My family and I recently moved across the country and I’m too embarrassed by my kids to make friends.
I realize that sounds really bad. My children aren’t monsters. They’re adorable. They’re delicious. And sometimes they lose their freaking minds. And often the whining, screaming, tantrum-like behavior happens when I most want them to be at their best, like when attempting to take part in organized Jewish life.
Actually, make that Jewish events and at Costco — both seem to be equally fertile tantrum ground.
There was the time at synagogue when my daughter kept trying to run onto and across the bimah, screaming bloody murder when I tried to hold her in place. Or when my son tossed Magna-Tiles across the room at a stranger’s very fancy home during a community Purim party. Embarrassed, we left immediately.
Here’s the worst part of it: I’m a rabbi. I’m the Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area and I interact with families every day. I believe in the value of Jewish community more than I can put into words. There are a variety of wonderful Jewish options here, and a ton of activities for young families — like M’kor Marin, a program we braved that gave us the opportunity to see dolphins. a I want to go. I want to connect with other parents. I want to be part of the community. I want to meet the people who are going to become my best friends for the rest of my life.
But I hold back. Because I worry: What if no one wants to be our friends?
To me, bringing my kids to Jewish programs is equal part excitement and anxiety. I’m so nervous about being judged by other parents and other Jewish professionals that I often opt out of potentially wonderful opportunities. I want to stop being so scared, but I also know there are, in fact, people out there who will look at my little ones with annoyance when they can’t sit still, or when they lie down on the floor during the service, or run around the social hall.
More than anything, I fear coming into your home. An invite to a Shabbat dinner or a holiday party makes my heart race like it does when I watch a suspenseful movie. What’s going to happen? Will my kids share? Will they play nicely? Will they throw something and accidentally cause your great-grandmother’s glass vase to shatter into a million pieces? I don’t know — because they are 2 and 4, and no matter how many times I tell them to take a deep breath and count to five, they still are unable to control their toddler rage.
I think part of the reason I’m sharing this is that, deep down, I’m waiting to hear people tell me I’m a bad mother, that it’s my all my fault. Like I’ve known it all along, and I’m just asking for confirmation of my worst fears.
I also know that, to a large extent, this is about me — it’s my issue. Maybe it’s not about the kids’ behavior but it’s my anxiety and longing to quietly fit in. My husband is not plagued by the worries that tumble through my mind; the fears that prevent me from bringing children to my own events or attending family programs. It’s like putting on makeup before going to Temple — it’s not for God, that’s all I can say.
But also, I think that maybe I’m not the only one in this situation. We talk about welcoming at InterfaithFamily a lot, and I feel like I understand the families I work with so much more when they talk about their concerns. So maybe there are other Jewish parents out there who are holding back from participating because they have the same fears. Maybe we just need our communities to have signs and greeters that say our kids are welcome, just as they are and no matter how they behave.
Maybe synagogues should have “fidget bowls” — containers filled with quiet toys — or soundproof rooms that look in on the service. Maybe they need the service or program leader to acknowledge, in front of everyone, that kids being kids are welcome additions to the evening. Maybe, when someone extends an invitation, they can share details about their home’s toddler-friendliness, so parents can make an informed decision about attending.
Or maybe these things are implied. Maybe these wonderful people and organizations are more welcoming and less judgmental than my fears lead me to believe. Maybe my kids — who are both delicious and monstrous — are just fine as they are.
Maybe. But If they somehow break into the ark and drop the Torah, I’m going to run away and pretend I don’t know them. Just saying.