The Zen Approach to Mother and Child Development

The Natural Phases in a Lifetime of Learning

Throughout our lives we grow, learn, and change. In the present moment, we are always at the perfect point between what we have been and what we are becoming.

There are times when we push ahead, eager to see what can be accomplished, and others when we feel stuck, or fight to stay still because it seems like a safer option. We can be certain that these phases of direction and certainty will become lostness and confusion at times. No one gets to feel sure of themselves ad infinitum, and if they tell you otherwise, then they are labouring under an illusion of which you are free.

There are few guarantees in life, but one is that change will happen, no matter how we feel about it, and another is that how we feel is bound to change, no matter what we do.

Having a baby is a foolproof way of ensuring that you will embark on a whole new stage in your life, through which you will develop on many levels. As you find your feet in your new role as a mother, or a mother of multiple kids, your baby is exploring and learning by your side. You complement one another in this process, sharing the universal human experience of ‘becoming’.

Sometimes we are really clear about what we need to do in order to adapt to changes in our lives, and at other times we have no idea what we are doing. These are the phases which characterise this experience.

On Acorns and Oak Trees, and Universal Human Experience

In Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert recounts a zen understanding of growth and development:

“My thoughts turn to something I read once, something the Zen Buddhists believe. They say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time. Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential, which grows into the tree. Everybody can see that. but only a few can recognize that there is another force operating here as well – the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity. In this respect, say the Zens, it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which is was born.”

My google search for this quote brought me a short and sweet reflection about it, which you can read here.

So, using the metaphor of the acorn which wants to unfurl into an oak, and the oak tree that wants to pull itself into being from the acorn, you can understand why there are different phases, with their own characteristics, that play a part in the process of growth.

On the one hand, you have the ‘I am going to surge ahead because I know exactly what I am doing!’ moments. On the other, you have the ‘What the hell is going on? I have no idea what to do!’ moments.

The former are ACORN MOMENTS, characterised by a sense of excitement and wonderment at the opening

up of a new perspective. You feel something deep inside, pushing you forward. You see opportunities to develop yourself, and doors swing open to reveal unforeseen potential. Life seems to flow, and has a feeling of ‘rightness’.

The latter are OAK TREE MOMENTS, recognisable by the loss of vision. The temporary sensation of being blind, lost, and out of control. You feel something pulling you forward from the pitt of your stomach. You do not understand how you will be delivered into the next moment, but nevertheless, you are. Life feels complicated, and tricky to navigate at these times.

No matter our age, ethnicity, star sign, or whatever, we are bound to experience our fair share of both acorn and oak tree moments.

Learning to Breastfeed Moment by Moment
When I look back over my experiences as a mother I can identify a stream of acorn and oak moments.

When my first child was born, we had some difficulties getting our breastfeeding relationship going. She was a small baby, and so we were advised to supplement breastfeeds with formula feeding. For several days, our routine was thus:
try to breastfeed,
fail to breastfeed,
give expressed breast milk,
give supplementary formula feed,
express breastmilk,
clean breastpump,
sterilise breastpump,
collapse in heap,
sleep for an hour,
try to breastfeed….
and so on.

My husband could help out with stuff like nappy changes, formula feeding, pump maintenance, and so on, but he could not do anything about the breastfeeding. Plus, I elected to stay in hospital, with midwives on hand to assist my breastfeeding attempts, rather than get discharged with a bag full of artificial milk and a heavy heart. This meant that I was working through the night, in a bizarre twilight existence of energy bars and sleep deprivation. All I could do was lurch from one moment to the next and hope for the best.

The oak tree was doing its thing, while I wandered around with this tiny being, who was a part of me, yet totally alien. In our respective new worlds, we watched each other watch each other, then would fall into the respite of oblivion for not very long.

Finally, on the fourth night, my daughter latched on and had a really good first feed. It was the most incredible feeling, to lie there having my body and her body do what they were supposed to do, to begin this crazy-beautiful experience as a breastfeeding diad. I lay on my side, just wondering at the magic of the moment, lost in a huge oxytocin rush.

The acorn had popped up, just for a minute.

Now that she had had the experience of feeding from the breast, my daughter’s instincts took over and she became voracious in her determination to do it again. The oak tree had been pulling her in that general direction, but now the acorn had leapt into being with its keen will to develop.

Unfortunately, we just couldn’t seem to get it together again that night, or the next day. Now I had a frustrated, boob-mad baby, who wanted nothing more than to get on that breast and clusterfeed like a pro, but could not work out how. I didn’t know how to help her. When I tried to put her on the boob, she would try, but couldn’t latch on. It was frustrating. My hormones were all over the place, and the baby blues hit me between the eyes. Actually, between the tear ducts. Such was my sorry state, that a supportive midwife got me moved into a room on my own, where I could rest better than on the ward.

My acorn moment had been so fleeting, but the oak tree was taking care of me. Now that I had a bit of peace and space to calm down, I told myself that, if need be, I would just express feed my baby, or mix feed, or whatever, and it would be OK. I held my daughter close and told her that I was sorry that I could not give her what she wanted, but it was alright, we would figure it all out. I didn’t have a real picture of how to do that, but had made my peace with the unknown.

The next morning, my daughter was six days old and we had only mastered one feed. However, the pumping and cuddling was doing its thing, and suddenly I had an abundance of milk coming in. I lay in a warm bath and marvelled at my cannon ball shaped breasts. Then, I headed back for the next feed attempt. A senior midwife came over to help, with an air of business about her. She suggested that I hand-express some milk to take the edge off my baby girl’s appetite, but not satiate it. I spent a few minutes putting pressure on all these little pea sized bumps in my breast. I squeezed them and milk flew all over the place. I felt an enormous sense of relief and hilarity, as I watched my body perform this incredible new trick. I managed to get some of the milk jets into a cup for my baby.

Once the appetiser had been dispensed with, it was time for the main course. The midwife guided my hand, cupping it around my baby’s head. Suddenly, she was latched onto the breast and feeding with gusto. Then, she did it again at the next feed. A lactation consultant lent me a nursing pillow to help me position her, and from there we pretty much got on with the business of breastfeeding. We left the hospital and found our feet in the outside world.

Pretty soon, it was the most natural thing in the world to feed my baby, and she gained weight well. We had a rhythm going, and the milk flowed. There were wonderful new discoveries to make every day, as we got established in our new life together. I felt a sense of harmony, gratitude, and immense satisfaction. I look back and I know that, by then, we were both savouring an acorn moment.

Acorns and Oak Trees for Babies

The different developmental phases which babies go through during the first years of life are many and frequent. The Wonder Weeks is a brilliant book which charts predictable ‘mental leaps’ that infants make. I recommend checking it out, especially if you have a baby who gets agitated easily.

There is a cool blog post about the impact of the wonder weeks on understanding your baby, right here.

Basically, babies have regular jumps in their ability to perceive the world. During the initial phase of each leap, they tend to become clingy, cry more often, and get cranky. Aha! The oak tree is calling. Once the leap has been processed, a whole lot of new skills appear in your baby’s repertoire and they seem in a better mood. It’s acorn time in the house.

Babies develop at such an incredible rate that they are just getting settled in one reality, then mental and physical growth spurts transport them into a brand new universe with totally different rules. When they are in an acorn phase, they are more content, more open, and more engaged with the world. It’s a great time to help them explore whatever interests them. When they are in an oak tree phase, you know they have just had a huge shift in perspective and it has stunned them. What they need from you is reassurance.

Some babies feel these changes a lot more than others, but all experience growth. Imagine the change in perspective that occurs as a result of finding that you were once immobile, but now you can roll over. It must be akin to realising you have a, hitherto unrecognised, superpower, like flying or extendable arms. No wonder they get confused, and then elated at their wondrous new talents and perceptions.

For babies, whatever is going on in a moment is the natural order of things. They will let you know how they feel, and this will change from moment to moment, day to day, just like the weather.

Babies will not worry about whether they are in an acorn moment or an oak tree moment. They will worry that they thought they were the same thing as mummy, but it turns out they are a separate entity, but they will not be concerned about the symptoms of growth themselves. They live in the moment, and as such, whatever is going on is the natural order of things, even if it happens to suck.

Acorns and Oak Trees For Grown Ups

When adults are in an acorn phase we will assume this is how things should always be. The plan is coming together and we are the architects of destiny. When an oak tree phase kicks in, we are inclined to panic that we don’t know what we are doing. We might start coming up with plans and strategies, and try to regain a sense of control. This is a valid approach to life changes, but can get in the way of real growth. By trying to control aspects of our lives that confound us, rather than accepting the unknown, we do not leave a gap for new ideas to creep in. Without allowing for the oak moments, the acorn loses its momentum and we simply stagnate.

Some days, we might want to resist the push of the acorn and the pull of the oak, so as to stay in our comfort zone, where we feel safest. As sure as night follows day, we will find that even when we stay still, our feelings do not. We can be certain that our moods will alter, and, with that, will come different feelings about ourselves and our world. The wheel of life concocts new experiences despite our efforts to stay still. This means that insisting that the world has to (just frickin’) stop for a moment, is fine, as long as you accept on some other level that it won’t.

By embracing the novel and mysterious aspects of our lives, we can pave the way for more interesting new experiences, and greater opportunities to develop our understanding of who we are and why we are here. There is no need to worry about lack of clarity and direction. There is no need to fear that we will not regain our bearings. If we maintain an open mind, that is where the magic of the oak can truly get to work.

The Mother and Baby Dance

There is no doubt that having a baby or being born are major life changes, which require huge respective adaptions within our minds. They alter our fundamental perception of who we are, and invite rapid internal growth.

Mothers and babies mirror one another in their growth, and this is an integral part of their relationship. As adults, we have to guide our little ones, and reassure them that all is not lost when they enter a new oak phase. In turn, our babies offer inspiration, and pull us into their world of connection with all that surrounds them, when we have lost touch with our heart. They do not know any other way than to accept whatever is happening now is all there really is. That is a great lesson for parents to take from their children.

During our acorn phases, we can find new balances, and reach new levels of purpose, and self-assurance. In our oak tree phases, we can throw ourselves into the void and see what happens. Either way, there is no need to plot our path in minute detail, or be concerned that our baby needs more directed stimulation. Potential seems like something which is reached for in the future, but it is also something released in the moment. Whether you are a mother or a baby, the moment is the place where you develop yourself.

The Secret To Easier Development

Mothers and babies go through many transitions, and stages of mental and physical development. They undergo these changes together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes not, because that is what people do. However, the human experience of ‘becoming’ is easier when you accomplish this by ‘being’ at just one in a variety of natural stages in your life at once.

Both the acorn and the oak tree phases are inevitabilities in life, but we can decide how to observe them. When all seems on an even keel, and we have the fire of direction, coupled with the confidence of certainties, we can remember to be grateful for the experience. When everything turns upside down, and we lose our bearings, we can remember that it is a temporary struggle, which can yield opportunities to learn, great satisfaction, and huge personal development in the long term.

Are you in an oak tree phase? Do you know someone who is? Go share the love and let them know that it will all be just fine!

For those of you who are in the rush of acorn time. Enjoy! Have you got the hang of those extendable arms then?

As always, do come tell me all about it. I would love to hear from you.



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