SHUKA KALANTARI Hi, I’m Shuka Kalantari. I’m the senior producer of The Science of Happiness. On this week’s episode, guest host Serena Chen, who’s the Psychology Department Chair at UC Berkeley, talks with Becky and Christine Margiotta about being more present and patient with loved ones—in this case, their two little kids.
We recorded their interview before COVID-19 came to the States, which is why you won’t hear any reference to the pandemic. But the lessons they take away from the practice, still feel really relevant today. Enjoy the show.
BECKY MARGIOTTA For me, I wasn’t super on the ‘have kids’ bandwagon. I thought the whole perk of being gay was you didn’t have to have kids. And Christine is nine years younger than I am. And Christine, her biological clock ticked in ways that mine did not.
BECKY MARGIOTTA So I was asking, what should I do to get your attention? And what did you say?
HUCK MARGIOTTA You always sound a little whiny to me.
BECKY MARGIOTTA I sound whiny to you!?
HUCK MARGIOTTA Or maybe booger-y.
BECKY MARGIOTTA I sound booger-y?
HUCK MARGIOTTA Yeah.
BECKY MARGIOTTA I’m fifty, so I feel like I’m older than most, maybe a lot of people have when they have young children.
HUCK MARGIOTTA I don’t think you blow your nose all the time.
BECKY MARGIOTTA You think I need to blow my nose more?
HUCK MARGIOTTA Yeah.
BECKY MARGIOTTA So you don’t listen to me because I have too much boogers in my nose?
HUCK MARGIOTTA Maybe that’s why.
BECKY MARGIOTTA I get impatient like twice a week. And that’s not who I want to be as their parent. And so I’m really like, “It’s cool. It’s good, whatever. Don’t listen to me for half an hour,” and then I’m like, “Hey!” I feel like my military background snaps in and I’m like, a little more sharp elbowed, a little more gruff, a little bit more like, “OK, now we’re going to pay attention cause it’s not funny anymore.”
BECKY MARGIOTTA So tonight when I got frustrated with you because you weren’t listening. And you said…
VIVIAN MARGIOTTA Wait I’m going to tell you something.
BECKY MARGIOTTA Okay
VIVIAN MARGIOTTA Remember I didn’t get to watch the first show?
BECKY MARGIOTTA And when I have moments of clarity and have a moment of solitude, I get so clear that the most important thing I could possibly do would be to do a good job as the parent to these two children.
VIVIAN MARGIOTTA Can we watch T.V. now?
BECKY MARGIOTTA Well I was, I’m really learning a lot from you two.
HUCK MARGIOTTA That’s all I know.
BECKY MARGIOTTA That’s all you know.
SERENA CHEN I’m Serena Chen, a psychology professor and director of the Self Identity and Relationships Lab at UC Berkeley. I’m filling in for Dacher this week. Today, I’m joined by Becky and Christine Margiotta. Becky is a co-founder of the Billions Institute. She’s also a veteran of the U.S. Army. Christine, her wife, is the executive director of a philanthropic group connecting changemakers. It’s called Social Venture Partners. Together, they juggle two young kids while maintaining very busy schedules helping global communities grow. Becky and Christine tried a practice from our Greater Good in Action website to bring more mindfulness and connection to their own home and life with their kids. And they’re here today to tell us how it went. Becky and Christine, thanks so much for joining us today on the Science of Happiness.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA Thank you for having us.
BECKY MARGIOTTA Yeah, good to be here.
SERENA CHEN So we asked you to choose a practice among the various ones on the Greater Good in Action website to boost kindness, connection and overall happiness. And both of you chose the mindful breathing exercise followed by a mindful observation practice. Now, can you maybe tell us a bit why you chose this particular practice?
BECKY MARGIOTTA My motivation, I think I was like, “Oh, can you help me be more patient with my kids?” Christine is just a saint. It’s sort of like an unfair competition. Christine has gotten impatient maybe twice in all of her years of parenting. I get impatient like twice a week. And that’s not who I want to be as their parent. And also, I don’t want them to not listen. It’s just something that we’re, like probably I imagine a lot of parents, trying to figure out. How do you form an actual authentic relationship with your children that’s not one that’s oppressive and power over and they do what they say because you told him to?
SERENA CHEN I mean, it keeps going on. I’ve got a nine and 12-year-old and I’m more like you. I didn’t know about twice a week. I lose my patience twice a day. So you’re both way ahead of me.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA I think a lot about these transitions between the intensity of my workday and how quickly my mind moves during the day from thing to thing and the to-do list that’s always in my mind. And I feel like my pace during the workday is very quick. And my intention when I’m with our family is to slow down really significantly and to be very present both to enable myself to kind of turn off some of the other things that are running in my mind that are work-related, but also to bewith the family rather than to be in this doing mode. So for me, the idea of slowing down and breathing and creating some consciousness around the transition between working and family time was really important.
SERENA CHEN So for the Mindful Breathing exercise, you’re supposed to get into a comfortable position, then really tune into your breathing, your inhaling, and your exhaling. Then right afterward you both did the Mindful Observation practice. For that, you were to choose a natural object from your immediate environment and then really focus on looking at it for a minute or two as though you’re seeing that object for the first time. So, tell us how it went for you: how did those two practices go for you guys?
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA Sure. And Becky and I are laughing a little bit because we’ll both acknowledge that we did it wrong.
BECKY MARGIOTTA I did it more wrong.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA Right, Becky did it more wrong than I did. So at least there’s that. We had a little debate on what was the right way. And as we were prepping, we both acknowledged, you know, my rightness on this one, which…
BECKY MARGIOTTA … Welcome to my world …
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA … doesn’t often happen. So I was kind of reveling in that. But the exercise we chose, we will admit we did a modified version of it. So the mindful breathing is about setting aside 15 minutes every day for a week and breathing. Finding a comfortable position, noticing what was going on in our bodies, and breathing. And I’ll say for me I have a train commute. I commute about an hour and a half each way by train so I’m usually wrapping up my workday on the train. And I chose to do this exercise sitting in my car before I drove home from the train station. And that was a great moment in my day before diving into the wonderful madness of evening time with the kids and with our family. And the second piece of this was a mindful observation. And this is where we are, Becky and I had different, different interpretations of this. This was about mindfully observing a natural object for a couple minutes. And I chose our children as the natural object and I think Becky chose a tree, a guava tree.
BECKY MARGIOTTA Usually I chose a tree, or like a hummingbird.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA Yeah. Do you want to talk about how you modified each of these?
BECKY MARGIOTTA Oh, sure. Yeah. So Christine has morning duty and I have afternoon duties. So I pick up the kids from school while Christine’s commuting back. And so I would roll up on the elementary school and turn off my car and do a breathing meditation. And I always at first was like, “Oh, people could sing some weirdos falling asleep in the car.” But I was like, “Who cares? I mean, this is for our kids.” So I would do just two minutes of mindfulness breathing. And then go get the kiddos. And then at some point, this is usually actually where like most of my parenting fouls occur is the time between when I pick up the kids and when Christine gets home, when like the A-Team arrives. And at some point, while I had the kids home by myself—the weak link in the parenting chain—I would say like, “Hey, kids, I’ll be right back.” And I’d go sit outside and I would just we have this gorgeous backyard that overlooks this park. And I would look at the wind in the trees for again for two minutes. And almost every time a hummingbird would pop up and keep me company and go back in feeling really refreshed and present. And so, Christine, I just did two minutes but you did like ten minutes of breathing meditation.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA This is where we differ. And I love, I love the ways we’re able to learn from each other. So I saw 15 minutes and felt this pressure to do it right and to do it as it was written. And the pull of I’m usually wanting to race home to be with the family, feeling guilty that my commute gets me, you know, I get home at 5:45, which I feel incredibly grateful for the train that I’m able to finish my workday on there. But Becky has been home with them at that point for an hour or two most days. So I’m usually trying to race home. So 15 minutes felt so indulgent, which feels silly to say. So what I did, I set a timer and I did a five-minute walking meditation, which is essentially my walk from the train to my car. Then I did five minutes in my car. And there was once or twice where I opened my eyes to peek at the clock to make sure I had set the timer because I was, I was still feeling the anxiety of, “Oh, gosh, I, I want to get home.” But most days, was really able to settle and ground myself, particularly in those five minutes in the car.
BECKY MARGIOTTA Once I start meditating, I don’t generally want to stop. It’s very soothing for my nervous system. It’s very good for my well-being. And so there’s also, since I plan on continuing this, is to just keep inching the timer up one more minute. And next thing you know, there’s going to be people banging my car being like, “Are you OK, lady!?”
SERENA CHEN Like, “More your car! Move your car!”
BECKY MARGIOTTA Exactly.
SERENA CHEN And then after you did that, the mindful breathing exercise, you got home. And on some nights you chose your children to observe when they were doing what?
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA So our kids are moving so quickly as I’m sure you can relate too.
SERENA CHEN Yes.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA They’re three and five, so they are rarely not in motion
SERENA CHEN Right.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA So, you know, when one time where they’re a bit more mellow is when they’re taking a bath. And I usually sit with them during their bath time. So one of the more striking moments on the first day of this practice was looking at our daughter’s toes and looking at her tiny, tiny little toenails on each of her toes and just kind of marveling at these little feet on this beautiful little person.
SERENA CHEN Yeah. What was it like to try to see these toes as if you’re seeing them for the first time?
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA I really loved that That part of the instruction in particular. I look at them and realize, oh, my gosh, they’ve grown an inch or, you know, their baby tummy is going away or something like that. And it’s really been part of a more global commitment to not ever assuming who they are or think that I know who they are because I knew them yesterday or because we, you know, because I birthed them, you know, I somehow know who they are. And a global commitment to always keep learning and keep my curiosity up about who they are and who they’re becoming.
SERENA CHEN Yeah. So, Becky, earlier you said you sort of took a little break from your kids to engage in the mindful observation exercise. You went outside to your garden and you chose a guava tree or hummingbird to focus on. What happened after? what shifted in you that helped you then go back in to be with the kids and be able to focus on them more?
BECK MARGIOTTA I was, I would say markedly more patient and present with the kids. I asked them if they thought so. And it seems as though they don’t really have an impression of that yet. But I felt much more relaxed and present with them and just sort of less on my own agenda, right? And I think, last week when I did the meditation, I was much more able to catch myself and be like, “Okay, you’re feeling frustrated. You have an agenda. They have a different agenda. This does not need to be resolved in this moment.” And it just bought me that, that little cognitive window where I wasn’t in a reactive brain as much. And I sort of, I capitulated. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to come back. I’m going to get you. But I’m going to come back later.” You know, and that created a lot more day to day peacefulness in our home. And I feel like what happened, was my nervous system reset. That it was kind of maybe like that transition from the workday. For me, it’s, I work from home. So I don’t have a train ride, which I’m glad, I’m glad not to be commuting. But there’s not that real transition from the workday to the parenting evening. And it’s a nervous system reset. I could just feel myself more present, shifting from doing to being pretty quickly actually and really enjoying it. And like, “Oh, I could do this for a long time.” I actually had this thought that it might be fun to bring the kids out for a sit. You know, it’s like let’s look at the trees for a minute and see what that’s like for them, too.
SERENA CHEN And did they notice you engaging in this mindful observation? Obviously the guava tree didn’t, specifically, but your children might have.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA I remember that evening Vivian thought I was falling asleep. I think because I was looking down into the bath. So she interrupted my meditation with a, ‘Momma, wake up!”
SERENA CHEN So the exercises you guys chose actually came in a pair where you were encouraged to do mindful breathing first, followed by the mindful observation part of the exercise. Did you find that this pairing really helped? Did it make sense to you versus just sort of trying to, for example, go into the mindful observation without having engaged mindful breathing?
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA I really loved the pairing of these two and the order in particular to take the time to meditate. That was, for me, really a time to rest my mind and to allow some of the tabs that were open in my brain to close and to be for a moment. And the mindful observation really felt like presence. So it felt like meditation was about the transition and the mindful observation was about the presence, which is exactly my intention when I’m transitioning home and I’m usually racing through that whole process and not achieving either of those very effectively.
BECKY MARGIOTTA I think for me, it was helpful that they were separated by time and that they were both little mini, small, doable chunks. And I know it should have been longer, but two minutes felt sufficient for me. And there’s like, “Oh it’s just two minutes. You know, I could do this.” I actually said it as a reminder on my app to like, “Okay, two minutes of breathing. Two minutes of observing mindfulness.” And because they were so short in some ways, but also so restorative for me and my own consciousness and my own well-being and became something I looked forward to. It was kind of getting like a mini-break from parenting even to like, “I’m gonna go sit outside for a minute, kiddos!” And it was all fine. I think had it only been one. I don’t know that it would have had the same effect, honestly. The two felt powerful.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA I’ve certainly approached parenting as anytime our children are awake, I want to be 100 percent present with them. And I think what I’m hearing and what Becky is sharing is doing the mindful observation while with them, and in her case, particularly in nature, it gave you permission to step away from our kids and that that’s okay. You know, that presence doesn’t mean being on with them 100 percent of the time. It was that as long as I’m present, that’s of service to the whole. That it’s presence in itself that is the gift and the calming presence for them, even if it’s not, you know, laser-focused on them.
SERENA CHEN Yeah.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA Something I discovered in doing this is, I feel like I’ve been able to be pretty deeply present with our kids on a day-to-day basis. I’ve been able to make that pivot. Where I haven’t been as present has been with Becky, that I am so focused on our kids and wanting to listen to them and hear about their day and build whatever structure they’re building or play whatever game that I’m often kind of putting off connecting with Becky until after they’re in bed, at which point we’re both exhausted and have about an hour left in us of probably something pretty mindless at that point. So what I noticed for me is that I came home and felt much more available for connection with all three of them and that I could say to Becky, “What were the big things in your day? And here are a couple things that went on for me,” because my mind was quieter. So I was able to also have adult conversation. So I just feel like my brain and my mind and body were more able to connect on all levels with the whole family.
SERENA CHEN Thank you so much, Becky and Christine, for joining us today on the science of happiness and sharing your experiences with the practice and in your lives. Thank you.
CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA Oh, thank you so much for having us. This has been a really wonderful adventure.
BECKY MARGIOTTA Yeah. Thank you. And we’ll keep up the practice.
SERENA CHEN What does research tell us when we research tell us about what happens when we direct our mindfulness towards our parenting? More on the benefits of engaging in mindful parenting, up next.
SERENA CHEN The Mindful Breathing and Mindful Observation exercises are among a host of mindfulness practices meant to cultivate present-centered awareness and attention. They’re practices that encourage a nonjudgmental, more open, curious approach to being with whatever it is that we’re experiencing in the moment—like our children’s tantrums.
LARISSA DUNCAN When my child was a toddler having that kind of, you know, pretty typical developmentally normative tantrum experience being exposed to that, my body, you know, naturally produced a physiological stress response, Right? An increase in cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine. And we’ve evolved to be able to do that, you know, that kind of fight or flight or freeze response to survive threats…
SERENA CHEN Larissa Duncan directs the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She’s an expert in mindful parenting.
LARISSA DUNCAN Part of what the practice of mindfulness can do is help us to be more present, to pause and have a moment of, you know, reflection and orientation to what our intentions are as parents between that stimulus of the tantrum and what it’s doing in our bodies and minds, and then choose to interact in a much more thoughtful, intentional way and to be present despite, you know, that elevated stress response that we’re experiencing.
SERENA CHEN Mindful parenting can reduce our stress levels, strengthen our relationships with our kids, and it can make them more trusting to share their thoughts with us. In one of Larissa’s studies, they found that mindful parenting led youth to be more trusting of their parents, and more comfortable talking about the kind of challenges they might have in their peer interactions and other settings.
LARISSA DUNCAN They do have a greater sense of trust that their parents love them and care about them no matter what. So over and over again, I experience and I see in the families we work with the incredible power of apologizing to our children when we’re wrong, of apologizing to them when we have yelled and didn’t want to. And coming back together in that way of acknowledging how things didn’t go exactly how we had hoped they might, can allow us to then make a different choice the next time this arises.
SERENA CHEN If you’d like to try some mindfulness practices yourself, visit our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. Tell us how it went, or share other thoughts, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or using #Happiness Pod.
I’m Serena Chen, filling in for Dacher Keltner this week. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.