There are two sentences that have impacted my parenting philosophy more than anything else I’ve read about raising children. In “The Art of Loving” by psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, he writes, “The Promised Land is described as ‘flowing with milk and honey.’ Milk is the symbol of the first aspect of love, that of care and affirmation. Honey symbolizes the sweetness of life, the love for it and the happiness in being alive. Most mothers are capable of giving ‘milk,’ but only a minority of giving ‘honey,’ too. In order to be able to give honey, a mother must not only be a ‘good mother,’ but a happy person.”
I didn’t have children when I read those words for the first time, and yet, I made a promise to myself that when I did, I would make an effort to be happy, no matter what life threw my way.
A few short weeks after I encountered Fromm’s writing, my then-boyfriend brought up the idea of starting a family, and before we realized the enormity of our decision, there was a wonderful baby boy in our lives.
It took me several more months to see that Fromm was right: my son reflected my emotions as clearly as a shiny new mirror.
As a new mother, I pondered how I could give “honey” to my son. Life doesn’t give us a break just because we have children. I gave birth to my son at the same time that I started a PhD program, and I had a brief maternity leave filled with health problems resulting from my pregnancy. At the conclusion of my studies, I moved across the continent for a postdoctoral fellowship, leaving behind a warm support network of family and friends. Not only was it heartbreaking to leave my loved ones, but work-related relocations would prevent my family from settling down and building a new support network for the next three years.
Was Fromm asking too much? Could I manage to be resilient despite all the upheavals? Could I give “honey” to my child even when life was difficult?
But then, I recalled the happiest person I had ever met: his bright, sparkling eyes shining with life, his wide smile radiating light, wrinkles framing his mouth that revealed years of smiling.
Looking at him, one would think this man hadn’t experienced a day of pain in his life. And yet, he endured more suffering than anyone else I had ever met.
When he was 7 years old, my grandpa Srulik lost his identical twin brother. Only three years later, the Nazis marched into the small Polish town of Nowosiolki and murdered his entire family, leaving him a homeless, penny-less orphan. Then life threw an even bigger curveball his way when he was imprisoned in a Nazi ghetto, where he suffered starvation and disease, and witnessed mass murder on a daily basis.
This would have been enough suffering for one lifetime, but there was more in store for Srulik. After escaping the ghetto, he found himself homeless once again, wandering the forest cold and hungry for another year. Although things did improve for a time after the war, his life never really stopped being hard until the day he died.
Yet, despite all that had happened to him, my grandpa was contagiously happy. He had found a way to appreciate the good in life, enjoy the small things, and be grateful for simply being alive.
Srulik’s love of life and radiant joy affected everyone around him. Whenever I visited him in his small apartment, he lifted my spirits. He always smiled, laughed, and shared a joke. He could see the humor in any situation and find something to be grateful for each and every day. “Even good weather counts,” he taught me.
Grandpa raised his children with abundant “milk and honey.” A few months before he passed away, he told me, “family is the main source of happiness in life… there needs to be peace and friendship. We need to treat children with the same respect and friendship with which we treat adults. When a child misbehaves, it’s important to understand that it is temporary, and that in a few years he will grow into a good person.”
While at first I doubted my ability to give “honey” to my son through all of life’s turbulence, my grandpa Srulik reminded me that it is possible to be happy even when life gets tough.
And now, when I look at my 6-year-old boy who bounces around with excitement, I couldn’t be more grateful. His shiny blue eyes sparkle with life; his laughter resonates with joy just like Srulik’s. Of course, I cannot take credit for all of it. But, I know that my “honey”–my own joy, happiness, and love of life–contributes at least in part to my son’s happiness. I am grateful to Fromm and to my grandfather for teaching me this invaluable lesson on parenthood.