Archive | parenting

The Chore of Chores

Doggie bowl

Last night, my daughter and I returned home from her Hebrew lesson tired and hungry. Dar was in the kitchen, preparing dinner, and Uri was outside playing lacrosse. The dogs hadn’t been fed yet. Lately, after reading Blessings of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel, I’ve been trying to implement a system of chore sharing in the house. By Ms. Mogel’s recommendation, I’ve been going about it slowly and gently. I did not sit everyone down for a talk to say: “From now on things are going to change around here!” Rather, I’ve been suggesting more participation to the kids when the chance arose.

One of the chores I’ve been trying to shift to them is the feeding of the dogs, which we do twice a day. The entire process take two minutes, and it is a chore which the children are happy to do. All it takes is a reminder that it is time for the dogs to eat, and one of the kids volunteers to feed them.

The kids can do laundry too!

Perhaps volunteer is the key word here. I have not yet formally assigned the job to the kids. I still remind them of the need to do it every morning and every night. Sometimes, like last night, I end up doing the feeding. I find myself overprotecting them with thoughts like: she’s so tired, he’s still playing. According to Ms. Mogel, however, the modern parents’ reluctance to assign chores to their children is equal to withholding from them the blessing of work. We all, Mogel explains, are required in the Bible to take care of ourselves. When we protect our children and allow them to escape chore-free, we’re going directly against the will of God and taking away from them the opportunity to learn how to take care of themselves and others.

My inability to follow through with the assigning of chores exists partly because I see it as an extra chore for myself. I know I will be responsible for reminding them to do the dishes, clear the table or feed the dogs. Attaching consequences to incompletion of tasks adds yet another layer of responsibility. Now I need to follow through with those! I also, however, see the benefit of having the children participate more in the everyday doings of the house. I feel more appreciated and loved when I receive their help. I enjoy spending time with them when they help me cook or set the table. And they, I think, feel more connected, more grounded in the reality of our life.

Eden has been known to wash the dishes

There are other chores, responsibilities, which I’d like my children to assume eventually. I would love it if they cleaned their room, practiced their instruments more, walked the dogs and cleaned after them. These are duties to aim for, and I understand that they cannot be accomplished in a one-day coup.  I also have some empathy for myself. As it is I work quite hard to get the house functioning well, and adding the chore of chores to it: policing the children’s execution of their duties, adds yet another strand of straw to my camel’s back.

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?

The Blessing of Love

The first time I remember listening to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and really hearing the words was when I watched the movie Love Actually. Perhaps the movie had something to do with it, or the song, or books I have read, but for many years now I have been a one-solution woman. For every situation, from raising chickens to potty training the dogs to the academic progress of my kids my solution has always been love.

I believe in the power of love. With my dog Percy, I watched as he softened, calmed, settled into our home. I experience the same effect with my children, family and friends. Love works, but not always dramatically. Sometimes, I thought, love is not enough.

Love was not enough when I realized that instead of respect I receive complaints, anger, and frustration from my children. I know they express negative emotion at home because they know they are loved. I, however, end up feeling under-appreciated. I needed help, and I found it with Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

Mogel divided her book into nine blessings: acceptance, someone to look up to, skinned knee, gratitude, work, food, self control, time, and faith. She supports each blessing with teachings from the bible, showing how the three principles of Jewish living, moderation, celebration and sanctification, help in parenting.

While reading, I identified some of my parenting mistakes and potential ways to correct them — in moderation, of course. In the Blessing of Acceptance and the Blessing of Self Control, I learned about accepting my child’s temperament and reframing their most annoying trait as their strength. Mogel gives the same warning about perfection that I hear from friends and other experts: stop pressuring myself, forget perfection, enjoy ordinary moments.

In the Blessing of Having Someone to Look Up To and the Blessing of Work, I found how important it is that I be the head of the house and that I assign the kids chores. I had a hard time assigning chores to the kids because they move from house to house and because I felt that policing them into doing the chores was harder than doing the chores myself. It did not occur to me that for my children chores are a blessing indeed, a way to feel more grounded and settled at home when they return from their father’s house. Mogel emphasizes making little changes, not sitting the kids down and announcing that things are going to change from now on. I’ve been implementing changes slowly, encouraging the children to help me with cooking, setting the table, feeding the dogs, and looking after themselves (which Mogel says is a mitzvah — a good deed).

In the Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Mogel reminded me to stop overprotecting the kids, let them make mistakes and learn from them. I am one of those parents who will rush to retrieve a forgotten lunch, book or backpack. Mogel says: let them discover the consequence of their actions so that they learn.

Mogel points out in the Blessing of Time and the Blessing of Longing the importance of finding time to connect with the kids and appreciating little moments. Hand in Hand Parenting calls it special time. Gratitude, Mogel says, must be cultivated. It is so easy to slip from expressing appreciation to thinking about what I don’t yet have or what I fear. In the Blessing of Faith, Mogel talks about the first time she saw a double rainbow with her daughter. The two held hands and recited the Shehecheyanu, the prayer for special moments. I loved how in one instant, Mogel and her daughter experienced three blessings: gratitude, being in the moment, and a connection to God.

Wendy Mogel’s book added many tools to my parenting toolkit, and what I love most about it is that none of them ended up being heavy. By emphasizing moderation, Mogel makes each and every one of her recommendation accessible to all of us. By advocating celebrating our children, ourselves, ordinary moments, and the holidays, she opens up a world of enjoyment in parenting. In the overarching umbrella of sanctification, she tells us not to forget the preciousness of it.

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.

Night Owls in My House

Eden’s night owl

My two kids come to life after dark. At 9pm, they eat cereal and ask me to read them a book. They research historical figures like Snowflake Bentley or Mae Capone. They search for countries and places on Google Earth like ancient Troy and the islands of Canada. They discuss the possibility of life after death, share their feelings about the divorce, or tell me stories about their day.

At 10pm I remember that much though I enjoy their company, I want to go to bed. I herd them to their rooms and breathe a sigh of contentment, just as if I don’t know what’s going to happen next. From one room, a call: “Ima, come. You forgot to tuck me in bed!” Rounded arms snake out of the blanket and capture my neck. “Ima, stay with me.” And so I sit there, hugging, hoping that the stronghold round my neck will weaken with time, but it doesn’t. I tell the little one that I am also tired. I also want to go to bed. I take two steps, trying to ignore the complaints behind me when “Ima, come!” sounds from the other room: “I’m afraid of dying,” or “can we fly somewhere this summer,” or “which football team is your favorite?”

View from my office window

At 10pm no football team is my favorite, I don’t want to go anywhere, and for all I care death can come and take me. All I want, at 10pm, is to go to sleep. I am not a night owl. My brain stops working at 7. I am that strange form of human being: the morning person who wakes up with the first rays of the sun and bounds out of bed, ready for all manner of fun. I am most alive at 6 in the morning. I love the fresh morning air, the pinkish tint of the sky, the dew that covers the plants, the chirping song of the birds.

What to do, when two such extremes live in the same house? Patience and shouting, the two solutions I have tried, do not work. They feed off each other and make no change in the children’s behavior. I shout, they cry, I vow to be more patient. I’m more patient, they stay up later, I shout, they cry, and I vow to be even more patient. And before long it’s eleven, I’m about to fall off my legs from exhaustion, and the likelihood of patience the next day decreases with every tick of the clock.

Morning light hits our hill

I sit with my two night owls who are interested, creative, and eager to play in the middle of the night, and my gratitude for this special time knows no bounds. I go to sleep late and wake up early, and my head feels ready to fall off my tired neck. They go to their dad, and I get rest for one night before I start missing them and wishing they already came back. And so it goes, again and again. My favorite little night owls.

Repainting Body Image

In the early morning, I had a dream. I threw away my bad opinions about my body and decided: I accept the body I have. I felt elated when I woke up, but staring in the mirror, I saw the same saggy middle with the wrinkles, a gift from those two pregnant bellies that also gave me my two wonderful kids. Reflected to me was the same face, the furrows splitting my forehead and the one right between my eyebrows that makes me look like I’m concentrating all the time. I saw the same feet and hands, eyes and nose. I began to have the exact same critical thoughts as before. But then I said: enough. It’s all good.

My nine-year-old daughter recently began to say she was fat. Hearing her say those words terrified me. “Why would you say that, my little angel? How can you think you’re fat?” I asked, and my voice trembled as thoughts of anorexia, bulimia and other obsessions invaded my mind. “Oh, I’m not fat fat,” she answered, “but I have a big belly.” And she pushed out her middle so it stuck out of her body like a toddler’s belly. I looked on with bafflement, not knowing what to say or do.

We are different, Eden and I. I dress in my hiking or gym clothes every day. I rarely put on jewelry and never any make-up. Eden, in contrast, loves to dress up. She takes a long time to choose what to wear to school in the morning. When we go to Shabbat dinner at my mom’s, Eden will often put on make up, lipstick and powder which she found in my drawer and appropriated for her own use. Her jewelry box overflows with necklaces and bracelets which she wears on a regular basis.

I’d have thought that she would not consider me a model for fashion sense or body image, considering how different we like to look. But I guess that though her choices of dress are more elaborate than mine, the way I speak of my body filters down to her and gives her ideas for criticisms of her own. Turns out that Vera, my esteemed pilates teacher, was right when she said (in response to my comment that I look fat today): Would you want anyone to say that to your daughter?

I don’t. And that’s why I’m making a commitment to myself and to my dream to be better at accepting myself as I am, to appreciate the beautiful body in which I was born, the only one that I have in this life. I will no longer complain of being fat or wrinkled or old. And maybe I’ll dress up a little nicer once in a while. Or put on a necklace. Or allow Eden to brush some powder on my cheeks and spread some lipstick on my mouth.

What do you do to accept and appreciate your body?

Independence and the Absent Mother

Yesterday afternoon I sat by the kitchen table and cried as I finished reading Sharon Creech’s middle-grade novel Walk Two moons. I had picked it up the week before in a used bookstore. On the back cover, a quote from the School Library Journal promised “A richly layered novel about real and metaphorical journeys.” I started reading the novel wondering what it will be like.

Sal, the narrator, tells of the trip she took with her grandparents to Lewiston, Idaho to see her mother who had left on a bus trip a few months before. She promised to return but hadn’t. Sal hopes to arrive on or before her mother’s birthday and to convince her mother to come back home.

As they drive, Sal tells her grandparents the story of her friend Phoebe and her family who are all “thumpingly tidy and  respectable.” Sal describes Phoebe’s mother as “ Mrs. Supreme Housewife” and her father as “Father with a capital F.” But Phoebe also notices that underneath her enthusiastic baking and cleaning, Phoebe’s mother is unhappy. When Phoebe’s mother disappears with merely a note promising to return in a few days and a freezer filled with prepared meals for her family, Sal has a bad feeling. It is her experience that mothers promise to return but don’t.

Another friend, Ben, lives with his uncle and aunt, with no mention made of where his family is. Three absent mothers: Sal’s mother, Phoebe’s mother, Ben’s mother. And questions abide. Why did Sal’s mother stop writing to her? Why did she leave? How could she leave? And as a mother, I could not help but feel upset. Why all these absent mothers? How could Sal’s mother, who so clearly loved her, leave her? What is this story teaching children? I asked myself. That mothers are not to be trusted? That they can leave any moment? That mothers are inherently unhappy being just mothers? That if the child does not notice the mother’s unhappiness, does not appreciate her, then the mother might leave?

In children’s literature, parents are often missing: dead, or emotionally unavailable. This allows the main character to solve problems on his or her own. Thus Harry Potter is an orphan and his adult helpers either die or are incapable of helping him. Taran, of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, is an orphan. The children going to Narnia live apart from their parents (and Aslan either is not present or is presumed dead). In the novels, these characters move from youthful dependence to independence. But at what cost? 

Sal’s story takes her on a journey halfway through the United States and inside her own heart, through anger, guilt, denial, fantasy, and finally acceptance. I cried at the end, and I forgave Sharon Creech for the missing mothers. And yet my question remains: could we as writers find a way to allow our young characters to grow with the support of a family behind them?

What do you think?

Good Mornings

This morning was perfect. I woke up before my alarm rang and took the dogs for a brisk walk up and down the hills near my house. Breakfast, prepared by Dar, included fresh-squeezed orange juice, eggs, waffles and fruit. I cuddled with Eden through the school’s  T’filla, the morning prayers, and now I am sitting at a nice cafe, writing to you. Perfect!

Sunrise from Bear Mountain at Coe

Mornings are my favorite time of day. I love the lightness of the air before the sun rays strike. I love the slight chill, left over from the night. I feel alive in the morning, vibrant, energetic, calm. The children, sadly, disagree. They like to go to sleep late and wake up even later. Especially on weekdays.

Lately I have taken to waking Eden with a song. “Little rhinoceros,” I sing to her sleep-puffed cheeks and determinedly shut eyes, “Wake up, little one. The sun is shining! The deer are running! Wake up little rhinoceros, wake up!” So far my songs have failed to convince her to awaken. From deep in her blankets, Eden commands me to hug her and tries to convince me that it is best for her to sleep for a few more hours. I remind her to wake up till finally, grumpy and cross, she rolls out of bed, all memories of our hugs and my song gone.

Pink-tinted sunrise at Coe as I start hiking down

She sits at the table, a veritable volcano in her pink pajamas, waiting for me to say one more word so she can explode. But what can I do? She needs to eat, get dressed, brush her teeth, put her folder back in her backpack, put on her shoes, and tell me what she wants for snack. Trembling with trepidation, I attempt to steer the little rhinoceros, my Karnafon whose nickname so fits sometimes, to do what I want so that we can get to school on time, hoping against all hope that like Scheherazade I will live to tell the tale for another day.

Uri likes to sleep late too, but he wakes up right away, gets ready down to his shoes before he sits down to the table to eat the meal which he ordered the night before. He often puts his alarm on for a much earlier time than I like. He may not be happy about rising with the sun, but getting to school in a timely manner is important to him.

I try to create a morning routine, thinking that order and clear expectations will bring about an easier morning. But Eden is a creative type. If she’s already up and not too grumpy, she wants to draw, dance, sing, tell stories. But there’s no time on a school morning for all that.

I haven’t found a solution yet, if one even exists. Sometimes there’s too much prodding and scolding in the mornings at our house. But other times, like today, there’s mornings full of love. Ups and downs. Like the hills. Like life.

What’s your morning routine like?

Countering the Anxiety Wave

Last night as I got ready for bed, anxiety slunk into the room, a menacing shadow. I had had fun five days with the kids, enjoying Eden’s birthday, a beach outing, and a special day with Eden rock climbing at the gym. The kids were sleeping peacefully in their beds, and yet I felt overwhelmed by terror at their next-day impending departure to their father.

Every muscle in my body screamed to jump out of bed, go to the computer, read a book, watch a movie, anything so that my mind would not fester with paralyzing thoughts about my failure as a parent, irresponsibility about money matters, or my bogged-down writing. I tried to describe my feeling to Dar. “You should do something about it,” was his practical response. “You should try to spend less money.”

My first reaction: You’re judging me!?! Then I tried to understand my upset. In the last few years I’ve done much to become more financially responsible. Chris comes once a week for an hour, keeps records of my spending, and generates monthly reports. I realized that I actually feel good about how much my attitude to money has changed.

Parenthood is a more touchy topic. I try to cram 365 days’ worth of love into 182.5 days with activities, one-on-one time, moments of listening, and homework. I give emotional support and take care of the children’s physical needs. Is it any wonder that I hardly ever succeed in giving the children everything that I would like to give? I reminded myself of the Hand in Hand class I recently took, the parenting book I am reading, the special times the children and I shared, the fact that I’ve been more patient with them. I feel good about how much I’ve grown as a parent in the last few years.

My negative thoughts almost disappeared. But what about my writing? Am I not exactly where I was ten years ago when I began? I finished one novel and started several others. I received one full manuscript request (no answer yet). I attended several conferences and received encouraging critiques. I took writing classes and interacted with writers. I started my blog. Without doubt, I am in a different and better place than I was ten years ago.

The shadows, the terror, my anxiety, all melted away. I felt better able to breathe. I had just had a moment of enlightenment. Instead of judging myself, I had taken an appreciative look at what my achievements were and found pride in my work. I am not at the beginning of my way to become a writer, a parent, a financially responsible adult. I am well on my way and will continue throughout my life. I thanked Dar for listening to me and closed my eyes, feeling relief, gratitude, and contentment. I fell asleep, sleeping the sleep of the just.

What tricks do you have to relieve anxiety?

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109