Learning to Breathe

Learning to Breathe

Last month, my eldest son, Bjorn, turned 13.  I officially have a teenager!

Each time this thought crosses my mind I try to remember to take a deep breath.  After thirteen years of parenting, I am convinced that taking a deep breath is the single most accessible and useful parenting tool.

I did not learn about this tool in a parenting self-help book; it has been more of a revelation through a long and on-going process that began a little over thirteen years ago.  A deep breath has many uses beyond parenting but the parenting experience has been my primary training ground, starting with the birth of my first born son.

I did not know it at the time, but bringing Bjorn into the world was like birthing my own personal life coach.  I would add a second life coach, Liam, several years later, who would brilliantly build upon Bjorn’s previous lessons as well as add a few of his own.

My first lesson with Bjorn was all about the one fundamental tool I would need in the coming years: the deep breath.

The Fundamental Tool:

The plans for my first birthing experience were more elaborate than the plans for my wedding. I knew I wanted a natural home birth but our remote homestead in McCarthy was uncomfortably too far from back-up medical assistance. Six weeks before my due date, we temporarily relocated to the quaint, seaside town of Homer, AK.

In preparation for a natural delivery, I chose to practice the Hypnobirthing method to assist me through the labor.  Hypnobirthing is like “meditative” birthing and involves many relaxation techniques all centered around deep, relaxed breathing.  This was my first experience with breath work and I took to it readily, practicing throughout most of my pregnancy.

Once we were settled in Homer, I continued to practice deep breathing exercises, readying myself for the big event. Jeremy and I arranged for midwives to assist us, for a portable birthing tub to be delivered to the house and for plenty of relaxing background music to be on hand. I was setting up my expectations for a beautiful home birthing experience.

Bjorn, however, had something else in mind for me.

My labor began at 3:00 pm on a clear, crisp February afternoon. There was no drama to kick off the event like my water suddenly breaking or severe, debilitating contractions. Instead, I relaxed on the couch, rhythmically breathing, and waited for the midwives to arrive. My progress was slow and it turned out to be a long night for all of us. It seemed as if we were just waiting for Bjorn to make his move.

By mid-morning he was finally in the birth canal; the midwives could see the crown of his head. It was time to push.

Boy, did I push. I pushed for six hours! I pushed in the tub. I pushed on the couch. I pushed on some fancy stool and I pushed standing up. I would have pushed standing on my head had someone told me it might help.

But nothing did help. It appeared as if Bjorn was stuck.

Looking back, I suspect it was something more sophisticated than that. The 1984 hit film, The Karate Kid, comes to mind. Bjorn was playing the role of Mr Miyagi and I was Daniel. “Wax on, wax off”, except that my endless mantra was “breathe in, breathe out”, and instead of a line of dirty cars, I was confronted with a line of various birthing positions.

Finally, after 24 hours of consistent repetition (“breathe in, breathe out…all positions”), it was time to push ME out of the comforts of the dojo and into the bigger arena. It was time to transport to the hospital.

I had become entirely exhausted from the pushing marathon and my contractions began to weaken. We pulled the plug on the idyllic homebirth and phoned the maternity ward that we were on our way. This was the end of my dreamy, all natural home birth, but, thankfully, there was one very critical element I could take with me to the hospital: breathe in, breathe out.

Bjorn had been stalled out in my birth canal for well over six hours and the hospital staff had good reason to expect a very stressed out baby in need of an immediate intervention. As Jeremy likes to retell the story, “…they were sharpening the knives upon our arrival.”

We were immediately ushered into a delivery room where the hospital staff could hook Bjorn up to various monitoring devices. The tension running through the room was palpable to everyone but me. Breathe in, breathe out….all positions.

Once they got an accurate reading on Bjorn’s heartbeat, steady and calm, the energy in the room changed unexpectedly. The tension in the air immediately dissipated as the attending hospital midwife said, with a bit of surprise and relief, “oh,…we’ve got some time.”

It appeared as if Bjorn was perfectly content taking his own sweet time to transition from womb to outer world. Looking back, the fact that Bjorn was doing so well is not so surprising. I was incredibly calm and I don’t believe we can separate the two – calm mother, calm baby.

Breathe in, breathe out: I breathed through the tension, I breathed through the diassappointment, I breathed through the fear.

The unexpected calm allowed for less severe medical intervention.  The deep and rhythmical breathing I had maintained through the entire experience was instrumental in Bjorn entering the world shortly after 8 pm, sans knives, straight into his daddy’s arms.

Bjorn did not teach me how to breathe deeply but he sure did prove to me how invaluable this one simple act can be.  The trick, of course, is to remember to apply it.

Applying the Fundamental Tool.

If you’ve spent much time around young children, you’ve probably witnessed the sort of upset that causes them to turn beet red, purple or blue. When they transition from red to blue, they literally are so upset they have momentarily stopped breathing and you’re wishing a little orange oxygen mask would magically pop out of thin air and dangle before your child who is starting to resemble a Smurf. I’ve been through this numerous times with my second born coach, Liam.

Bjorn taught me the value of taking a deep breath. Liam was going to show me when to apply it.

Liam, our youngest, is a dynamo. When he talks (which is most of his waking hours), he talks vivaciously.  When he plays, he plays hard and when life throws him a hardball, he throws one back. The latter are the moments when he tends to turn blue.

It is in these moments, without even thinking about the cause of his upset or a possible solution to his problem, that I instinctually pull out a calm, clear, “just breathe” and as soon as I say those two little words, I find myself taking a long, deep calming breath.

When we ask our kids to take a deep breath, it’s imperative that we take the first deep breath, not because we need to show them how to do it but because most of the time we need the extra oxygen more than they do. This is the main tenet behind what I call the Oxygen Mask Protocol.

If you’ve flown on a commercial airline, you are already familiar with the Oxygen Mask Protocol: if you are seated next to someone who needs assistance, apply your own mask first. This is critical advice, both literally and figuratively.

In a real life scenario, an airplane passenger has only seconds to put on their oxygen mask before oxygen-saturation levels become perilous. Likewise, in the face of a four-year-old melting down in the middle of a crowded grocery store at the end of an already long day, a parent has only seconds to take that deep, calming breath before the stress-saturation levels become seemingly insurmountable and you wish you could just pass out cold rather than deal with the situation at hand.

No such luck. We must respond one way or another and I don’t know a single parent who, in this sort of situation, hasn’t snapped under pressure. No judgements here, it’s just part of the natural learning curve we must all move through. It serves as a shameful rock we must bruise our hearts upon to begin to even think about a better way to handle this sort of situation. Parental shame is a fantastic motivator and, undoubtedly, the driving force behind the plethora of parenting self-help books.

Every scenario and parenting style is different and I won’t claim to know the right way to handle any one particular meltdown scenario. What I do understand is the value of putting on your oxygen mask before you have a meltdown of your own. Calm parent, calm child — or at least a quicker return to calm if we aren’t adding our own stress to the equation.

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” – Albert Einstein.

A stress response cannot be resolved by another stress response. And yet, we attempt to do this all the time in our relationships, whether they be between parent and child, child and child, husband and wife, good friends or between you and the guy who cut you off in traffic.

Taking one, proper, deep breath can shut off your stress response. Sounds like a good idea when staring into the face of your little one who appears as if his head is about to explode. Regardless of the cause, whether they have just skinned their knee or they are about to launch into a tantrum for not getting their way, they are having an emotional response and, now, so are you.

If we want to truly be of assistance to others, we must first assist ourselves. When Liam turns blue, taking that one, deep, indulgent breath before trying to assist him has made a world of difference in the outcome.

Putting words into practice.

“My words are easy to understand and easy to put into practice.
Yet no one under heaven understands them or puts them into practice.” ~Lao Tzu.

Sometimes the simplest lesson is so hard to put into practice because the moment we need it is most likely a rather inconvenient one. The key word here is practice.

We have a favorite saying in our home: there’s trained and untrained. Simply put, if you want to acquire a new skill, you train.  You practice.

Trained and untrained.

Want to learn to play guitar?

Pick up a guitar and practice every day.

Want to be able to pull out a deep, calming breath when you most need it?

I did not come out of the birthing experience a star student. It would take many years and multiple bruised hearts before I would understand these principles and seriously begin training. My training literally involved re-teaching my body how to breathe properly — from the belly, not the chest — and to do this every day with mindfulness.

In so many ways, my children have been my greatest teachers and I sometimes wonder if this isn’t by some elegant design.  We birth these beautiful little people and, like it or not, they download a good many behaviors from us.  Some behaviors we can feel proud of, some we feel shameful of and a few we didn’t even realize we had.  When we brush up against one of the latter two we have what I call an “oh, shit” moment.

When you find yourself having an “oh, shit” moment, my best advice is…

you guessed it….

take  a  deep  breath.

And rejoice!  You just opened a doorway to change.


Breathe: photo credit: Sarahivynewman <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/91248345@N06/9036918693″>Bre athe_ReadySetSarah</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Arguing: photo credit: Frits Ahlefeldt – FritsAhlefeldt.com <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/32066106@N06/5703398188″>two guys discussing</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Guitar: photo credit: MTSOfan <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/8628862@N05/37676043172″>At the Frets</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>

8 thoughts on “Learning to Breathe

  1. This is very well said! It can be applied when dealing with elderly people who aren’t the people they once were, too.

    1. Yes! Donna, thank you. I have not experienced this is my own life but I think taking a deep breath helps us tune into and move through our own emotional experience so that we can be more at ease when we want to hold space with our loved ones through their struggles. That’s beautiful, thank you.

  2. I totally understand this more & more as I watch my daughter apply the same words to her almost 2 1/2 year old son, “just breath” or “take a breath”. He gets it completely and now I do too!
    Thank you Alison..

  3. Ali, I hope you keep writing. You & Jeremy are such an amazing couple and you just draw people in with your words to your life. So sad the show is over, my husband and I loved the show. Hoping this note finds you and your family in a good place! Tell Jeremy to keep up on FB, everyone enjoys that too. I’ll keep looking for your Chronicle’s. Wishing you the Very Best, Connie Miller from Wisconsin ⚘

    1. Hello Connie. Thank you so much for your encouragement and kind words. Jeremy and I are very appreciative of the support and good vibes so many people have sent us over the years. All our best to you and your family. Alison.

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