Breathing space
Balancing joy with sorrow: a d'var Torah for Shabbat Shachor

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's Nurture the Wow

9781250064943Somewhere in my first year or two of parenthood, it dawned on me -- through the haze of fatigue, laundry, diapers, and tantrums (Yonatan's and mine both) -- that I actually had access to a treasure trove of wisdom that could help me do the exhausting, frustrating, challenging work of loving and raising my kid. It took me a while to realize it, though, because how I was changing as a mom seemed to be taking me away from my tradition's ideas about what spiritual practice is supposed to be. It had been panic-inducing for some time there, honestly, feeling like I was on a boat that was drifting, slowly, from the island on which I'd made my home for almost fifteen years.

And yet, when I looked more closely, I realized that the treasures that had sustained me for so long could nourish me through this new, hard, bewildering thing. In fact, the Jewish tradition (as well as other religious traditions that I'd studied, even if I didn't live as intimately with them) can actually illuminate the work of parenting -- the love, the drudgery, the exasperation, all of it.

That's from the first chapter of Nurture the Wow by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and it is as good an encapsulation of this beautiful, thoughtful, necessary book as any review I could write. (You'll also find a good encapsulation in the subtitle: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.)

From what I just quoted, R' Danya continues:

This fact isn't necessarily intuitive, though, because, let's face it, for thousands of years, books on Jewish law and lore were written by men, mostly talking to other men. These guys were, by and large, not engaged in the intimate care of small children. Somewhere else, far from the house of study, other people -- women, mothers -- were wrangling tantrumy toddlers and explaining to six-year-olds that they really did have to eat what was on their plate. At least, I assume that was what was happening -- again, for most of history, the people who were raising children weren't writing books, so we don't totally know.

This means a few things. This means that a lot of the dazzling ideas found in our sacred texts about how to be a person -- how to fully experience awe and wonder; how to navigate hard, painful feelings; how service to others fits into the larger, transcendent picture -- was never really explicitly connected to the work of parenting. It just didn't occur to the guys building, say, entire theological worldviews around love and relationships to extend their ideas to the kinder -- probably because the work of raising children just wasn't on their radar screen.

Oh, holy wow, do I wish this book had existed when my son was born seven and a half years ago!

Those of y'all who were reading my blog during my early years of parenthood may remember my struggles with exactly these issues. At the very beginning I was too caught-up in postpartum depression (which I eventually wrote about for Zeek). But as the months went on and my PPD was treated, I still chafed against the sense that my beloved religious system seemed to presume that someone else was taking care of the baby so that the (male) person with a spiritual life could adequately pray (see Privilege, prayer, parenthood.) 

R' Danya gets all of that -- intimately, and on every level -- because like me, she was an ardent and engaged Jew before she became a mom. Like me, she had a strong Jewish identity and strong Jewish practice that was rooted in her pre-child life. And then everything turned upside-down, and she did the impossibly hard work of wrestling with the dual angels of parenthood and religious tradition to figure out how to wrest a blessing not from one or the other but from both of them together.

Reading this book, I kept grabbing my pen to underline and make exclamation points in the margins.  It's clear to the reader that R' Danya has a deep love of Jewish tradition and spiritual practice, and she also loves her children and the ways in which being a mom has expanded her capacity for growth and care, and she is not willing to cede either one of those loves. Instead she insists not only that they can inform each other, but that they must -- and that when they do, the rewards are rich and profound.

She writes beautifully about coping mechanisms and chosen family. ("Sometimes it's just about feeling like you're not stranded on an island, but rather sitting at the edge of a beach full of love and laughter and people who are a regular part of your life and adore your kid nearly as much as you do.") She writes beautifully about the covenant we as parents make with our children, and how easy it is to see the Biblical children of Israel as overtired toddlers who need a nap. (I wrote that in a d'var Torah once.)

She writes beautifully about how parenthood can teach us the importance of sacred play... ("Entering into play requires giving ourselves permission...for the game not to be played perfectly and for the money piles to get messed up, permission to be a fool, permission to let it be OK if we get to the bath a few minutes later today.") ... and about what we do spiritually with the inevitable boredom of parenting, because how we work with that boredom impacts the kind of parents or caregivers we aim to be. 

For me the most powerful parts of the book are where R' Danya is writing explicitly about the tensions between parenthood and spiritual practice as defined by normative (male) Jewish tradition, and where she's writing explicitly about the challenges of being a female parent in particular and navigating parenthood alongside what society tells us about who and how women are supposed to be. Citing Luce Irigaray (whose work I remember reading for the first time as a religion major some 25 years ago), R' Danya writes:

When Irigaray said, "The path of renunciation described by certain mystics is women's daily lot," she was being sarcastic. Male mystics made a fuss about giving up freedoms and serving humbly because, for them, it was a countercultural move that produced radical effects. For women, it was just business as usual.

So where does that leave those of us who parent while female? Where does that leave our ego, our sense of selfhood, our real, actual love for our kids, our perhaps sometimes desperate desire to get out there in the world and, you know, do taxes or something, anything to reclaim our sense of being someone other than Mommy? What does it mean for our ego -- and our spiritual potential -- when we enter the crucible of self-sacrifice that is motherhood?

R' Danya's answer is deep, and radical, and resonates with me powerfully: that as some of us who are mothers discover, "our acts of selflessness can actually bolster the self, in a deep authentic way." The Jewish mystical tradition talks about bittul ha-yesh, often translated as "annihilating the self," though Reb Zalman z"l preferred the translation "becoming transparent." That's the kind of bittul I understand R' Danya to mean. Sometimes parenthood can teach us to become transparent conduits for a light and a love that comes from beyond us but also enlivens us and makes us more deeply who we really are. 

And she goes on to say the following, about being truly seen: 

I don't know about you, but there are a few people in particular in my life... who I feel really, actually see me. And when I'm with one or more of these people, I feel able to be the best, brightest, shiniest version of myself. And at the same time, these are the people who kick my butt, both explicitly and not, to be better than I am... Giving just feels different when it's offered from a rooted place of selfhood and connection.

And with my kids, well, more than anyone else they force me to really see myself.

I know what she means about those people in my life who really, actually see me. I know what it's like to feel pulled and pushed and inspired into being the best me I can be, because in their eyes I am already that person (or at least I have the capacity to be that person), and being seen as my best self helps me to live into what those loving eyes see in me. And when I apply that frame to the way I think about relating to my kid, and the way my kid sees me, my whole sense of myself comes into a different kind of focus. 

Toward the end of the book, she writes:

Our growth in this spiritual practice of loving and caring for our children isn't always linear. It's most certainly a "practice" in the true sense of the word -- something we try, again and again and again, sometimes hitting the right notes and sometimes not quite getting there. 

Yes indeed. But the great thing about a practice is that the more one does it, the deeper one can go, and the more thoroughly the practice and the experience of the practice can transform the one who is doing the practicing.

I'm grateful to R' Danya for writing this book, and I recommend it highly to anyone who's interested in parenthood or caregiving and in the life of the spirit, whatever form your spiritual life takes.