Sometimes we can set ourselves free by setting ourselves aside
“Much of motherhood, from the very first hour, carries the early warning signs of ego warfare. I want to sleep. She wants to eat. I need to do this. She needs to do that. Not again. Again. It can feel as though someone were eating you alive. And what is being eaten is your ego.” ~ Karen Maezen Miller, Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood
My ego was being eaten by parenthood, and it was the most delicious bite of transformation yet. Devoured at 2 am. Downed with a drink of water at 5 am. Eaten again with breakfast at 9 am. Over and over again, my needs and my children’s needs bumped up against one another. Each time I thought I couldn’t give any more or do anymore, I’d find a new layer of possibility in myself. Somewhere since becoming a parent, I’d surrendered my attachments to what I thought I could never live without (attachment to sleep, for one). I often found myself awake in the middle of the night, tending to my children. Some midnight hours, I’d find myself breastfeeding. Other hours I’d be changing a diaper or re-making a wet bed. Other hours I’d be calming a nightmare. Whatever it was, I was slowly being worked on in mysterious ways.
In her book Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, author and Zen Buddhist teacher Karen Maezen Miller writes about “ego warfare” — the process of working with attachments to how we want things to be. Our children’s constant needs can feel relentless, and they can often pull us in opposite directions from where we think we want to be. I’d been experiencing my own crucible of “ego warfare,” often pining for more sleep or personal time. But then, one day, after a few years of relative sleep deprivation, I recognized that a huge bite had been taken out of my ego while I was barely looking. Many spend lifetimes attempting to loosen attachments to the self and soften the ego, and here I was, reaping a great gift of parenthood — the loosening of my own feisty ego. It did indeed feel at times like a part of myself was being eaten alive.
Let Love Do its Devouring
My oldest son didn’t sleep through the night until he was two years old. He had been five and a half pounds at birth, and I’d chosen to let him, nurse, at night when he woke up. One pediatrician had suggested he needed a little extra nourishment since he was so small. So it was that this habit was formed, and it proved to be harder to kick than expected. I spent much of my first two years of being a parent running around ragged and sleep-deprived. Of course, I tried on many occasions to switch up our sleep strategies, to no avail. Finally, I surrendered. My child was not a deep sleeper. I actually wondered whether he liked sleeping at all. So it was. I chose flexibility and adaptability as my response.
So what if I was up ten times at night? Somehow, the parenthood experience was eroding my habitual ways of identifying some things as good and others as “not good.” Instead of attaching to the notion that “I need this and not that,” I began to consider accepting what was arising with less resistance. I wondered if my ego was indeed being “eaten up,” as Karen Maezen Miller writes about. I also wondered if that was such a bad thing.
The Buddhist tradition relates the feeling of a separate “I” (sometimes called ego-consciousness) as being related to the strength of ignorance. A more conventional definition is that the ego refers to the self, especially as distinct from the world and other-selves. The sleeplessness that had at first been the bane of my existence was now pointing me to unexpected insights. Maybe ditching some of my attachments and losing some sleep along the way wasn’t such a bad thing after all. I began to consider how I could surrender even one
ounce of my self-absorption or self-preoccupation in service of another living being. Isn’t that what we are doing as parents much of the time already? I wanted to let go of my attachments to better serve those around me. Ultimately, I wanted to allow love itself to devour the parts of myself that don’t serve life. And the path of parenthood was calling me over and over again to this surrender.
Practicing Love… Even When Tired
You see, love had been the experience I had tried to return to over and over again during those midnight wakings. It was the glue that kept me together. It was a stabilizing force when I felt I couldn’t serve my child for even one more second. I decided to practice no resistance to the tiredness while also remaining open to glimmers of insight, waiting to shine through. What if the tiredness actually helped catalyze losing attachments to old habits that I didn’t need anymore? What if the tiredness could whittle away at my perfectionism? What if it could usher in more humility? What if it could chip away at my ego in positive ways? What if the tiredness actually helped catalyze losing attachments to old habits that I didn’t need anymore?
The tiredness of parenthood actually served to pull me beyond a certain holding pattern. This pattern at first revolved around the thought of “I’m tired, and I’m just going to make all my bad habits worse because of it.” The exhaustion at first was like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It felt like I was being crumbled into a million pieces of oblivion where up and down, 2 am or 6 pm, didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered — and that I kept being reminded of over and over again through how much I loved my kids — was Love. Love was the only force of reality that could truly sustain any semblance of sanity!
When the baby wanted milk every 45 minutes at 3 am, I often jumped out of bed, screaming, “Feeding hours are over!” But then I would take a pause. I
would feel my love for this child. Rather than drop into a heap on the floor, I could instead take a breath and tap into that love. I could start over and try again. When I returned to the experience of love, it somehow dissolved my most irrational thoughts and behaviors. I could choose not to spin into self-absorption or even extended self-criticism or doubt. After all, there was no time for habits such as these! Sleep, and the baby, were calling.
Set Free by Setting Ourselves Aside
Over time it struck me what the discipline required to become freer in this lifetime is truly about. It is centered on the ability to make oneself more fully
available to practicing open communication with exactly what is, even when it goes against what we think we most want and need. The beauty is that when we do this as a practice, we make ourselves more available for love to work on us — and in turn, to give away love as a constant. Perhaps my ego was indeed dissolving. Or perhaps sinews in my brain that serve to reinforce patterns of resistance were just loosening. It didn’t matter. The point was to
relax into the flow of letting go again and again into what is arising, without attachment to what I thought should be happening. Then, all of a sudden, something in my experience wasn’t gripping so hard. I wasn’t as attached to particular outcomes. Something was softer, more agreeable, more receptive, and malleable. I had set myself free by setting myself aside in unabashed service of my child.
The force that fueled this potential was love. If I could surrender to just feeling the love for my children and let that be the guide — so much was
possible! I could offer myself up in service to life beyond myself and my individual ego. The experience of love invited me to surrender even just an ounce of my selfishness. If I gave myself over to love, indeed love could do its mysterious work in my life. Most importantly, I could practice giving
away love as a constant, even at 2 am.
Consider your own relationship to being “tired.” How might the experience of being tired serve you? Has parenthood taken any “bites” out of your ego?
Consider how you have been transformed for the better.
Let love devour the parts of you that don’t serve life. What does this mean for you, personally? What does this look like in your life? Journal about this or make a list.
Consider your own self-care needs and how these relate to your ability to live as your best self. What self-care do you need to share the full extent of your loving presence in your family and beyond? What might it look like in your life to give away love as a constant?
Deborah McNamara is the author of The Invitation of Motherhood: Uncovering the Spiritual Lessons of Parenting, from which the above is excerpted.