I’ve been thinking about the kind of mother I want to be since the moment I found out I was pregnant for the first time. Several possibilities usually come to mind: patient, happy, loving, empathic, and engaged (but not too much). These are all wonderful, and sometimes I do pretty well, while other times I miss the mark. But I’ve often felt like my list wasn’t complete, that some quality of parenting isn’t quite captured in my aspirational adjectives.
Then I read the story of an elderly rabbi who was crossing the town square on the way to synagogue to pray, as he had done every morning for years. An angry Cossack policeman yelled at the rabbi, “Where are you going?” The rabbi answered, “I don’t know.” This angered the Cossack even more, who repeated his question again, “WHERE ARE YOU GOING??” Again, the rabbi answered that he didn’t know. At this point, the Cossack was so infuriated that he promptly arrested the rabbi. As he was being pushed into the cell, the rabbi turned and said, “See? I didn’t know.”
I want to be that rabbi–and not just when my daughters ask me the same obvious question over and over again. I want to be that rabbi all the time.
The rabbi has an idea about what he wants to accomplish, but he is realistic about the fact that he might not get there, and he’s ok when his plans are derailed. He remains patient and calm in the face of irrationality, even in times of crisis. The rabbi is aware that ultimately he has very little control over his situation, only over his response to it.
Let me give you an example.
I was getting the girls ready for bed last night, and it was time to brush teeth. In my mind, that meant that F would climb up on the stool, quickly brush her teeth with a little help from Mom, and then R would climb up, let me brush her teeth, and off we would go to bed. That’s not exactly what happened. On our way into the bathroom, F remembered that she had recently figured out how to spit, and insisted on taking multiple drinks of water in order to demonstrate her new found skills to her little sister. Unfortunately, she’s not a very talented spitter yet, and she ended up swallowing the water in her mouth and pouring the water in her cup all over the floor. More than once. When it was R’s turn, she slipped on the wet floor and bumped her elbow, which resulted in several exchanges about whether or not she needed a band-aid, and whether the aforementioned band-aid should be of the Hello Kitty or Dora variety. All before we ever got a toothbrush in her mouth.
It definitely wasn’t a quick walk across the town square. And I wasn’t calm and collected. I was tired, and I got snappy and irritated with my daughters, annoyed that the process was taking so long.
I’d like to imagine that if the rabbi were brushing my daughters’ teeth, he would smile and breathe, unruffled by the minor chaos. He would remember that his job, as a person and as a parent, is not necessarily to get where he is going in the fastest way possible, but to just be in the moment, open to the possibilities, even if they involve puddles on the floor and bumped elbows. The rabbi would know that parenting doesn’t start once you get past the mundane chores; parenting is in each moment, whether you’re brushing teeth or reading bedtime stories.
And so I will try to channel the wisdom and patience of the rabbi. I will continue to have a plan, just as he did, crossing the square on the way to services that morning. Like that rabbi, I will try to hold those plans lightly, aware that my sense of control is an illusion and my plan could change at any moment. Especially when it involves a toddler and a preschooler in a tiny bathroom.