Archive | Jewish mother

The Avocado Sushi Dilemma

Some time ago, Dar and I tried a new sushi restaurant in town. Our sushi requirements vary considerably: Dar prefers rolls made out of strange sea life: clams, sea snails, and octopus, while I gravitate to faceless land life, such as cucumber, carrots, and avocado. In this case, while we were adventurous in trying a new restaurant, we stuck to our usual ordering routine. Dar ordered a tako sunomono salad, while I ordered an avocado sushi roll. What we got, however, was far from the safe choices we thought we made. Dar’s tako sunomono had disappointingly-little tako and a whole giant pile of sliced cucumber. My avocado sushi had so much avocado dripping from it, that it could more accurately be described as sliced avocado than a sushi roll.

Sushi takes finesse, balance, delicacy. Even the simplest roll could become inedible by a heavy-handed, inexperienced, or overzealous chef. No wonder becoming a chef is such an arduous process of schooling and on-the-job training. Whether it’s too much avocado, too little avocado, a rotten, stinky avocado, or whatever quality of rice, a sushi chef must tread a fine line in making his or her creations.

In contrast to sushi chefs (who at least get paid for their efforts and who will, in fact, receive compliments when they make an especially yummy roll), parents must walk the fine line of how much avocado to put in a roll without job-specific training or schooling and certainly without ever receiving any positive feedback (except, perhaps, after the children turn the ripe age of forty-five). I am referring, of course, not to making sushi for our kids, but to our efforts to bring them up in the way least damaging to their self-esteem, capabilities, potential, well-being and more. We cook for them, drive them around, help them with their homework, encourage them, pick them up when they fall, and stay up late at night if they have the stomach flu and are throwing up all over the floor. And yet somehow, no matter how much we try, the fine line of how much avocado to put in the sushi roll eludes us. Making the perfect son-or-daughter roll seem as far away as one of Pluto’s moons. Or more.

Raising children, we could argue, is much more complicated than making sushi. For one thing, those darn kids keep changing on us in ways that avocado does not. Things that worked well when they were three are useless by the time they’re seventeen, or arguably, even by the time they turn five. Learning the skills needed to deal with the issues they bring home, whether it be limit-setting, bedtime, homework, interest in boys, getting the first period, drinking alcohol, or learning how to drive, is a constant race against the clock. Before we’re experts in one thing, the kids have already “been there, done that,” and are on to something completely new which we couldn’t have imagined if we tried. We never become experts, instead constantly finding ourselves face-to-face with the limitations of our own knowledge and experience.

Being parents is the hardest job in the world. Sure, there’s moments of gratitude, joy, and satisfaction, but if anyone tells you they never experience the humbling sensation of truly not knowing what to do, well, they’re probably just not paying enough attention… or else, they’re using the well-known and oft-used tool of bluffing their way through it all. We have to bluff once in a while as parents, you know, because just imagine if the kids knew how little we know.

I’ve been thinking about this avocado-sushi dilemma lately, noticing my see-sawing attempts between too much, too little, overripe, and raw to parent my teenagers who are growing (and surprising me constantly) by leaps and bounds. This morning, for example, a grumpy teen rejected the waffle breakfast which she requested specifically last night. Dar has been telling me for weeks now to stop making them breakfast, and yet my desire to please the kids is nearly impossible to overcome. Waffle breakfast turned out to be too much avocado. In contrast, my son who just turned seventeen, told me he did not want to celebrate his birthday this year. I therefore did not put up decorations in the house. No decorations turned out to be too little avocado. But without hardly ever receiving compliments when I do a good job, and always heaps of complaining, how do I even know when I’ve made the perfect roll?

Are we back where we started, with an inedible roll, with an imbalanced, guilt-or-resentment-induced parenting style, or just worried that we’re messing up our kids so badly that we need to start saving for that psychiatrist fund?

I hope not. And in fact, I would like to suggest a different perspective, one that is possibly less concerned with results and feedback and more with faith, trust, and kindness: the mindfulness approach. In the mindfulness approach, how much avocado we put on the roll is not the main issue. Instead, we focus on what it feels like to have put too much or too little avocado (or the wrong kind of avocado altogether) on. Whenever we don’t know what to do, or feel we’re doing it all wrong, we pause and focus on what thoughts and emotions come up, and rather than push the avocado (or situation) away, yell at the waiter and the chef, and stomp back home to write an angry review, we stay with the frustration, anger, sorrow, fear or whatever comes up. The mindfulness approach is not about doing or fixing, but about being. Being with all these difficult feelings and thoughts, our wishes to be better, to do better, our love for our kids, and our desire to be good parents (or at least better than our own). The mindfulness approach isn’t mistake-centered, but kindness-centered. It acknowledges how hard it is to get it right, it stresses the intention, the effort, and what is present in, well… the Present. And it always allows you to start back again from scratch.

Every day is a new day, in the mindfulness approach.

So try this next time you’re frustrated by the kids, or yelled at them, or behaved in any of the multitude of ways that you promised yourself you would never do again:

Stop (that’s already a big step).

Take a few breaths (at least three or five).

Observe what’s happening in your body — are you contracted? overwhelmed with shame? is your belly tight? Is your mind sizzling with thoughts? Is the inner critic in the forefront? What sensations do you feel in your jaw, your eyes, your hands? And though this is really hard, try to stay with these sensations. It is difficult to be with all this, with the contraction, the shame, regret, sadness, anger. Really hard. But stay with the feelings for as long as you can, and remind yourself that you are not to blame. Parenting is objectively hard, and it is normal and natural for these feelings and thoughts to come up. You are doing your best, and you are not alone. We’re all of us doing as best as we can. All us parents are struggling to stay afloat in this parenting pool of thick mud.

When you’ve noticed your heart is back to normal, or when you’re ready to continue, proceed with your life. Make the next son-or-daughter roll again, and again, and again, a million times, even if you’ll never get it just right. And continue to be kind to yourself. This parenting stuff sure is tough.

This practice, perhaps you noticed, has the acronym STOP: Stop, Take a few breaths, Observe your body sensations, feelings and thoughts, and Proceed. And it is, in fact, a practice. We do it again and again, and not in order to get the roll perfect. That is not the point. We do this until it is easier to notice how we feel, what we sense, and what we’re thinking, and then we continue to do it. We do this practice to develop kindness for ourselves, for our children, and for other parents who are suffering like us. We do this to gain some inner (rather than outer) peace, a little bit more perspective, and perhaps, one day when we’re really really old, a wisdom to be kind to our own kids when they too struggle with this parenting stuff.

***Many thanks to Sheri, from whom I learned this practice, and to Julie, who reminded me that breathing just once before observing is not enough.

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Fly, Baby Bird

In the past few months, I’ve been having nightmares about my daughter running away from me. In one, she disappears at an amusement park. In another she climbs out a window, and by the time I run outside to find her she is nowhere to be seen. In this last one, my fiancé Dar cries as we stand by a river, not knowing where to go look for her next. I wake up from these dreams in cold sweat, shaking, completely unable to get back to sleep.

Eden is turning twelve this year, and I suppose this means her river of life is beginning to separate from mine, to make its own path. I read once in an Israeli parenting book, appropriately named Fly, Baby Bird, that as kids turn into teenagers, they wish to become the hero of their own life. Where before parents took center stage (for example, think about how important parents are to a baby), now the child needs to be at the center of his or her own life. Many parents, the author says in the book, have a hard time moving aside and allowing their child to get the limelight, and many arguments and conflicts are the result.

Eden is still transitioning, I think, into teenager-dom. Sometimes she is cranky and impatient with me, and at other times she is affectionate and cuddly, soft and round as a baby. I find myself confused and overwhelmed by these two sides of her, never knowing if I will meet Mr. Hyde or Dr. Jekyl, or even, maybe, which is which. I think my nightmares about Eden running away from  me come from this: the seeing that she is growing up, that she is, in fact, moving away from being my daughter to being her own independent person. And I don’t quite know how to be with that.

The other day, Eden was sick and did not go to school. Later in the day, we went out together for a bit to get some art supplies for a project she wanted to try. On the car ride she rested her head back in the seat and was mostly quiet. I, on my side of the car, could not keep silent. I could see what was happening to me, the insecurity making me act this way, the nervousness about her unusual silence, but I could not stop myself. I commented on everything. I giggled. I laughed. I kept glancing her way. Finally, she could bear no more, and she said, “Ima, what is going on with you? Be quiet.”

For Halloween, Eden and I sorted through pages and pages of costume photos on the internet. She wanted at first to be Annabelle the gory doll, but we could not find a costume for that. We looked through vampires, witches, zombies and more. For the first time we were searching through the teen section, and most of the costumes were extremely sexy, including teeny short skirts and tight tops. Finally, she chose something completely different, a panda costume, of all things. The costume still had a tight top and a teeny short skirt, but there was, in addition, something innocent about it. Perhaps it was the furriness of the cloth or the hoody with its rounded panda face, or perhaps it was the leg warmers. It was more than appropriate, perhaps even perfect, for a girl teetering between childhood and teenager-dom.

Last night, Eden came to show me what she looked like in the costume. True to (confused and overwhelmed) mother form, I did not notice how cute she looked in the outfit or how well she put make-up on her face. The only thing I saw were the unprotected patches of skin above her knees and the short sleeve of the top. “You should wear a shirt under this, and maybe some tights,” I said, completely distracted by my fears that she will be cold. “You have those new tights I got you,” I continued, missing the disappointed expression on her face. “Maybe you can put them under. And wait, I have a shirt for you.” I frantically dug through the dirty laundry (yes, I’m ashamed to admit it, the dirty laundry…) and held out a shirt for her.

Eden stared at me. “Ima,” she said and handed me back the shirt. “You didn’t even notice how I did my make-up.” Then she turned on her heel and left, only throwing at me behind her back, “It won’t look good with a shirt underneath, and I’m not even cold.” Her rebuff passed me by as though it did not happen. I continued to nag her about wearing the tights, any kind of shirt, or taking a jacket with her, predicting without hesitation that she will be cold. I then criticized her choice of wearing sandals as well (again, because she’d be cold), despite knowing very well that she cannot wear her boots with the leg warmers. Only in the car I recollected myself enough to say, much too late, that her make-up did look fabulous. I never once said anything about how beautiful she looked as a panda and what a great choice the costume was. I even neglected to take a picture.

Sounds like the bells of doom, doesn’t it?

Only when I went to bed last night and had a moment to really pause and breathe, did I realize what happened to me. I was so caught up in my fears that I forgot to enjoy the moment. I was almost not present at all. I saw bare skin, not a whole child. Instead of trusting Eden to know what she was doing, I kept trying to push myself to center stage, as though I, somehow, knew better than her how she felt. A belief that was actually never true, not when she was a baby, and not now.

I hope very much that as Eden grows, I will be able to move back, let go of my fears, and allow her to take center stage in her life. This transitional period we’re in now is the perfect time to start practicing this new kind of letting go: allowing her to make more decisions and trusting her that they are the right ones for her, and that, if they are not, she will learn from her mistakes. I always struggle with how much I as her mother need to guide her, and how much it is my responsibility to protect her, but now, as she is slowly beginning this journey into teenager-dom and young adulthood, it is also time for me to shed my need for control, my over-protectiveness, and my desire to guide her path. It is becoming, increasingly, her path, and I’d like to have and to show my respect for it and for her.

In short, I think my job in Eden’s life from now on is, literally and figuratively, that of supporting actress. It is to give support, be there when I’m needed, and move off stage when I’m not. It is to trust that the way I’ve raised her so far will allow her to make good choices, and to hope that she will consult with me in any she is not sure of. And the best way to do that is to show her I trust her, that I support and love her, and that I respect her for the beautiful and independent human being she truly is.

 

“Fly, Baby Bird” comes from the name of a song in Hebrew. You can watch it below:

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Hurray! It’s Summer!

Every year, as the last daSeay of school approaches, I find my excitement level rise. Finally, we won’t have to wake up early in the morning to go to school. I’ll have more time to spend with the kids. We can travel, have fun, relax. The kids dislike going to camp, but that’s all right with me. Hurray, I cheer, more uninterrupted, unscheduled, un-rushed time.

“I’m bored,” my son announces not five hours after we leave the school grounds. “Only seventy five more days till seventh grade.” He sighs with great drama. “I hate summer,” he announces, and as an explanation he adds: “It’s hot.”

Summer is hot. If it were not hot, I, at least, would complain. I love the longer days, the yellow sun shining in the blue, blue sky. I love the smell of sunscreen on people. For me, summer is that long ago time of my childhood, when we went to the beach and hang out in the water for hours, letting the waves carry us up and down. It’s that magical moment when the pool in the nearby kibbutz just opened, and I’d cut into the water first, like a dolphin, watching the ripples breaking the serene surface.

For my kids, summer sure is different. They do not live, like I did, within a ten minute walk from all their friends. The beach is forty-minutes away, and it is not the kindly, warm waters of the Mediterranean that await us there. My parents have a pool in their yard, but without their friends (who spend most of each day at camp), that is sometimes not an attractive option as well.

How can I make summer entertaining for the kids? How can I get them to leave the easy choice of television, computer, or Wii and have a summer the way I think a summer should be?

It turns out that getting the kids to have the summer of my childhood is possible, with a lot of (guess what?) hard work, preplanning and expense on my side. The opportunities around here, after all, are endless: picking strawberries in Watsonville, Great America, San Francisco Zoo, Saba and Safta’s pool, the pool at the JCC, hiking with friends, a camping trip to Point Reyes, San Diego for a week (there’s no lack of what to do over there), a picnic with friends, kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, paddleboarding at Shoreline, a movie or two. And more… so much more.

Would you be surprised if I told you that by the time mid-August rolls around, I am exhausted and longing for school to start?

We live in a strange world, full of exciting opportunities, yet I find myself longing for that somewhat simpler world in which I grew up. I long for our family moments on the Mediterranean shore, for a pool that has no slides coming in and out, for playing outside in the dirt with my friends, riding the bike to the park, or going exploring in the orange orchard next door. But the world is different now, and there’s no use living in the past. And perhaps it’s not that bad to be bored sometimes, or to watch too much television, or work a little harder in order to get together with a friend. After all, it is summer, and whether we work hard or not, we do it for fun.

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The Infinite Degrees of Suffering

Peace, by Eden.

There is a story about the wise men of Chelem who always kvetched about their sufferings. Finally, God told them to pack their troubles in a sack and bring it to the village square in the evening. There, said God, they can exchange their suffering for someone else’s lesser pain. The men did as they were told and came to the square at the appointed time, but when they took one glance at everyone else’s troubles, they quickly picked up their own sack and ran back home.

When faced with a true representation of the suffering of another, the story seems to say, we are likely to prefer our own. Why then is it that we compare our troubles, judge them, rate them on a scale? Is my suffering greater or lesser than yours? Do I deserve more or less pity, empathy, sympathy, or attention? “Beware of Pity,” my mother likes to quote this title of Stefan Zweig’s novel. But is it beware of feeling it? acting on it? or receiving it? And how do I distinguish between pity and a higher sentiment like empathy and love?

“Suffering is,” says the Buddha, words of wisdom which I find myself returning to again and again. Everyone suffers, young and old, rich and poor. We suffer from unrequited love, pains, ills, neglect, injustice, loss. But, true to the saying “The neighbor’s grass is always greener,” I too often measure my suffering against another’s, except, in my case, I usually feel I don’t have the right to suffer. After all, I live a comfortable and convenient life, surrounded by people I love, and mostly enjoying good health. True to the character of the Jewish Mother, I put my own pain at the bottom of the pile.

Our hike in the Galilee where my son got sick

Two years ago, my son got ill on a trip, and I wished to return home. I was dependent on two other families, however, because I had not come in my car. They hesitated, wishing to enjoy one more day of vacation, not really understanding my concern. “I would do it for you,” I said in anger, and one of my friends, who has lost a child a few years before, has not forgiven me since. How can I be so selfish, she said, to spoil the trip for everyone for such a little illness, when she was there, and her own child was dead.

Another view of the hike

I felt guilty but was not sure why. I was (and still am) sorry for my words — knowing her sensitivity and suffering, I ought not to have spoken them. But I also feel for my suffering at that moment and my need to protect my child. When I spoke those words, her years of loss were far from my mind. All I felt was worry for my son. It was our comparative perception of pain which left us both with another sprinkling of suffering. And I still wonder, why did we feel the need to measure which one of our sacks weighed more, or less, at all?

Be a Team Player

In the secrecy of my heart, I’d like to be a lone wolf, complete in myself, free of the desire to please others. I am proud of my eccentricities but also ashamed of them. I have a hard time finding my place in crowded parties, and I enjoy being alone, but not for too long. I want to be an individualist, but I’m also aware of where my character differs, those corners that make me unsuited to becoming a Howard Roark or John Wayne, the perfect lone wolf.

Solo backpacking

As a writer, I sit by my desk and whatever happens — tears, laughter, frustrations — stays between me and my computer, at least for now. I needn’t cooperate with man or woman, except perhaps the characters in my book. Striking out on my own is not just tolerated but expected and preferred. At the same time, I am not writing in a vacuum. I’d like my books to be read and appreciated by an audience. I love the instant gratification of posting a blog and getting a response. I write to find a common ground with others, to discover that I am not so weird after all.

Like a good mama — I’ve established my Jewish-Motherness on this blog yesterday — I’d like my children to be more than I am. I’d like them to be individualistic, to differentiate between what they want and what society wants for them, to know when to say yes and when to say no. But I’d also like them to be team players, cooperative, reliable, and committed, to have that team spirit which I try so hard to have and have yet to succeed. And what better way to find a team spirit, to learn the qualities of working within a group, than through a team sport like lacrosse.

My children, however, appear to have inherited my wolfish traits. They resist any sort of team activity, refuse group after-school activities, and change direction at any sign of competition. I try to explain to them why joining a team is so good, encourage them that they’re talented at playing lacrosse, but nothing. They appreciate the skill that they have, they enjoy lacrosse, but they have no desire to test their skill against others or to use it to support a team.

The path least traveled

I wonder if we’re missing the gene that allows people to work together for a common goal. Reason tells me that an individualist does not have to be the opposite of team player. My emotional, impressionable self, however, the one who read The Fountainhead at far too young an age, does not believe this is true. That part of me resists any tying down. All it knows are the open skies and fields, the path least traveled. And it occurs to me as I am writing this, that if I want my book to be published, I’ll need to guide a group through those open skies, fields and that little-known trail. I’ll have to decide whether to be part of the group — the leader, it’s true — but also a member, open to criticisms, opinions, and good or bad reviews. And scariest of all: open myself to the ultimate risk: that I’ll lead but none might follow.

The Suffering of the Jewish Mother

The combination “Jewish Mother stereotype” generates 47,800 results on google. But what, exactly, does it mean? The definition on Wikipedia, drawn from Margaret Mead’s research on Jewish Shtetl life, describes a Jewish Mother as “a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering she professes to have experienced on their behalf.”

The Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel

Oh dear, that’s not me, is it? Am I the stereotypical Jewish Mother? I’ve given birth to two beautiful and smart children and so I’m a mother. My mother is Jewish, and that makes me a Jew according to Jewish law. But though I’m Jewish and a mother, I’m not sure I’m ready to submit to the stereotype. Is it my destiny to be an overprotective, manipulative, and overbearing mother?

Of course, I am overprotective. I spoil the children with gifts and sweets, and I don’t get half as much respect from them as I would like. I know I am a dominant force in my children’s life, but I’d rather not consider myself overbearing. I hope I don’t guilt them into behaving the way I want them to, but even as I write these words I can see my son’s contrite face after he has done something that disappointed me. And my conscience produces a ton of pangs, that’s for sure.

Treats for Eden’s birthday

My mother did not hover over us, nor was she more overbearing than my friends’ parents, or prone to generating enormous guilt. Every year, however, there was one day on which she amassed enough guilt to last a year: Yom Kippur. My mother religiously fasted on Yom Kippur, refusing even water. Wandering around the house, her head aching, wan-faced and near fainting, she made all of us feel guilty about every single bite of food that came into our mouths. As Yom Kippur wound up, she’d sit with a cup of tea and some toast, the image of righteousness.

Celebrating the last night of Hanukkah

I was never able to fast. An uncontrollable hunger, the likes of which I never experienced on normal days, seized me whenever I contemplated fasting, preventing me from skipping even a late dinner on Yom Kippur eve. My sister sometimes fasted in an effort to decrease her feelings of guilt about our mother’s suffering. My brother, who never ate unless food was placed directly in front of him, probably never noticed the pressure, and my father, who claimed (and still insists to this day) that he doesn’t need to fast because he never sins, appeared to consider my mother’s Yom Kippur agonies an expression of insanity best ignored.

To this day, I’m certain my mother’s purpose in suffering so much while fasting was entirely altruistic: she wanted to ensure that we all of us were written into the Book of Life. We felt the pain of her pain, and I guess, for the purposes of the Book of life, it was enough.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109