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Apr 29 2014

Can Parenting Young Kids Actually Be a Spiritual Practice?

By at 2:15 pm

Sometime during my first pregnancy, or maybe soon after the baby was born, my mother-in-law gave me a copy of “Parenting as a Spiritual Journey” by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kramer. I put the book in a pile with all of the other parenting books I intended to read; some of them I got to as the need arose, and some of them ended up gathering dust, including the one from my mother-in-law. Not surprisingly, my spiritual needs and practices took a back seat to the latest theories on how to feed my girls or get them to sleep through the night.

It’s been almost six years, and I still haven’t read the book. Meanwhile, my parenting journey took an unexpected turn as the stress of parenting took its toll on me and I began yelling at my girls. I wasn’t looking for a spiritual practice, I was just looking for a way to stay calm when my daughters were raging or sobbing or just plain needing more from me than I had to offer.

I had the heart of a social worker and the mind of an academic long before my soul found its home in Judaism, so it’s not surprising that I turned to the social science literature for ideas on how to find a little solid ground again. My research brought me to the practice of mindfulness, to the value of coming back to the present moment again and again, to the fundamental importance of noticing, and then letting go of, the worries and fears and wishes and all the other crazy spinnings of my brain so I can truly see my daughters, and myself, for who they are and what we need. 

Mindfulness has made a tremendous change in my parenting, not only in terms of my interactions with my girls, but how I understand my role in their lives and their role in mine. I am a better mother when I remember to pay attention to what is actually in front of me, rather than getting swept up in how I wish it was or all the ways I could be doing it better. But something has been missing all along, and that something was the connection to my Jewish faith, my beliefs, and my spiritual practice. Beyond the Talmudic injunction to teach my kids to swim, I just wasn’t sure what Judaism had to offer me in terms of my daily struggle to raise my children.

In her Kveller piece and a recent ELI talk, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg brought together these two worlds with just two words: “radical amazement.” In her talk, Ruttenberg identifies three ways in which parenting can be a powerful spiritual practice. First, when we take the time to notice and engage with our children’s propensity towards wonder, we have “the potential to illuminate the most mundane moments of our lives.” We can choose to rush our children through every moment, to hurry them past the flowers by the side of the road that may very well be fairy houses or we can take a moment to drop to our knees and search for pixie dust. As Ruttenberg notes, taking the time to just be with our children, as often as we can, will make our parenting more engaged, empathic, and effective, and fundamentally, more joyful.

However, as any parent of young children will tell you, we don’t always have the time, energy, or desire to stop and sniff the flowers. We get overwhelmed and exhausted, scared and uncertain, rageful and confused. Ruttenberg tells her own story of trying to take care of a vomiting child while her husband was out of town; at one point she was bathing him and all she could do was utter “help me!” I’ve been there so, so many times, but I always assumed I was just being, well, whiney. It never occurred to me that I was uttering a prayer, “an offering of my heart as a gift to the transcendent beyond.” And yet each time we call out for help at the end of a long day, offer a silent thank you for a healthy child, or find a moment to truly appreciate the wonder of being alive and creating life, we are praying. According to Ruttenberg (and my experience), these moments of prayer, no matter how spontaneous or crude they may seem, can be transformative. They can help us get a little perspective on our struggles and remind us that no matter how alone we may feel, “our struggles are not ours to bear alone.”

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, our role as parents and our relationship with our children can bring us closer to God, whoever or whatever we understand Him or Her to be. Ruttenberg quotes Maimonides when she reminds us that “the way to know G0d is to love G0d’s creation.” As a Reconstructionist Jew, I don’t believe that G0d is a grumpy bearded guy in the sky. I believe that God is the connection between us, but it wasn’t until I watched Rabbi Ruttenberg’s talk that I realized that making time to truly see my daughters, to stop what I am doing and listen to their silly knock-knock jokes, discuss whether or not the tooth fairy is real, or hold them in my arms when they are overcome by sadness or fear isn’t just about being “nice” or a “good mother.” Each time I, or any of us, connect with another human being in honest and authentic ways, we are also connecting to God and bringing Godliness into our lives. As Ruttenberg notes, “Our love is the pathway to the divine.”

The thing about understanding parenting as a spiritual practice is that as meaningful and empowering as it is, and as simple as it can be–fundamentally, it’s not about doing anything differently, it’s just about noticing everything differently–it’s not easy. We can get so wrapped up in work deadlines and dirty dishes and overdue bills and soccer sign-ups that we forget to slow down and pay attention.

And that’s the trick to all of it; it’s about re-orienting ourselves so we can let go of the idea of “parenting as this thing that distracts us from real spirituality,” and begin to think of it as a spiritual practice in its own right.

Maybe I should take my mother-in-law’s advice and read that book after all.

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