5 things about the Gaza flotilla
Another mother poem: full day

The spirituality of parenting

Shortly after Drew was born, one of my rabbinic school friends lent me a copy of Parenting as a Spiritual Journey: Deepening Ordinary and Extraordinary Events into Sacred Occasions by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, who co-created and co-led the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders which I attended last summer. Perhaps not surprisingly, six months went by before I managed to even crack the book. But once I did, I found some really great stuff there.

The first place I whipped out my pen to underline (before remembering that the book doesn't actually belong to me!) was in the prologue, where Fuchs-Kreimer writes:

During those 4:00 A.M. feedings I gradually figured out one thing. All the theology I'd studied would not help me raise my children. But it might work the other way. Raising children might help me learn something about God. Theologians spend most of their time in their studies. But the best ones, I noticed, had done some fieldwork in living. I would do mine in play groups.

I've written here before about how the other chaplains in my CPE cohort used to assure me that rearing a child would offer me the best theological education I could imagine. So far they've turned out to be right, and Fuchs-Kreimer is, too: rearing children can help us learn something about God.

Throughout the book, Fuchs-Kreimer interweaves stories of her own parenting journey with stories from other parents, people who are planted in every religious tradition (and in none), in a way that skillfully highlights the spirituality which can be found in the universal experiences of caring for our children.

Often the stories left me nodding my head in recognition -- like the one about how Fuchs-Kreimer decided one day to make family meals "more spiritual" by insisting that everyone sit down, be quiet, and listen to a prayer. Unsurprisingly, it backfired, and resulted in chaos and yelling and tears. Afterward, she remembers, she and her family talked about what had gone wrong, and found themselves laughing:

Moments of faith rarely come when we expect them, and especially not when we plan them...I could not prepare, serve, and feed faith to my children like home-made, nutritious baby food. But in that moment of laughter, as we moved past anger to the joy of connection, we experienced something larger than ourselves.

Something larger than ourselves: that encounter is at the heart of religious experience, and it can be at the heart of parenting, too.

As a metaphor for parenting writ large, Fuchs-Kreimer tells a story about being on a snorkeling trip with her daughter. As the two of them stood on the deck of the boat, Fuchs-Kreimer was feeling afraid to leap into the sea...until she realized that her daughter was picking up on, and beginning to share, her fear. So she marshaled her courage, took a deep breath, and jumped in. She writes:

As new parents, we find ourselves jumping in over our heads, suddenly granted lifetime tenure in a job for which we have no degree, perhaps have never even taken a course. We have the power to make profound choices for someone else, choices that involve basic values and beliefs.

Jumping in over our heads: yeah, that's about right. We've been making profound choices for Drew from the get-go, and that's only going to continue from here on out.  That's humbling and awe-inspiring when I stop to think about it. But if we can accede to that experience instead of fighting it, I think there's a lot we can learn there.

The book is organized into four basic sections: morning, afternoon, evening, and night. Each of these is further subdivided: the morning section features chapters on power and powerlessness ("Four A.M."), birth ("Dawn,") how we deal with our bodies and our children's bodies ("Getting Dressed,") and experiences of connection within our families ("Siblings.") And so on.

In the chapter titled "Nap Time," Fuchs-Kreimer talks about all kinds of downtime: how parents yearn to rest if only their children would nap (boy do I hear that!), how a Shabbat practice can offer downtime, and the terrifying wisdom of the suggestion that each parent spend half an hour each day sitting on the floor with their child with nothing to "do" other than just being together. The chapter on bathtime focuses on forgiveness. The chapter on bedtime explores bedtime rituals, both traditional and ad-hoc. Fuchs-Kreimer writes about gratitude at dinnertime, how watching the news can give rise to conversations about justice, how bedtime stories help us create meaning. And the book comes full-circle, ending with another chapter titled "Four A.M.", this one subtitled "Hope."

For those who have no organized spiritual practice, parenting can offer one. For those who do have a spiritual practice (or did, before the kids came along), the challenge may be to learn to sanctify the ordinary moments of parental life instead of yearning for the luxury of the kind of quiet contemplation we enjoyed once upon a time. I'm in the second category, which is why I was particularly struck by stories which arose out of that experience. I thrilled to read about other nursing mothers who felt new connection with the God Who nourishes creation, about the father who used to take his infant son to synagogue and hold him on his lap, unable to manage a prayerbook but receiving sustenance from the experience of being there with the baby even so. There's comfort in knowing that I'm not the first to have these experiences or to make meaning out of them in the way that I try to do. I imagine that as Drew ages, and my experience of parenthood shifts, I'll find different things in this book which resonate with me.

In the epilogue I found one of my favorite passages in the whole book:

It is all real. The walks in the woods. The spit-up. The birthday parties. The nights in the emergency room. The anger at the kids for growing up too slowly, for growing up too quickly, for never putting the tops back on the markers. The separations, physical and emotional, premature and long overdue. The drudgery. The exhaustion is real too. And then there is the sheer wonder of it all.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite books about the Days of Awe, Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared (which I wrote about back in 2006.) The same could be said about parenting. It's real, and we're never ready, and we do it anyway. I'm grateful to Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer for articulating some of her truths about this spiritual journey so wisely and so well.