Big, frum families are a glory.
Here you have a mother pushing two babies in a carriage, with six older children holding on. It’s the most beautiful sight one can imagine.
Now, this woman is a plain woman to the outside world.
She’s dressed simply, she’s looks harried – of course she does; she has her children on her mind. She’s worried about them. She’s thinking about supper, and bedtime, and cleaning the house, and this child’s problem, and that child. She’s running a big operation, a big company, and has a lot on her shoulders.
So to the outside world, this woman is not the personification of the beautiful woman, of the perfect woman.
But to us, those who see the world through the eyes of Hashem, there is nothing more beautiful and more perfect than the mothers of our people.
That’s the genuine beauty!
Here's a gem from Rav Avigdor Miller's dvar Torah for Parshat Vayetzei:
In the frum world, people like to romanticize the Yiddishe mama who enjoyed nothing more than tending to her mikdash me'at, her home and family.
And this was true about some women, but for others it was a mix of ups and downs with regard to how they felt.
Since time immemorial, women based their identity on their roles as mothers and wives. (Case in point: In the not-so-distant past, American wives registered themselves as Mrs. Wayne Johnson, and so on.)
Marriage and parenthood were important goals in both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds for both men and women.
In the Jewish world, unmarried women and childless women were pitied (as were unmarried men and childless men, for that matter) and they themselves experienced deep anguish from their lack of spouse or lack of children. Anything that interfered with an upcoming wedding (such as a missing dowry, etc) caused a crisis. Jews invested copious prayers and blessings from tzaddikim to change an unmarried or childless state.
Yet things changed in the last couple of generations.
And no matter how hard they've tried, many frum Jewish women end up feeling frustrated at not being able to recapture and fulfill the romanticized image erected on the pedestal of pa'am (the olden golden days of yore).
When frum women turn for guidance, they're often told "things have changed" and "today's women just can't be satisfied being housewives."
And with that, women are encouraged toward careers and all sorts of pastimes (there's a chug for every inclination!), all the while being reminded to "put family first."
Yet this never made sense to me.
If a women's innate nature has always found joy and satisfaction in being elbow-deep in scrubbing soiled cloth diapers against a washboard or cooking over coals or dealing with all her family in a home of just one or two rooms and finding fulfillment in dealing with toddlers all day, then why can't we recapture that?
After all, it's innate NATURE.
Could it be that innate nature changed so much?
But after talking to people who actually lived in such times, reading memoirs and autobiographical anecdotes, and looking into Chazal, I realized that nature hasn't changed.
Focus has changed. Values have changed.
But maternal nature actually hasn't.
Whenever given the choice and the financial capability, women almost always chose to delegate their responsibilities to hired help.
True, sometimes a woman performed a chore herself IF she felt the hired help wouldn't do it properly. But barring that, women delegated their responsibilities to others.
Wealthy women even delegated feeding to wet nurses.
So if the above are true (and they are), then what of the airbrushed picture of the frum Jewish housewife living in poverty, her heart brimming with joy in her duties?
What Changed, Exactly?
First of all, if you grew up as 1 of 8 kids in a hut in 19th-Century Poland, then that was normal life for you. In fact, your initial years of marriage (with just you, hubby, and the first couple of babies) may even have felt like a break after having grown up crammed with so many other people in such a small space and all the work that entailed.
You may have sometimes dreamed of a nicer home with servants, but that wasn't so realistic, so you just made do with what you had -- which is exactly what you were used to anyway AND exactly how everyone around you lived.
So you did what you were raised to do and what everyone around you did, and you tried to do it with a good attitude.
Although not everyone managed to keep a smile on their face.
In her autobiography, Gutta: Memoirs of a Vanished World, Gutta recalls sympathetically the impoverished Jewish woman who lived in cramped airless conditions with little light and extracted little with which to nurture their children.
In fact, a major part of Gutta's work as a Beis Yaakov teacher was to provide her more impoverished students with the nurturing, affection, and attention they lacked at home.
Another autobiography hinted at how a constant state of hunger challenged the middot of an otherwise loving mother, noting that when the family's economic standing improved, the mother was much calmer and more pleasant.
But either way, this is radically different than today's world.
In Western society today, people don't necessarily grow up with children around them. Four children is already considered a big family by many people today. Some girls babysit, but a lot don't.
I didn't say that people don't grow up with babies or small children at all, but it's certainly not how it used to be.
Today, you don't spend your life with there always being a baby or toddler around. And even if your immediate family didn't have a baby or toddler around, your extended family members and your older married siblings did.
Particularly coming from the secular world, many new mothers need to be taught numerous tasks that you see preteen girls performing for their younger siblings in the frum world.
Another difference is attitude.
Many women feel that the chores, the cooking, and the demands of their children are demeaning somehow.
Yes, women of yore also felt exhausted and frustrated by it all. They may have wished they could afford a cook, a nanny, and a housekeeper. But they didn't feel like they should be doing something "better." Particularly for frum women, what was better or more important than your home and family?
If you've grown up with just one or two siblings (and each of you in your own room, naturally), and everyone occupied in various ways with toys and gadgets and videos, and without any cultural emphasis or appreciation of housework and child care, then entering into marriage and motherhood presents quite a challenge.
It's nothing you're used to.
Adding to that is that American society is not a child-oriented society. For all its safety regulations for children and promotion of the health and happiness of children, it's really not child-oriented. I only noticed this once I'd entered the frum community in America and then when I came to Israel, which is a very child-oriented society. After seeing this difference, I realized that America really isn't into children and doesn't really know how to relate to them or to mothers. Of course, there are some exceptions, but in general, America is not child-oriented. (Also in contrast to American society, I think Russians are child-oriented, culturally speaking. Maybe in a different way than Israelis are child-oriented, but Russians still have more of a child-orientation than most Americans.)
Anyway, I'm not even sure "child-oriented" is the exact term to describe what I mean, but I hope you understand what I'm trying to say.
Of particular concern are today's teens who spend so much time on their phones in their rooms. Studies show that today's teens are less likely to go out to even traditional fun events for teens, like shopping, getting a drivers license, partying, and more. Because of diminished physical interaction, homicide is down among teens -- but suicide is up.
After spending a good chunk of your life on your phone in virtual relationships, how will it feel to get up at night for a child or to read books together or deal with potty-training and spoon-feeding or driving to pick up groceries, buy baby clothes, or take a child to the park? How will it feel to have to coordinate life with a spouse?
Because of this drastic change in cultural norms, many women find housework and motherhood overwhelming.
They simply aren't used to it.
It doesn't feel right.
On the contrary, it may even feel all wrong.
Cracking the Myth of the Never-Working Woman
Surprising truth: There have always been working women, including working mothers.
No, not in droves as they do today. And not with the variety of employment opportunities women enjoy today. (Men, for that matter, also enjoy a far wider variety of employment opportunities than ever before.)
But there have ALWAYS been women who earned money and engaged in work outside their family responsibilities.
In Caddie Woodlawn, Caddie's mother raised turkeys to sell every November, usually making a nice profit from that.
Almanzo Wilder's mother turned a nice profit by selling her butter.
As a married woman herself, Laura Ingalls Wilder attempted to supplement the family income by selling her own butter and eggs. Later, she wrote articles for a local farm publication and then her bestselling books.
Women worked as nurses, midwives, seamstresses, laundresses, helped their husband run the family store, taught school (as long as they weren't married), babysat, helped their husband with his business (sometimes as a full and very successful partner, including successfully taking over the business if the husband died or was incapacitated), and more.
In addition, working women are mentioned in Chazal.
The Working Woman of Valor
In the famous section of Mishlei, Eishet Chayil (A Woman of Valor), Shlomo Hamelech describes a woman who makes a sheet and sells it in Mishlei 31:29.
Metzudat David explains it to mean a woman who makes sheets for her own needs, then sells the surplus.
Ralbag describes a woman who made sheet, which she then passes on to a merchant to sell on her behalf in order for her to acquire capital buy "all that her soul desires."
Malbim explains that she wove both a sheet and a belt, which she then sold to a merchant. Then she distributed her earnings to the poor, creating for herself spiritual garments to don when she eventually leaves her physical garments, enabling her to indeed be "clothed in oz and hadar and laugh on her last day." (Nice peirush, eh?)
The Ben Ish Chai also recommends that women who earn their own money use it to ease the financial burden of her husband (by buying her own cosmetics and personal needs) and distribute money to the poor.
Prior to that verse, 31:16 describes a woman who examines a field and purchases it. Metzudat David, Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, and Malbim all explain this to mean an intelligent business woman, and interpret the following verses as proof of her financial acumen and success (i.e., the yield of the field is good, and which enables her to acquire a vineyard, etc.), which allows her to ease things for her husband and provide for the poor of her community.
Both the Malbim in 31:18 explains that she works for her actual needs, without making a career out of it. Malbim says: "Gam lo tiyached mischara rak b'avor ha'arev v'hamo'eel l'tzorech atzmah" -- She won't make the business something special and stand-out (tiyached is like meyuchad), just what is pleasant and useful for her specific needs.
Metzudat David 31:19 explains that even as she puts her mind to business, mikol makom lo zazah mimalechet nashim -- nonetheless, she doesn't move on from women's work; she still tends to her domestic duties.
Interestingly, the Sages advise/assume that a married woman's earnings go toward her own needs (so that she can ease her husband's burden) and toward tzedakah & gemilut chasedim.
This apparently is their ideal for the working wife & mother of valor.
Real Stories of Domestic Struggles
In Colonial America, Massachusetts midwife Martha Ballard kept a diary during the years 1785-1812.
Martha only started midwifery after her own childbearing years were long past and she could rely on her young adult daughters to run the home while she was at a delivery. After those daughters married, Martha relied on hired help, which was not nearly as reliable as her daughters.
Based on what she describes in her diary, Martha prefers gardening and delivering babies to housework.
This is clearly not an influence from the feminist movement or modern mores, but an innate personal preference.
In fact, many modern women can relate to her description upon returning home in 1796 from her 612th delivery:
“I returned home and find my house up in arms. How long will G-d preserve my strength to perform as I have done of late, He only knows. May I trust in Him at all times and do good...May He give me strength...”
"Up in arms" paints an image of a house weaponized against its owner. One pictures Martha arriving at home only to encounter unfolded laundry aiming a shot gun or dust bunnies armed with tomahawks.
Two years later, she again wrote of coming home at 10 a.m.:
“...find my house alone and in arms. Did not find time to sit down until 2 p.m.”
Yet another time, she was called for a delivery in the middle of butchering a calf. She came back a day later to find the kitchen still a bloody mess with the calf head lying where she left it. Neither her husband nor her 2 sons still living at home had tended to things in her working absence.
Due to the strenuous journeys Martha sometimes needed to make to arrive at a delivery on time, she noted that she arrived at work "almost fatigued to death."
The above are probably familiar sentiments for some working wives or mothers.
Yet while Martha found domestic duties a burden, she still felt they were important.
One of my relatives, born in the South at the beginning of America's Civil War, wrote a long poem in 1934 about her struggle to face the daily question of "What's for dinner?"
Here are 3 excerpts from that poem (the original contains a stanza for each day of the week):
The Dinner Question
She preceded feminism and even WWII's Rosie the Riveter. So she wasn't affected by feminist thought or attitudes. Like a lot of us, she finds dinner a challenge, made even more challenging by the more labor-intensive preparation necessary before modern appliances became common.
However, she didn't find it demeaning or unfair. She just didn't feel up to all the time, especially as she aged -- and especially on days packed with other labor-intensive demands, like laundry day.
So the modern working woman who doesn't feel like putting together dinner after a hard day's work isn't so different than this old-time Southern woman who also didn't feel like putting together dinner after a hard day's work.
Don't Give Up!
What's the point of reading all this?
Well, I feel like women today can end up feeling second-rate.
Not because of the new and worse value system or emphasis or focus.
Focus and values CAN be changed. It takes some work, depending on your personality and background influences, but they can be changed.
But many frum women feel second-rate because of their actual feelings.
There's a fairy tale that women performed all their domestic duties with a song in their heart and a dance in their step, with Jewish women practically swooning from the uplifting holiness of working in their mikdash me'at.
Yes, women experienced fulfillment.
Yes, there were aspects they enjoyed.
And yes, their domestic responsibilities were important to them.
But again, that doesn't mean that they never felt overwhelmed, exhausted, fed up, or frustrated similar to how you feel sometimes.
And whenever possible, they usually hired someone else to fulfill these duties.
(Although it's important to note that even when a mother hired a nanny or a wet-nurse, the mother was around. She was able to oversee both her child and her child's caretaker. Passing one's very young child into another's care - especially into a group situation - AND being far from them is a modern construct.)
You're not second-rate or "not good enough" because you struggle to feel the holiness of mopping your floors or because you're desperate to hire someone else to clean the bathrooms or because you send your 2-year-old out to gan.
You're not second-rate or "not good enough" because you prefer reading a book to making dinner.
You're not second-rate or "not good enough" because you feel the need for a paying job in addition to your domestic responsibilities. ("Zamama sadeh v'tikachehu..." 31:18)
Like I said, FEELINGS haven't changed much over time.
I think that because women are taught that their feelings make them second-rate, it's part of why it is so hard for some women to invest in their families and homes.
They think that "things have changed" and are impossible to resolve.
So why even bother trying?
Therefore, this post is here to VALIDATE your feelings.
You're actually not so different than the women of yore.
Nor are you hopeless.
Then vs Now: The Conclusion
So to sum up:
Finally, there is a world of difference between feeling like you want servants or nannies because you're tired, overwhelmed, and don't enjoy the work...and feeling like you want servants or nannies because the job just "isn't for you" or it's beneath you and you should be doing something "better" and "more important."
Do you see the difference?
Modern feminism inserted the "more important" bug into women's brains.
THAT'S the attitude that's changed.
This is really late to be posting about praying for the upcoming school year (which starts on Sunday for many frum children), but here it is anyway (because I forgot until now):
A Short Yet Powerful Tefillah for Our Children
How Praying for Your Child Can Work
May all our children enjoy a school year brimming with bracha and hatzlacha and good health!
It's funny (and hopefully surprisingly pleasant) how things work out sometimes.
For example, school vacation is often a bit of a challenge for me (as it is for many parents). Yes, there are a lot of fun and geshmak moments, but stressful stuff happens too.
So I wasn't sure how this summer vacation would go.
For the past few years, some or all of my older kids like to stay up most of the night during vacations. But their talking and moving around the apartment sometimes woke me up or even worse, woke up the youngest, who until this past year had been an inconveniently light sleeper.
(They didn't mean to be noisy; they thought they were being quiet enough. And if the youngest woke up, they offered to take care of him so I could go back to sleep. So not bad kids at all.)
And as far as the daily routine with my 3-year-old before this summer break?
Well, this past year, my 3-year-old would come home from gan and then it was a struggle to keep him occupied until the evening. We went to the park or shopping many times. Baruch Hashem, he walks well and has been one of my best kids about holding my hand; he doesn't even want to run off, which is a huge chessed. So it's just a matter of hopping on a bus with no need to lug a stroller. We also read books. And during the last month, we sometimes hosted a friend from gan in the afternoons, along with the friend's helpful older brother.
But still. It was a lot of hours and it was every single day. And the truth is that I don't always feel like reading preschool books or going out or being responsible for both my child and someone else's.
My 3-year-old is also a real screamer whenever he wants anything. (This has been a big adjustment for me because I succeeded in being mechanech the rest of my kids not to cry, scream, or tantrum. I guess Hashem is showing me that it wasn't my successful chinuch, but His that enabled success until now -- thanks, Hashem!) My 3-year-old has been that way since he was born. Even as a newborn, he immediately screamed for all he was worth upon waking up at night for a feeding, instead of starting out with little baby whimpers or crying like most babies do.
So I was looking toward this summer vacation with both hope and trepidation.
Yet I forgot to take into account how happy my 3-year-old is when his older siblings are around. He's really bored without them and that was part of the problem during the year; his siblings mostly aren't around until the evening or until Shabbat.
He's quite attached to me, but I guess that a middle-aged mother just isn't nearly as much fun as a teenage brother -- no surprise there, eh?
So it ended up that my 3-year-old has been so happy and well-occupied these weeks. In fact, he has never been easier! The other kids have been in and out on various hiking trips up North, swimming, yeshivat bein hazmanim, and work (depending which kid). Some still hang out in the living room at night when they should be sleeping, but for whatever the reason, it hasn't disturbed my own sleep (or their little brother's sleep) this time -- baruch Hashem.
Also, one child got a new job with a better chevra (working with a Breslover chassid instead of Christians and Muslims as he was before) and more interesting work that involves a lot of traveling and perks. (For example, after finishing up work at a naval base, his Breslov boss decided that as long as they were by the sea, they should go swimming and enjoy the beach for the rest of the evening.) He also works more normal, consistent hours than he did before.
So that's been a big bracha and positive change.
Needless to say, there can still be a lot of mess and noise and occasional sibling friction, but it feels normal, not overwhelming.
So oddly enough, I feel like I could use another week of what has ended up being a real vacation, instead of starting back to school on Sunday.
And now, I'm dreading this. I actually wish summer vacation would keep going on...
My 3-year-old will start a new gan in the same school his brothers attended. We know the teacher because he taught 2 of our children, and they loved him. (They also came home with Yemenite accents because that's how this teacher speaks, which is very heartwarming and something to look forward to with this child too.)
But our 3-year-old has never transitioned well in anything since he was born, and tends to fight any change with all his little might. So he'll be in a new place with a new teacher and riding to school in a hired van with strangers instead of being escorted by a family member. (Yes, we'll take him to school the first couple of days, but after that, it's the hired van.)
Oh, and I forgot to mention that he gets sick easily, more than all my other kids. When adjusting to gan this past year (with a ganenet who invested her heart in him), he was constantly getting sick for the first couple of months. (Until the age 2.5, he'd been at home with me.) Plus he's erratic and stubborn with his wake/sleep cycles, so despite gan hours being from 8AM-1PM, we often only managed to get him to gan around 10.
So I'm REALLY dreading the start of this new school year. Yes, I've been davening to Hashem that he transitions well, but with his screaming, physical strength, and tendency to get sick especially when stressed, I'm really not sure how this is going go. I'm wondering if I'm facing a very stressful month ahead, a month which will demand a lot of me both physically and emotionally.
But maybe Hashem will pleasantly surprise me again.
This is when a person finds herself in that no-man's land:
I know that whatever will be will be for our best benefit. Even all the stressful stuff with him before was for our benefit (even as it sometimes drove me to tears and overwhelming anxiety).
But at the same time, I'm really dreading going through everything again, with the extra pressure of dealing with a greater distance and transportation and less flexibility regarding times, etc.
On the other hand, there's so much to be grateful for: We know the teacher and we know he's so good with this age, we know our child will enjoy playing with other boys and learning new things. We like the school. The van hired for transport seems responsible.
So there's what my mind knows and what my heart feels. And they're at odds.
We'll see how things go.
And however it goes...gam zu l'tovah!
(At least that's what I plan to keep telling myself, even if I have to grit my teeth to say it. ;-)
During an overlong stay in the USA, I ended up at the public library, desperate for some kosher reading to combat my mind-gnawing boredom.
I came across a book whose title and author I no longer remember, but the true story always stayed with me.
The author described her experience as an obese young woman who weighed over 300 pounds. Feeling unable to lose the weight, this young woman did not even have the conventionally pretty face and attractive hair some overweight women have.
Because of all this, she felt certain that love and marriage could never be an option for her. But being a naturally warm and nurturing person, she invested all her love and caring in the babies she was responsible for as a nurse in the maternity section of her local hospital.
She made peace with her life as she saw it, that she would never marry and have children of her own. Thus, she completely removed any thought of romance or love from her mind.
Though she could have put herself in the category of a have-not, she decided to become a giver instead.
(What's the difference? I suppose it's a matter of focus and direction...)
That same hospital also employed a young male pediatrician of average build and a warm engaging personality. For the sake of the babies, they ended up working together quite a lot and developed professional appreciation for the dedication and caring they saw in each other.
This flowed out into catching a cup of coffee together after work to discuss events that occurred during the day. Sometimes, he stopped by her house and they sat on her front porch together for a chat.
Grateful for a dedicated like-minded friend and co-worker, she enjoyed the friendship in a completely platonic manner.
One night as they sat chatting on her front porch, the doctor suddenly asked her to marry him.
Her heart stopped. "What?" she said, sure she couldn't have heard him right, yet also knowing that he wasn't cruel enough to joke like that.
He again asked her to marry him.
Wide-eyed, she turned to him in shock and said something like, "But I'm so obese! You're normal and you deserve a normal-sized woman! I'm just so obese."
And then he replied with something like, "That's because you need a body big enough to hold that huge heart you have."
They got married and ended up having a couple of kids of their own (even though I think that proved dangerous because of her girth). So they decided to adopt unwanted children, and ended up adopting over 30 children of all different races, many of whom had some form or Downs syndrome or other disabilities.
And at some point, she lost all that excess weight, but the book wasn't about that, so I don't know how she did it. She just mentioned it as a postscript at the end.
Anyway, the above encounter always stayed with me because it was a compelling example of how you don't need to go tearing after things or letting resentments and self-pity pile up in your head.
All she did was just decide to empty what she really wanted (marriage and children) from her mind and heart, and then just focus on being a really good person and giving love where it was needed in order to find meaning in her life.
And then Hashem brought her husband to her doorstep without any effort or angst on her part.
And together, they ended up being a force of good in the world.
One evening, I went to put my 3-year-old to bed, but when I called him, he refused to answer.
After looking in a couple of rooms, I found him lying on a bunch of clean linens in the bottom drawer opened from his older siblings' trundle bed. (He'd been playing with his older siblings and after they'd dropped off to sleep, he decide he wanted to sleep in this drawer in the room with them, rather than going to his bed in another bedroom.)
I looked at him and he looked right back at me. Then he said, "I'm not here."
Restraining a laugh, I said, "Yes, you are here. I'm looking right at you."
Still looking me right in the eye, he arched his little eyebrows, shook his little head, and repeated, "No. I'm not here."
Recalling Rav Arush's observation that children mirror their parents qualities and behaviors (sometimes in an extremely magnified way and sometimes in a much more subtle way), I realized that my son was doing exactly what I tend to do to Hashem.
And I'm guessing I'm not the only one, either...
We know that Hashem is thoroughly Omnipotent and not only sees everything we do, He even knows our true motives because He sees exactly what's in our hearts and minds.
Yet despite our intellectual knowledge of this, we still do things we know He doesn't approve of.
It's exactly as silly as looking a parent in the eye while insisting, "I'm not here."
Except that when we do it as thinking adults, it's not nearly as cute or innocent as when a 3-year-old does it to his mother.
And although Hashem loves us even more than we love any of our children of any age, it's not cute or funny when we deny our culpability regarding prohibitions that are really important.
"Dum-de-dum-de-dum...I'm not really doing anything so bad, God...You can't really see me...I'm not really here doing what it looks like I'm doing...dum-de-dum-de-dum..."
But you are here. And He's looking right at you.
May we all succeed in maintaining a loving awareness of Hashem at all times.
When I was attending chinuch classes, I heard a lot of questions along the lines of, "But my parents did that with us, and we still turned out okay. So why is it suddenly so bad to do that now?"
Just to be clear, none of these mothers wanted to do whatever unpleasantness their parents had done with them (whether it was hitting, yelling, making children wear out-of-style second-hand clothes, or anything like that), but they were legitimately trying to understand why these unwanted acts were suddenly so damaging.
As you might have guessed, there was never a real answer. Mostly hemming and hawing about a "different environment" and "things have changed" (oh, those ambiguous undefinable "things"!) and "it's a different generation."
All true, but not terribly satisfying because Jews kept immigrating into different environments throughout history and also, harmful movements within Jewry (particularly Easter Europe) kept rearing their ugly heads (like haskalah, Reform, Communism, etc) and snatching Jewish souls.
(And I don't blame the chinuch people, up to their ears in the problems of this generation, for trying their best to answer questions they didn't really know how to answer.)
Anyway, I wondered the exact same things and for the exact same reasons: I didn't want to do XYZ, but why indeed were common trials for children suddenly the reason for them to go flying off the derech?
Why was davka my generation of mothers being racked up to such a high standard?
And it wasn't just in parenting either. A woman's role suddenly expanded to include many more roles and expectations. Conducting proper shalom bayit and maintaining good mental and physical health also became fraught with challenges and contradictory advice.
And the constant refrain: "But our grandmothers didn't (work outside the home, exercise, eat spelt, fill-in-the-blank) and they were fine. So why do we need to ____?
Yet at the same time we were being told to somersault through all these hoops, nothing seemed to work (or only worked temporarily).
And so we heard our Sages quoted regarding the times of Mashiach: Chutzpah will increase, shalom bayis problems will increase, finances will go nuts, and so on.
That just makes Hashem sound capricious.
WHY do we have all these problems?
Is God just a big meanie? No, that can't be.
But while I can't know the deep kabbalistic reasons for everything that has changed, what I have discovered is that roughing things up forces you to burst out of your bubble of complacency and get your act together.
In other words, God wants us to get rid of all the garbage mucked all over our luminous souls to fulfill our true potential.
Disaster Drives You to Dig Deeper
Let's take parenting for example.
Yes, at one point you could parent your children according to your own whims and moods as long as you covered the minimum bases set by your society.
But is that good for the parents?
When there are no consequences to your lack of self-awareness and lack of introspection, then you tend to keep drifting along in whatever direction your ego or mindset takes you.
What chinuch problems do is they force you out of your complacency and stretch your mind to find other (and hopefully better) ways of relating to your children and raising them to be the best they can be.
And it's the same thing with shalom bayit.
When you or your spouse feel like divorce is on the horizon, it forces one or both of you to take a good hard look at what's really going on. You need to dig deeper. If divorce is really the best option, then take it. But sometimes it's not. It depends. There are people who turned to Hashem for even very serious shalom bayit problems, saying thank you and investing in long discussions and soul-searching with Hashem, people who eventually either found themselves getting divorced without suffering the usual grueling process involved in divorcing an abusive person, or they stayed married and the marriage became a happy one.
Health problems perform the same function. I've lost track of the number of people who suffered intolerable side effects (or lack of effectiveness) from conventional treatments, and who thus turned to herbs, better eating habits, exercise, and prayer as a more effective way of treating their illness.
This includes mental illness too. There are people who started digging deeper and got themselves off of medication (including for serious diagnosis that psychiatrists insist need life-long medication, like bipolar and schizophrenia). They looked at what the roots of their illness really were and made lifestyle and behavioral adjustments accordingly. They then passed on their newfound knowledge to others in order to help fellow sufferers.
Note: The process involved in overcoming a mental or physical illness, or in dealing with a severely dysfunctional marriage or really problematic children or any other grueling challenge is not simple or short. The above summaries should not be taken flippantly. The process is a lot of work. And sometimes, no matter what we do, we still don't get the desired result in the end because there are hidden metaphysical reasons why the desired result never arrives.
The True Story of the Man who Lost Everything
We either can't know the exact reasons or we can't know all the reasons for a particular tribulation. At the same time, many people suffering financial woes discovered, upon digging deeper, that their money came from a non-kosher source, or that they weren't honest in their dealings, or that they hadn't been giving tzedakah in the proper amounts.
In Rav Yehudah Hachassid's phenomenal compilation from the late 1100s, Sefer Chassidim, there's the true story of a formerly wealthy man who wept to his rebbe about his terrible suffering. Despite having had several children whom he married off and in whom he'd invested his wealth to set them up in their new homes, the formerly wealthy man was left without any progeny at all. His children all died before their time and before having children of their own and all the wealth he'd invested in them was lost too.
The man begged to know why Hashem left him lonely and poor in his old age.
"Did you deal honestly all your life?" asked the Rebbe. "Did you always keep people's trust? Did you ever cheat anyone?"
The man admitted that while he'd never cheated or stolen from a fellow Jew, he did betray the trust of a non-Jew who'd appointed the man to manage the non-Jew's business and committed theft against that non-Jew.
"Indeed," the man mused, "my sorrows began right after his death."
The Rebbe then explained that after this non-Jew died, he complained before the Heavenly Court. Noting that the complaint was justified, the Heavenly Court decreed upon the Jewish man to lose all that he'd acquired in a forbidden manner, and that this was just punishment for his sin.
The Rebbe then reassured the man that he can still do teshuvah. The suffering he was experiencing was atoning for this sin and with teshuvah, the old man certainly had hope for eternal salvation when his time would come to stand before the Heavenly Court.
A very sharp story indeed.
And as horrific as it is to lose all one's children without even being able enjoy the comfort of grandchildren, atoning for sins the Afterlife is even worse. Doing true teshuvah for his sin in This World enables him to see his children again in the Afterlife.
But the point is that without this tribulation, no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't prevent the profound losses he suffered, he never would've investigated further and never would've discovered that the actions he considered permissible were in fact completely forbidden and looked upon with great severity in Shamayim.
Also, had he done some soul-searching prior to the non-Jew's death (when he could still ask forgiveness and pay him back), he could have averted the entire tragedy. And had he done some soul-searching after the first child died and sought out atonement then, he possibly could've prevented the loss of the other children.
We can't know for sure, but that's the implication.
In summary, we're having a lot of problems in so many different areas.
Problems with no apparent solution, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we investigate and invest -- this means that there is only one solution: God.
Look, it's difficult.
I have wholeheartedly frum friends from yeshivish homes who, no matter how much they're suffering from one of their children, refuse to make God-connection and self-introspection the center of their efforts. They spend tons of money (which they don't have), endure humiliating situations, undergo enormous aggravation and frustration, hop from medication to medication, run all over the country and even fly out to other countries -- all in search of the solution to the problem.
Because of their own (understandable) issues, they feel they just can't turn to Hashem and start looking for the message in it all or begging Him to remedy things.
To compound the confusion, they also cling to a false feel-good pride in how much effort they're investing in helping their child. This feeling is misleading because they're feeling good about dancing around the solution rather than leaping into the only real solution available.
I understand why they do it because I used to do it too until I crashed and burned really badly. But all the understanding and justification in the world can't change the basic fact: Only Hashem can work the miracles they so desperately seek.
If you have issues with Hashem, like anger or fear or resentment or shame or suspicion or general lack of belief, then that needs to be dealt with according to your personality and level. A lot of people have issues with Hashem; it's quite normal even if it isn't discussed so much.
In that case, you can just start talking to Him about these issues and see where He leads you from there. You can also read Garden of Emuna, which addresses these issues (and a whole lot more) head-on, or you can read the classic mussar books, like Duties of the Heart, Pathways of the Just, Ways of the Righteous, Pele Yoetz, etc.
For works that aren't classic mussar and aren't obvious how-to books, but deliver great sustenance for the soul and powerful practical guidance, feel free to try out Words of Faith by Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender or Rav Ofer Erez's From the Depths.
If you want something bite-sized, then you can try out Rivka Levy's pocket-sized book The How, What, and Why of Talking to God, which contains very helpful guidance and tips, and can be read in half-an-hour.
In this type of thing, you go according to what speaks to you and what works for you on whatever level you're holding on now.
But the main thing is to connect with Hashem emotionally with your heart in a way that is real.
The only way to merit Mashiach is via emuna.
And the only way to develop emuna is to turn to Hashem as the Source of everything, good and bad.
And if we won't turn to Him on our own, then He needs to overcome our resistance and turn us to Him against our will. (Or against the will of our yetzer hara, anyway. Our yetzer tov is quite happy to turn to Hashem.)
But it's all Love.
God wants a deep abiding connection with us because He loves us so much.
Books mentioned above (some available to read online, some not):
Sefer Chassidim: Introduction
Tales of the Heavenly Court, Vol. II (The above story was reprinted here.)
Duties of the Heart/Chovot Levavot
Garden of Emuna
Words of Faith
From the Depths
(Disclaimer: I haven't yet read From the Depths by Rav Ofer Erez, but am in the middle of reading another book of his and I've listened to his classes and read his Torah gems on the English website, and find his material to be startlingly beautiful, powerful, and illuminating. So I feel pretty certain about recommending this book, which is the only one of his that has been translated into English as far as I know.)
The How, What, and Why of Talking to God
Sora was born in 1898 to a wealthy Chassidish family in Europe. Her parents brought a melamed (private teacher) to their home to teach the boys. Curious and intelligent, Sora sat herself in a corner of the room to listen. When the boys could no longer sit still, they ran off and the melamed continued teaching knowing that the little girl in the corner was still listening.
Because a proper Chassidish home of that time contained no books other than Torah books in Yiddish and Hebrew, Sora became accustomed to reading books like Orchot Tzaddikim/Ways of the Righteous and Tzena U'Rena for pleasure.
And so Sora grew under the tutelage of her Chassidish parents and the mussar and halacha Sora learned on her own, sheltered from the storms of change that unleashed upon so many souls.
Much later in life, Sora was sharing a home in America with her widowed daughter and little granddaughter. Sora's husband was dying and the family was preoccupied with his care, which demanded a lot of physical and emotional stamina during this trying time.
At one point, Sora trudged into the kitchen to get something and came upon her young granddaughter making a big mess with a large bowl of water and way too many soap suds. Sopping doll clothes lay scattered about.
This kind of mess was the last thing Sora needed at her age and at this trying time.
But never one to lose her composure, Sora thought a moment then calmly asked, "What are you doing?"
"Oh, I'm just washing my dolly's clothes!" her young granddaughter cheerfully replied.
"Yes," said Sora, "I can see that your washing your dolly's clothes. But why?"
"Mmmm...because Zeidy's sick."
Sora thought for a moment, then said, "I see." Pause. "So you think that if you wash your doll's clothes, that's going to help Zeidy feel better?"
In the course of the conversation, Sora discovered that her granddaughter had been watching everyone busying themselves around the house doing things for Zeidy (Grandpa). The tasks needed to be done properly and efficiently, so there was no opportunity to allow a young child to "help" as usual. Feeling helpless and desperate to contribute, the only thing the little girl could think to do was wash her doll's clothes.
"Well," Sora finally said. "Yes, I think it would make Zeidy very happy to know you were washing your doll's clothes for him, and that now they're all nice and clean. And you know what? As soon as he wakes up, I'm going to tell him what you did and he's going to be so happy to hear it."
The little girl started nodding and bouncing with pleasure.
"But right now," said Sora, "it would make Zeidy happiest if we clean all this up and then keep the floors neat and dry from now on. He'd feel a lot better if we did that. What do you say?"
"Oh, yes!" said the little girl. And she jumped up, went to get the mop, and together they cleaned up the mess and hung the doll clothes to dry.
And as long as her Zeidy's final illness lasted, the little granddaughter behaved herself very well.
And what could have been a bad memory for this granddaughter was transformed into a very positive memory. She felt loved and understood, and she learned how to really contribute in a stressful situation (i.e. sometimes the best thing to do is to stay out of the way and don't make a mess). She also learned from example the art of dealing with children (or with people in general): Don't assume.
Neither Condemnation nor Coddling
Had Sora been influenced by the American parenting attitude of the Fifties, she likely would have jumped to labeling her granddaughter as "attention-seeking."
Especially because her granddaughter, intelligent and lovable as she was, also got up to some serious mischief at times, it would make sense to see the doll-laundering fiasco as a way to manipulate the adults to pay attention.
But that's not what the youngster was thinking. She wasn't thinking, "Ooh, I'm feeling so jealous and deprived of attention. I think I'll go make a big mess and then try to dupe everyone into thinking that I simply wanted to launder my dolly's clothes. Muwahahahaha!"
In fact, she wasn't thinking much at all. As far as the little girl knew, her only motivation was to get busy cleaning something for Zeidy.
On the other hand, had she been influenced by the not-yet-existent Eighties, the grandmother might've seen this as a cry for love and nurturing. "Poor baby! She's feeling lost and abandoned! She's impacted by all the tension and lack of attention, but has no way to express herself!" And then she'd receive lots of cuddling and maybe a big discussion to let out her feelings about what's going on with Zeidy.
And what's wrong with that?
Well, again, it's jumping to an assumption that's not necessarily true. It's closer to the reality than the pre-Sixties attitude, but at the same time, there ARE times in life where you just can't give a child your full attention, which is something children need to learn to deal with. Furthermore, children shouldn't be allowed to think that their negative emotions justify acting out or inconveniencing people who already have too much on their plate.
(We know adults like this, right? Too bad they weren't taught better as children.)
The Contemplative Torah Approach
Instead, Sora took a quintessentially Jewish way of dealing with it.
Just as the Ramban advised in his famous letter, she spoke all her words "b'nachat" -- with equanimity and pleasantness.
Sora also gave her granddaughter the benefit of the doubt, another Torah ideal. Yes, the child could've been manipulative and attention-seeking (children sometimes are), but what if she wasn't? This needed to be figured out.
And this is also where I think Sora's scholarship came into play. When reading the mussar books and Tanach commentaries, it's impossible to miss the contemplative inquisitiveness they display. First, they notice when passages or incidents don't add up. Then they calmly wonder why. After a contemplative analysis of all the relevant factors, they arrive at their penetrating conclusion.
When watching our gedolim questioned about complex or painful issues, it's impossible to miss their composure as their contemplative mind analyzes the facts at hand.
They're not unemotional or apathetic; they merely possess a high degree of yishuv hadaat -- a composed mind.
Even those who are naturally buoyant or fiery still express themselves within a framework of yishuv hadaat.
According to the Child's Way - For Real
So again, it took me a long time to realize the imperative to ask the child about his or her motivation.
Like I mentioned in a previous post, I've only ever heard 2 options for raising children: pre-Sixties (yet post-1800s) and post-Sixties.
So it took me a while to grasp this investigative yishuv hadaat approach.
But I picked it up from hearing stories like this, stories about people who weren't influenced by psychologists of either era.
I also noticed this in memoirs from 19th-Century America. It was impossible to miss the long pauses adults incorporated into their dealings with errant children. Initially, I either saw this as a laconic backcountry communication style or I was confused -- this adult seemed so smart; why were they suddenly behaving in such a plodding manner?
And even when some kind of punishment was called for, it was often decreed with an absence of emotion. At times, the parent or teacher even seemed quite reluctant to administer any consequence.
Even odder, there were situations for which I was sure a child would be punished, but none was forthcoming. And again, this decision against punishment was determined by an adult who'd suddenly grown laconic and made his decision after a very long and contemplative silence.
This surprised me because child-rearing in "the olden days" is reputed to hold that sparing the rod meant spoiling the child -- and to interpret this (which is anyway a mistranslation) literally and unreservedly. (The real verse reads: "He who spares his shevet hates his son" -- and a shevet can be a rod, but it can also mean a structural framework, like a tribe, which is also called "shevet.")
Yet contrary to what I'd always heard, I discovered that people didn't jump to this option automatically. And even when they did utilize this option, it wasn't in a rage. Okay, yes, of course sometimes people were abusive and enraged, but it certainly wasn't a given.
I started to realize that people influenced by Tanach operate under a whole other behavioral system. All the more so, knowledgeable Jews with access to millennia of sagely scholarship and guidance.
In his 1824 masterpiece Pele Yoetz, Rav Papo clearly outlines the need to respond to each parenting situation according to its specific need. Sometimes a stern response is necessary, sometimes a soft response, and sometimes a parent should make himself as if deaf and blind!
It depends; there is no black-and-white approach to raising children.
Our Sages even composed a prayer for parents that asks Hashem for the wisdom to know when to laugh and when to rebuke, when to be stern and when to be pleasant, etc.
So this is what I'm working on now.
I know I tend to jump to conclusions with my children rather than taking the time to ask the right questions and to contemplate the answers and the situation at hand. (American culture seems to be phobic of conversational pauses.)
Sometimes I jump to a negative conclusion based on past experience with the child. But sometimes I jump to a positive conclusion that if wrong, can habituate the child toward being irresponsible, undisciplined, and narcissistic.
This is especially challenging when a child anyway displays a tendency to leap for looking, toward aggression, teasing, forgetting, daydreaming, or anything else. It's easy to assume that a child forgot to do something because he's anyway gets his head stuck in the clouds, or that a child started a fight because he anyway tends to do that.
But maybe not.
That's what I learned from the way Sora interacted with her own granddaughter.
Take a step back. Ask. Investigate. Contemplate. Then respond.
Don't fear a long pause of silent contemplation.
On the contrary -- embrace it.
It's the authentic Jewish way.
Seeking a Way through the Parenting Maze
One of the big challenges me and my generation face with child-rearing is the only 2 options presented:
It's really frustrating because there doesn't seem to be a middle ground of solid common sense, although one indeed exists.
Furthermore, taking God out of the whole picture just messes everything up. The pre-Sixties model developed from secular (and in one case, eugenicist) minds, which then imposed the ideas on a mostly religious populace.
Because Christianity believes that all people are born in sin, the idea of children as motivated by a need for manipulation and attention helped the mostly religious American populace to accepted these ideas (including the government-promoted opposition to physical affection and soothing babies & children), likely because it all seemed to fit right in with their religious beliefs.
This model was also accompanied by copious smirks and sarcasm. If you ever encounter people from this generation who hold by this method, they treat children with contempt as if even a very young child is consciously plotting any negative behavior (or behavior merely perceived as negative by the adult) with exquisite sophistication. And even when that child stops the behavior or proves their innocence, the adult continues to smirk because the adult "knows" that the child is still up to no good and still intends to do something impish, in line with his innate gremlinhood.
In other words, the child can never win. The child can never be good enough.
But when young people got fed up with being treated like demons in child-disguise, and older people with painful memories of being treated the same started writing books and speaking out, society heaved over in the other direction, but still left God out of the picture, which was equally (if not more) harmful.
Seeking the Torah Way
As for my own upbringing...well, my parents were fairly assimilated Jews with a fondness for certain Jewish traditions and holidays. But there was no real Torah-based attitude in my home. So there are aspects of my upbringing that I consider beneficial and which I do incorporate into my own parenting methods, but there are also aspects which I reject and seek to replace.
So while I searched for the authentic Torah way of raising children, I merely kept running into one of the above attitudes, neither of which are based on Jewish sources, no matter how much their proponents insist they are.
(And drawing a bull's eye around a landed arrow AFTER it has been shot doesn't count as hitting the bull's eye, if you know what I mean.)
Reading Rav Arush's Garden of Education gave me so much that I tossed out all my other chinuch books. (And I'm toward the end of his Yeladim Mutzlachim/Successful Children, which has also been a tremendous help.)
More recently, a caring reader alerted me to the existence of Dr. Sara Yaroslawitz and her "Hands Full Chinuch" series available as both CDs and books. After reading a couple of articles about her and listening to a couple of free classes available on her site, I'm looking forward to obtaining her book to see if it's a good companion to Rav Arush's material. Her samples sounded right up my alley.
But what I still struggle with is finding that elusive path when it's not in me to do so. Meaning, I need to look for something I've never seen.
For me, parenting constantly feels like shooting in the dark.
The Fabric Softener Challenge
When one of my kids was thirteen, I desperately needed fabric softener, yet couldn't run out to buy some. He was the only available person around to do it. Yet he's not completely reliable even in the best of times (he's a blithe spirit who believes in living in the moment) and he'd never bought fabric softener before.
So I asked him if he could do it, and he made a reluctant face while insisting that he didn't know how to buy it. He made lots of elaborate gestures and asked rhetorical questions to "prove" his incompetence in face of the task.
I started to give in as per the Eighties mentality and some chinuch classes.
(After all, I don't want him to resent going shopping or suffer fabric softener aversion for the rest of his life due to the trauma he suffered upon being forced to buy fabric softener when it was beyond his capabilities! And I don't want him going off the derech because he feels like Judaism is all about forcing your kids to do things they don't want to do and don't feel capable of doing. *sarc* See? The pop psychology mentality makes you overthink everything until you're neurotic.)
But then I thought it might be good for him to do something he didn't want to do. It's usually good for children to get accustomed to doing things they don't feel like doing and then enjoying their victory over their yetzer hara (which is what actually builds self-esteem).
Also, I thought he could recognize fabric softener at the supermarket because it's been around the home his whole life and even if he never noticed the specific bottles of fabric softener near the washing machine, they do display the words "fabric softener" on the label at the supermarket.
Finally, I figured the worst thing that could happen is that he'd buy a super expensive kind, buy something else (stain remover, for example), or return empty-handed. Really, that would probably the worst thing. He likely wouldn't suffer life-long resentment or go off the derech from it.
(Actually, I feared the "return empty-handed" option A LOT because it would only reinforce negatives and also leave me flummoxed as the best way to respond when I was already over my head with getting him to do it in the first place.)
So I pleasantly (pleadingly?) insisted that he would indeed go buy it and gave him a lengthy explanation of exactly how to find and recognize it.
Of course, I prayed for a positive outcome.
(Yes, God cares about us so much that He even wants us to contact Him regarding these little things too.)
When my son came home all smiles bearing the new bottle of fabric softener, I saw that he even bought exactly the brand and scent I'd wanted.
But how to respond?
They're both inappropriate.
Then I remembered that the whole point of chinuch is to help children achieve their full potential. We want our children to achieve their complete rectification in this lifetime and merit a wonderful Eternity. I also remember that he possesses a shining soul that is all good and any behavior otherwise is just a klippah of the yetzer hara.
"Thank you SO MUCH," I said.
(The core essence of a Jew is gratitude and expressing gratitude.)
"This really helps me. I really needed this."
(Your contribution is meaningful. I assigned you a task for a meaningful reason and not simply because I like to torture you.)
Then I emphasized his success in doing something that he didn't know how to do and didn't think he could do, yet not only did he do it, he did it exactly right.
So he can see himself as a competent individual whose existence is meaningful and can take risks because his proven competence in the face of a new task renders him liable to succeed.
He doesn't need rivers of praise for completing the task, nor does he need to be mocked or put down for his initial attitude toward the task.
The above leads to infantilization and inadequacy (either of which eventually lead to despair and a "why bother?" attitude or a hamster-wheel attitude where a person is always pushing but never really feeling good enough).
But he does need to know that his actions are meaningful and that his abilities are real.
An admittedly trivial example, but the adults who develop from such children are built from such trivial events. A big part of raising children is knowing that the small matters influence the big matters later.
So that was a positive example, I guess.
But mostly, I continuously feel inadequate to the task, like I'm raising my children blindfolded with one arm tied behind my back.
And that's why I end up leaning on Hashem so hard (which is apparently what He wants in the first place).
Note: Most frum chinuch classes and books do offer good advice and helpful guidance. But there's chaff in there that you have to work your way around, and you may not recognize it among the gems. So they're worth reading for whatever you can get out of them, but they don't provide the full solution to whatever you're challenged with -- and especially if you, like me, are raising your children blindfolded with one arm tied behind your back.
Sources mentioned in this post:
Are Your Hands Full? by Dr. Sara Yaroslawitz
Sample audio preview by Dr. Sara Yaroslawitz
Garden of Education by Rav Shalom Arush
Yeladim Mutzlachim by Rav Shalom Arush (Hebrew)
Even as I subscribed in my younger years to the idea of "the" parenting method that would produce ideal children (i.e. happy, well-adjusted, and frum), I couldn't help noticing that other families successfully used methods that our experts either ignored or dismissed or even opposed.
I meant to fulfill the promulgated chinuch principles to the letter, but having taken psychology in college and having been inundated with all sorts of child psychology pundits, articles, best-selling books, and methods since my preteens, I viewed with concern the obvious borrowing from pop psychology in classes claiming to teach the "authentic" or "real" or "traditional" TORAH way of raising children.
And as several of the methods either didn't work or backfired with my own children (and with no workable alternative solution from whatever chinuch person or book I consulted), I opened my mind to watching what actually worked for others, instead continuing the exhausting jig of pretty theories.
A Parenting Wake-Up Call
One aspect of Israeli families that struck me was how mothers seemed to actually NEED their children's help. Chores weren't merely for the sake of self-discipline or good habits, but instead, they comprised meaningful work that benefited the entire family. Even more shocking to me was how the mothers weren't ashamed to need their children.
I found that my friends and I never wanted to NEED a child's help. Furthermore, such a situation also always seemed discouraged among the chinuch experts.
Yet I was seeing this among Israeli families, particularly Sefardi families, and it seemed to be working out just fine. Children helped much more than in American families and in general their homes seemed to run better. (These are big generalizations of course, and there are many exceptions to them on both sides.) Furthermore, children seemed to do more at younger ages, seemed to feel good about themselves with regard to it, and even took the initiative to clean or cook. Even more impressive, they seemed to WANT to continue these habits when they set up their own homes.
And I never saw those rotating "job charts" so popular among the parenting experts during my childhood.
Furthermore, these meaningful contributions extended into adulthood. I saw adult children who paid attention to their parents and concerned themselves with their well-being. They also spoke of their parents differently, without the emotional distance I was used to hearing secular adults in America speak of their parents. They seemed more cognizant of their parents' feelings and viewed their parents as individuals rather than as a magazine article of behaviors.
I wondered why.
Structure is Not What It Seems
Also, I remember hearing often as a child that chores were good for children because it made them feel part of the family. However, that was definitely not how I felt about chores as a child, nor did it seem that my siblings felt that way either. In fact, while I don't remember friends liking chores, the ones who didn't try to shirk out of them tended to be those who felt their contributions were meaningful and necessary to the family and running of the home.
This included friends whose parents leaned on them in ways others considered inappropriate. For example, I had one friend who from 10th or 11th grade, was expected to prepare supper between the time she came home from school and the time her parents came home from work -- and this was a daily long-term expectation she needed to organize around her homework and other activities.
I was aghast, but she defended it, explaining how logistically speaking, it really wasn't practical for her parents to prepare supper around working full-time jobs and also how much they liked her cooking. In fact, she seemed proud of her accomplishment and not put upon. She also pointed out that she now had skills that would serve her for life, skills that weren't common among her peers, so she felt a cut above the rest.
Also, I noticed many mothers in my generation, regardless of their religious background, had very set views about children and housework, trying to make it fun and free of stress. With regard to structure in general, a great many decided that if they felt they were too tired or stressed to deal with their children calmly, then they just let things go. Tidying, bedtimes, and other responsibilities were pushed off just so the mother wouldn't end up yelling or showing any anger.
This was supposed to show children the value of overcoming anger, but (and this will come as no shock to the generations above ours) children instead interpreted this as a lack of consistency and responded accordingly.
After lots of observation and pondering, I realized several things:
Chores that have no meaning or necessity other than to teach the child self-discipline become meaningless pointless work.
NO ONE wants to engage in meaningless pointless activities (unless they're fun), including adults. And because children aren't particularly interested in self-discipline or building character, it's hard for them to help around the house unless the work actually contributes something meaningful.
If I tell you to flap your arms around "for your own good," how happily and how long will you be able to keep flapping?
But what if I tell you that by flapping your arms, you create air currents (I'm totally making this up) that cool off heat stroke victims and help asthma sufferers, particularly when the sufferer is an immediate family member?
It's a lot more meaningful.
Traditionally, parents needed children.
Yes, that is actually the authentic traditional TORAH way of rearing children -- and not just the Torah way, either. Out of necessity, everyone used to raise their children this way and still do in many parts of the world. Children who helped out in the field, assisted in the family store, fetched water from the well, or brought the cows home were performing genuinely meaningful and necessary contributions to the family.
Attitudes changed over time, possibly due to mandatory schooling keeping children away home for huge chunks of childhood and also possibly due to advanced household technology, plus smaller family sizes and a move to urban life. Suddenly, fastidious housekeepers had electricity, indoor plumbing, spray cleaners, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines, and dryers to cut down on time and labor spent on housework and reaped a cleaner result too (i.e, a dishwasher or even hot running water and a good-quality sponge clean dishes much faster and better than wiping dishes with a soapy rag dipped in cold or lukewarm water from a bucket). They also had fewer children to contend with, so a mother didn't feel the same need for an older child's help when she's nursing or otherwise occupied.
Gradually, children became only a hindrance for housework rather than also being potential help.
Teaching children that parents have needs teaches children compassion.
Parents get tired, sick, and overwhelmed. It's perfectly fine for children to realize this. Yes, a parent who is tired, sick, or overwhelmed to the point of incapacitation for a long time may be scary or overwhelming for a child. But a child who sees that a parent NEEDS help and the child can help that parent? Well, that builds good middot in the child, particular when the parents show their gratitude and appreciation for the child's meaningful contribution.
A child who allows the mother to sleep hopefully finds a refreshed and joyful mother when she wakes up -- all in the merit of this wonderful child. A child who washes all the dishes to save the mother that chore or who surprises the mother with folded laundry will ideally encounter a thrilled and very thankful mother.
As a child in America and as an adult in Israel, I also noticed that parents who needed their children tended to produce children who were more sensitive to others. Let's face it: If your mother continues to function just fine even when she has the flu or hasn't slept properly for a month, then how are you going to respond to people who have the flu or who are tired? If you don't realize that people really need help at times -- and that you are able to help AND your contribution is meaningful -- then how will you relate to others who are struggling?
Needless to say, this can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Needy parents wear out their children with their ceaseless demands. Such children may develop apathy to others because they assume that people who need others are simply lazy or manipulative.
The Modern Mommy Challenge
So this was my big challenge: letting my children know that I needed them, and also that their contributions are meaningful and important.
As mentioned above, it is important to strive for balance:
And with Hashem's Help, that's what I'm trying to do.
The Last 200 Years of Chinuch I: The Non-Jewish World
The Last 200 Years of Chinuch II: The Jewish World
Will the Real "Chinuch shel Pa'am" Please Stand Up?
Help a frum family get their children back!:
I'm a middle-aged housewife and mother in Eretz Yisrael who likes to read and write a lot.
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