The Parenting Retreat (or: how to be a good parent without wanting to hide in the loo)

I’ve hesitated about writing this post. I know I’m a good parent. I know our family life is fairly happy and secure. The danger of sharing good things about family life on social media is that we might give the false impression that all is perfect. My family life isn’t perfect. I’m not a perfect parent. Good, but not perfect. We have rows and slam doors and storm out and use bad words. “I’m sending you to the rubbish yard!” says my four year old to me when I upset him. I won’t share what I sometimes say to my husband when he, in turn, upsets me. It’s not pretty.

We’re not perfect. But this summer we got something right. This is our story.


It started in a meeting I had with my spiritual director in July. We talked about the birth of my youngest, a few weeks previously.  We talked about the exhaustion I had gone through in the months before her birth, and the ways in which our family resilience had been tested after. We talked about the past, and the future. My hopes for us, and for me. My ministry, my career, my parenting, my ambition. What was good and life-giving, and what was draining and stretching.  It was a good all-round emotional, spiritual and mental check up. And then, as we finished, she suggested the following:

That I seemed restless.
That I should try and notice that, and not respond to it.
That my maternity leave meant I had a great gift to offer my kids: my time and attention.
That perhaps I needed to put away my phone and my restlessness for the summer, and give myself entirely to my children.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with my kids. But I had usually managed to dilute it to a point where I could be half-present to them, with my mind half on something else: reading, or writing, or (if I’m honest) Facebook. What was being asked of me here was different. A commitment to be wholly present: not for a morning or even a week, but for two months. Two whole months of concentrated time with three under 5s who usually tested my mental and physical resilience on an hourly basis. I left that session of spiritual direction feeling like I’d been set up to fail.

But I made a start. The next morning I launched myself cheerfully into wooden train sets and playdough and snacks and outdoor games. By 11am I was on the verge of breakdown. There were tears – and not from the kids. Why was it so hard? It was something about their chaos and mess and noise. Or was it?

Parenting is a mirror says Jon Kabat-Zinn, that forces you to look at yourself. He argues that children provide the perfect opportunity for a prolonged and intense experience of mindful retreat that lasts about 18 years. If you’ve been on retreat, you know it’s tough. As the ‘stuff’ of life is stripped away, as you go deeper into silence and simplicity, you are forced to look inwards. To see yourself with all your props, your safety blankets and your masks taken away. And then you have to begin the tough inner work.

And that moment, as I sat on the sofa and trusted the DVD player to babysit the kids for half an hour, I realised that these two months would be a similar sort of retreat. In the simplicity of offering my kids my attention and my presence, I would have to deal with the complexity of my self that I had too easily run away from. Here was my crash course in mindful, meditative parenting. It wasn’t the kids and their chaos that was pushing me over the edge; it was that in the simplicity of time with them, I had to confront my own shadow side: my weakness, my anger, my failures, my intolerance and impatience. My imperfection. Here I was, forced to stare at myself reflected in the little shiny faces and dirty hands that were so eager for me. In the kids, I had found my mirror.

In the following days, I persevered in this parenting retreat. All the usual retreat experiences seemed to happen: I got angry, I got sad, I felt overwhelmed, bored, frustrated. And then I found peace. Peace in wooden train sets and nature walks. Peace in just being – living – alongside these joyfully simple little people.

And this is what I learned:

Just be present
The kids didn’t want great entertainment or expensive fun. They just wanted me. We played with paper and cardboard and leaves and stones and sand. Often, I just watched, asked questions, smiled. The simpler the better, and they surprised me with the breadth of their imagination and resourcefulness. We had days of fun with a cardboard box and a load of paint.

Don’t fight the inner work
Offering the kids my attentiveness and presence meant fewer distractions and more mindfulness. Breaking the habit of picking up my phone whenever they turned away from me, and instead staying focused on them, meant I had to confront some of my own inner bleakness. This is hard work, takes some getting used to, and gets worse before it gets better. But it left me feeling like I’d done some tough and rewarding inner work.

Make a list
The highlight of our days became the first task each day: making a list. I asked the kids what they wanted to do that day, we wrote it down, and we did it. It gave them space to think about what they really wanted to do (rather than spur-of-the-moment, tired decisions) and it meant I could steel myself for the messy stuff. It taught them about compromise, and about making space for each other. It also meant I could be honest with them about any jobs I had to do that would take me away from them, and often those jobs became a game in themselves.

Forget perfection
We still argued. There were still tantrums – sometimes the kids kicked off too. There was a lot of mess. A lot of things went unfinished. But letting go of perfection gave us a chance to talk about mess and anger and sadness. It gave us a chance to say sorry. It gave us permission to express ourselves, however badly, and avoid the daily build up of bad feeling that would otherwise lead to an ‘end of my tether’ moment.

Rest together
We did a lot, and I stopped using TV as a crutch or a childminder. But we also spent a lot of time under a blanket, watching Netflix together. It gave me space to breath, and it stopped the kids living at 100mph for the whole day. In fact, most days they chose a film to put on the ‘list’ of things to do that day. We rested together, and we built that time into the day.

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Now the summer is over. My oldest has started school. My middle one spends time at playgroup. And my youngest sleeps a lot. The house is eerily quiet, but echoing through it are the memories of a summer in which I found, surrendered and forgot myself, and became one human in a gang of four who, for a fleeting time, had no agenda but fun and laughter.

So for those who find parenting impossible, who sit and cry on the sofa while the kids watch DVDs, who collapse among the mess and are too exhausted to laugh anymore. To those who hide in the loo, and regret their shouting, and feel haunted by the guilt of parenting failures. To those who are bored, frustrated, and annoyed by their kids. That’s me too. But it can be different. It was for us.

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The downward spiral of spiritual apathy…

…or why we all feel so tired, unfulfilled and sad.

Do you ever have moments of emptiness that are impossible to fill?

Times where you pour good food, great sex and extravagant purchases into a black hole that refuses to be satisfied?
Feelings of inexplicable guilt that are impossible to assuage for more than a fleeting hour?
A desperate need to flee your circumstances in your quest for happiness?

The problem might be acedia.

Acedia is a disease of the soul. We are so ignorant of its existence, never mind the damage it can inflict, that we probably have never heard its name.

Acedia is the spiritual apathy that leads us away from what gives us life.
It is a neglect of the soul, a hardening of the heart, and an embrace of everything that stops us from knowing ourselves.

In his book Finding Happiness, Abbot Christopher Jamison unpacks why acedia is such a problem for us. He examines it in terms of monastic life:

“I know that a monk can be overwhelmed by spiritual exhaustion; is it worth persevering, they wonder. The thought grows that this way of life isn’t valid for me any longer, that my companions are not right and that I should be doing something else, not wasting my life here. As the discipline of the monastic life becomes distasteful, so it is slowly worn away: less prayer, less self-awareness and a growing rejection of the life of the community. Alongside this is often found the impulse to replace spiritual exercises with more and more good deeds.”

The symptoms of acedia include:
– restlessness
– downheartedness
– exhaustion
– a lack of peace
– a yearning to escape
– anxiety
– feeling uncentred and unfulfilled.

Jamison argues that disdain for the familiar and a desire to give up are at the heart of acedia.”

Sound familiar?

Whether we are religious or not, we neglect the inner life at our peril. We are part of and we perpetuate a culture where profit and success are cherished above everything that is sacrificed for them: relationships, peace, rest, fun, prayer and stillness. When we feel unfulfilled or guilty or restless, the temptation is to continue to flee from our inner self.

We fill our lives when we should be emptying them.
We stay on the treadmill when we should be hitting the stop button.

I have started to identify what I think is an acedia cycle in my own life:

acedia cycle

It starts well (1). I give time to prayer, stillness, contemplation and reading.

From this place of rest and refreshment, I am able to live and minister effectively and happily (2). A healthy inner life feeds a healthy outer life, and an active outer life is rooted in a healthy inner life.

But then eventually I will begin to neglect the inner life (3).
Perhaps a busy week or a change of routine means that my times of stillness are pushed out.
Perhaps I lose the discipline of regular reading, and I forget the value of words that nurture my soul.

This neglect takes me to a place of acedia (4).
I feel increasingly unfulfilled, and I seek fulfilment in my work.
Working hard means I start to feel tired.
When I feel tired, I feel guilty and frustrated.
I try to deal with my guilt by working harder (5).
When I work hard I feel self-satisfied, and perhaps smug.
And then I feel tired and guilty again.
The drive to work harder means rest and stillness become of little value, and I enter a downward spiral of guilt and overwork that leads eventually to…

Exhaustion, illness and burnout (6), which necessitate rest and recovery (7). In the past, it hasn’t been until this crisis moment that I have become aware of my habit of overwork.

I am learning to recognise the warning signs, but the moment this downward spiral begins is the moment that I need the greatest self-awareness, humility and discipline. It’s also the moment I most need to hear the challenge that comes from God and others: How did you get to be so busy?

And so I am left wondering:

  • What other destructive cycles have acedia at their heart?
    Greed and over indulgence?
    Consumerism and affluenza?
    Gambling and other addictions?
    Infidelity and unhealthy attitudes to sex?
    Others?
  • Are there people who live consistently in the downward spiral of acedia and never find freedom from it?
  • If you recognise yourself in any of this, what are the warning signs that you need to be aware of to regain a balance and nurture your inner life?

Jamison offers two remedies for acedia:

  • The first is to fill our minds with things that will nurture us: resist gossip, and don’t read rubbish. Instead, read books that nourish, and talk about things that build up.
  • The second is to devote time to prayer, meditation or reflection. This should be regular and disciplined. But I don’t think it has to be onerous. Halfway through the morning, I make a cup of coffee and take it in the garden. The ten minutes I spend there, silent and contemplative, give my soul enough nourishment to get through the rest of the day. In this way prayer becomes a time to be cherished, and not a millstone.

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Acedia afflicts us all, and it will take each of us a lifetime to overcome. However much we fall into its grasp, let us not be so ignorant of its dangers that we cannot even name the source of our unhappiness, our unsettledness, our guilt and our anxiety.