I recently read something I loved in a book about Buddhism and parenting:
Impermanence, the fact that all things change, can be a mother’s best friend.
(BTW, the book is called “Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children,” by Sarah Naphtali–I highly recommend its combination of spiritual wisdom and cute Australian slang.)
It’s so damn true. No matter how real things are in the moment–everything changes. And there’s nothing to drill that truth into you like early parenthood.
Remember how infinitely slow those newborn days felt? (This is where the wonderfully titled “Longest Shortest Time” podcast about early parenthood gets its name–if you haven’t heard it, check it out!)
But now that those days are over, I understand why strangers on the street would see my baby, smile ruefully, and say, “It goes so fast.”
I wanted to thwack them at the moment, because nothing goes fast on four hours of sleep. But in retrospect, I can’t believe that little tiny girl is gone forever, replaced by a walking, talking, joke-cracking toddler.
Impermanence isn’t just for toddlers; I’m changing all the time too. The difference is, I resist. I try to hold on to who I was before, even if it’s impossible, even if it causes me suffering. But Sylvie, at 2, is a master of change. She constantly grows into new versions of herself, letting go of who she was without a second thought. Watching her grow is a lesson in impermanence.
Another lesson is her ever-shifting 2-year-old emotions–that is, if I can manage not to get caught up in taking them too seriously. One minute she’s telling me I’m her cutie pie and complimenting my earrings, and the next she’s in full on tantrum mode because she doesn’t want to put on her socks. (And then does want to put on her socks.) (And then, “NO socks!”)
For Sylvie, whatever mood passes over her is the only reality that exists. But from the outside, I can see that it won’t last. If I can get past the initial temptation to frustration, I can see that her dramatic feelings about socks are actually sort of funny.
Which gives me just the tiniest bit of perspective on my own moods, opinions, and judgments. They sure feel real to me, but I must admit, they do pass…and maybe some of them are even a bit funny.
In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotkha, both God and Moses have what I would consider a bad parenting day.
The Israelites have escaped slavery, but the fun has worn off. They’re tired of wandering in the desert, and complaining that they miss the delicious meat they used to eat in Egypt. Moses, like a stressed-out parent, finally can’t take any more whining, and complains to God that he’d rather die than lead these people. And how does God handle this? By making quail rain down from the sky, then sending a plague to kill the Israelites who choose to eat it.
This is not a pretty story. In fact, it’s exactly this kind of thing that makes people think of God as a vengeful guy in the sky with a white beard.
But reading this as a mother, I think…who am I to judge? I’ve had my crappy parenting days too.
In the Torah, stories take place on a mythic scale, so a bad day means quail raining from the sky and a deadly plague. In real life, we express our parental frustration in (hopefully) more mundane ways.
But it’s pretty easy for me to relate to getting swept up in a rough moment and forgetting about the truth of impermanence. After all, it’s easy to lose it when it seems like a tantrum, or a hard day, or a difficult stage is going to last forever.
My favorite thing about this story, though, is what happens next: nothing. The Israelites keep walking, Moses stays on as their leader, and God stays with them. In the end, this terrible episode is just a blip in their relationship.
Impermanence is, in equal parts, sad and liberating. The things I love won’t last forever–but the things that drive me crazy, break my heart, or just plain hurt won’t last forever either. This is true in parenting and in life. Remembering about impermanence can help through some of the hardest moments of parenting…and their aftermath.
Because even our worst parenting moments don’t last forever. No matter how rough it gets, we can always apologize. We always get another chance to wake up with our little ones and start over…
Until one day they’re all grown up and gone and we’re the person on the street saying to a stranger with a newborn, “It goes so fast!”
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.