I am not a big techie, but Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer have been recommended to me. Tim Ferriss recommends the Sam Harris Waking Meditation App, as well.