MotherTalk Blog Tour: Healthy Mother, Healthy Child

I started practicing yoga when I was pregnant with my first son, Ben. Until then, yoga had always been on my big life “to-do” list, like learning to play guitar and living in Paris. It wasn’t until the nice lady who was giving me a pregnancy massage told me that the burning pain under my shoulder blade was from my diaphragm (yes, that’s right, it got pushed all the way over there), that I made the time for yoga.

And it helped. It didn’t just help the burning pain, it helped me sleep a little better, and to stress out a little less; it helped me feel more balanced – physically and emotionally—for the rest of the pregnancy.

After Ben was born, I went back to yoga with him. He was kind of a fussy, colicky guy at first, and mom and baby yoga seemed like a great solution: calm baby, calm mama. Well, it didn’t entirely work out that way. I was still a little too unsteady about being a mother to manage tree poses with a baby in the crook of my arm.

Yoga on my own continued to work wonders, however, and I kept at it as much as I could, figuring that a calm mama could better handle a fussy child. When I got pregnant the second time, I practiced yoga all the way through, and was attended through a 17 hour natural childbirth by my yoga teacher/doula.

Now I don’t get to yoga classes very often at all. My family’s schedule seems to shift daily, so right now I need the kind of exercise that I can grab when the opportunity presents itself. I run every other day and aspire to setting aside some time, a place, at home where I can lay out a mat and sink into a nice downward dog every once in a while.

I’m newly motivated to do this by reading Elizabeth Irvine’s Healthy Mother, Healthy Child: Creating Balance in Everyday Life, a book I learned about from Andi and Miriam at MotherTalk. It’s a gorgeous, easy to manage book – you could lay it on the floor next to you as you practice, so that you can see if you’re getting the poses approximately right. Irvine writes with an engaging tone, and peppers her prose with plenty of real-world examples to support her points. “We take on board whatever thoughts we feed ourselves,” she says, pointing out how deflated you can feel, for example, after a well-meaning friend says, “You look tired.” She offers strategies to avoid absorbing everything the world dishes out.

The book’s thus much more than a yoga manual. Irvine believes, as I do, that what we eat and what we think and how we feel are all pretty tightly connected. As she puts it, “You know the saying, ‘you are what you eat.’ Similarly I feel there’s truth to ‘we are what we hold in ourselves.’ We become what we think, read, and watch and whom we spend our time with.” So she offers useful and specific nutrition tips—not just about what to feed yourself and your family (whole grains; juice instead of soda, etc), but how, suggesting ways to get your kids involved in the preparation of meals in order to get them more interested in actually eating what’s on the table, and sitting with you to do so. She’s preaching to the choir with me. Tony and I have insisted on family dinner since Ben was a little bug, and it has its ups and downs, of course (our toddler, Eli, having now rejected both high chair and booster, does a lot of jumping down from his chair and running around the table at dinner), but still, we are convinced, having grown up with nightly family dinners ourselves, that this is a ritual well worth passing on to our own kids.

Now, I have a pretty low tolerance for the kinds of floaty ideas that books like this seem often to offer, and happily Irvine’s writing is as grounded as she’d like us all to be. Still, she does recommend visualization, a technique that always wakes up my inner cynic. Back during my first pregnancy, a friend told me about her childbirth prep class in Berkeley, in which she was instructed to visualize her contractions “hugging and caressing” her baby. We laughed and joked about visualizing the IV full of pain medication (though in fact, between the two of us we’ve now managed 4 drug-free deliveries).

But this book isn’t just about me, of course; remember the title? And look again at the cover photo, that little body folded next to his mama’s. It’s about teaching my children some healthy habits, offering them some tools to get them through the day. And I believe Irvine when she claims that kids are particularly adept at visualization techniques. Most nights after Eli is settled into bed, I crawl in for another cuddle with Ben, who asks me to tickle his belly and tell him the story of the day he was born. Irvine would certainly approve of this sweet ritual, and I’m not looking to drop it anytime soon, but I might suggest adding a little visualization tomorrow night, and see how Ben and I do with it. Irvine offers a couple narrative routes to get you started (“Seeing A Star,” “The Rainbow,” “Soaring with an Eagle”), and I’m sure once you get in the habit, it’s pretty easy to come up with some that work for yourself and your child.

She suggests a variety of other calming strategies, like drawing a mandala (not my style, but I can see Ben, who loves to concentrate on a drawing, getting a lot out of it) or writing acrostic or diamante poems, two ideas I love. All of these various techniques – yoga, breathing, visualizations, balanced nutrition—Irvine argues, can make a difference in helping a child deal with difficulties from eczema (the condition in her son which first led Irvine to alternative therapies) to ADD to a lack of self-confidence and more. They certainly can’t hurt. Also, I appreciate how she cycles back to both her tips and the various issues they might assist with throughout the book, approaching them all from different angles, to reiterate her argument that we are fully interconnected beings.

I began to lose Irvine slightly in the last section of the book, “Home,” which seemed a little less grounded in practical advice and information and a bit more reliant on platitudes (“Each child is a unique gift;” “Children have magical ways about them”). But in the generous spirit of the book, I’ll think of these as mantras, to repeat (perhaps through clenched teeth!) during difficult moments of parenting.

I found the book simple, clear and useful. It reiterated some things I know already and practice, inspired me to try adding a couple more habits to my family life, and taught me a few things I didn’t know. I’m looking forward to adding some of her ideas to our daily routine.

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