On the morning I was ordained a rabbi, my sense of awe at all I had accomplished and the role that I was taking on was matched only by my sincerest hope not to go into labor right then and there. Turns out, my daughter kindly waited five days after that before making her appearance.
Five weeks later, we left Brooklyn where we had lived for the past eight years and moved to Western Massachusetts. I began my first job as a congregational rabbi when Lola was just shy of 11 weeks old. Like many parents making the transition back to work, I had a lot of anxiety about how I would make it all work. How would I be able to keep up with the demands of a congregational rabbinate while taking an hour to pump each day? How would I meet the spiritual needs of my congregants while functioning on little to no sleep? Would I, as so many working parents fear, “fall behind”?
Recently, my friend Orli LeWinter wrote an article in Forbes about the unique challenges of working motherhood. A high-achieving and hard working professional in the marketing world, she describes the fears that so many women face as they prepare to take on a role that no degree, extra training, or late nights in the office can prepare you for: motherhood.
LeWinter writes, “Now, I’m a mother with two young children. While most of my predictions have come true, the one that hasn’t is that I would fall behind. Because while I am spending far less time working, I’m now twice as good at it. The fact is: Motherhood has made me a better marketer.”
Since reading her reflections on the intersections of motherhood and her professional role, I haven’t stopped considering the analog. I’ve asked myself, has parenthood made me a better rabbi than I would have otherwise been?
The answer is a resounding yes. Why?
1. No focus groups needed.
Like many faith-based communities, our congregation has made it a priority to engage the next generation, including young professionals and families with young children, but at times we’ve struggled to find the right way to do it.
To paraphrase my friend and fellow working mom, “as a card carrying post-bedtime food shopping, meal planning, mind-always-spinning family planner,” I truly get it in a way that I didn’t before. As we seek to meet the needs of young families, my own experience has proven valuable: toddlers at synagogue events? Keep those Shabbat play-sets and coloring books handy. Or, wondering why no families with young children are coming to Shabbat services? Let’s try moving it back further from bedtime. Or better yet—make it on a Saturday morning when most parents (myself included) are thrilled to have someplace to bring their little ones who have already been awake for three hours.
I have also found that my own pathway to parenthood has sensitized me to the broad range of experiences that the families and individuals I encounter have themselves traveled. The experiences of pregnancy loss and fertility challenges are still whispered in barely audible tones in many communities. As a rabbi, I find myself in the unique position of being able to bring individuals and couples together around these issues—not from a remote or intellectual standpoint, but from my own experience.
2. Compassion Calisthenics
Synagogues are filled with all sorts of people—the personalities are diverse and often strong. As a rabbi, I often find myself teaching others that the foundational reason for treating others with kindness and compassion is that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, or, that each of us created in the image of God. But learning what that really means through the lens of parenthood was something new entirely.
As Lola grows, I find myself flexing my “sensitivity muscles” more and more: making me more aware of, and then better able to serve, those who bring their joys and fears, sadness and frustrations, to me as their rabbi, just like my daughter does at home.
Parenthood has also flexed my “patience muscle” in ways previously unimagined. What does this actually look like “on the ground”? Let’s just say that nothing tests the limits of patience and resolve better than a toddler who doesn’t want to fill-in-the-blank-with-a-reasonable-activity-such-as-eat-dinner-or-go-to-sleep.
3. The Ultimate Superhero Knows Her Limits
On a good day at work, I make it through my whole to-do list (i.e. almost never). But more often than not, it’s like that old carnival game of “Whack-a-mole”: Just as soon as I finish a task, two more pop up in its place.
There are days when I am certain I simply cannot do another thing: I cannot sit in another meeting, or write another sermon, or respond to another email. Then, I get home, and there are more “things” to do: it’s bath time and story time and bedtime. In an ideal world, it’s also time to pick up the toys, crayons, and books strewn around the house, time to cook a real meal, do some laundry, or return phone calls. But sometimes, it’s just time to sit down amidst the mess, order a pizza, and call it a day.
Parenthood continually hones my ability to sift through that which is urgent, that which is important, and that which can simply wait for some magical “other time” to do it. More than once, it has been the impetus for deciding to visit someone just home from the hospital or spend an extra few minutes in the lobby talking with a congregant, rather than sitting at my desk and responding to emails. To riff on the old adage, motherhood is the necessity for efficiency, and I would add, for prioritization.
It’s not that the fears and anxieties I had before magically went away or were unfounded. But my perspective has certainly shifted. It’s not about doing it all, all the time. It’s about it doing “it” (whether “it” is sitting with a mourner, or sitting with my toddler on the floor) with love.