by Rabbi Elyssa Cherney
High holy days give us a chance to reflect where we are at each year. They give us the time to notice how we have changed, how we have grown, and what we need to work on. In adjusting to being a parent, these holy days have taken on new meaning in my life. Whereas the holidays used to be completely self-reflective for me, now I’m thinking about someone else’s growth too. The first year I thought about how well my daughter sits up, observes others, and smiles at everything. Seeing her joy in the holiday change every year allowed me to understand how my own growth is tied to hers now. I might not be able to be in the services I want to anymore, but I know that I’m growing as I watch her discover the world. And that too is holy. May I be able to remember the lessons of being present in my own growth as a parent, and watching my child’s spiritual growth as she learns and grows too.
Year 1: My family and I arrived at a new-to-us synagogue on erev Rosh Hashanah with our seven-month-old daughter in tow. We brought silent toys, an ergo carrier, and books for her to flip through. We told ourselves that she ‘goes with the flow’, loves services she’s been to, and will clap along (even though it was nearing her comically early bedtime of 6:30pm). We had traveled from Philadelphia to Virginia that day, and then got in the car for another 30 minutes to attend services. Our go-with-the-flow daughter lasted in the main service for all of about 20 minutes! And then she was done; back arching, about to wail, needed to nurse and go to bed. Done.
So we did what any parent would do, we got up to walk outside, essentially resigning ourselves in that moment that we were either leaving or one of us would be spending the rest of the evening outside the sanctuary. She was safely in the stage of separation anxiety stage and often wanted mom. Great, I thought, we came all this way and now I’m going to miss services.
As we exited the room, the usher asked if we wanted to use the quiet room. ‘What is that?’, I asked. “It’s a soundproof room with toys where you can watch and hear the service,” the usher answered. What?! In all my years working in synagogues and Jewish communities I had never seen such a place! I took our daughter and my husband and I alternated being with her while she played with the other young children there.
She had the time of her life! And I sat back and let her do her thing.
Year 2: A year later, as parents of a toddler, our daughter had entered a very different developmental stage, one in which sitting for even a minute was no longer an option!
Yom Kippur used to be my equivalent to my marathon-running friends. I considered it spiritual fortitude to make it through a day of introspective services! It was meaningful, reflective, and always left me in tears (hunger will do that!). When leading high holiday services myself, I needed some food to be a functional human. I kept it simple, a granola bar would suffice for the day. Fasting felt meaningful to me in the pre-parenthood days.
As a parent, almost every day has become a semi-fast. I have to remind myself to eat, when mealtime may consist of sitting still for 4 minutes or less. So fasting was definitely out, since I needed all the sustenance I could get to chase my feisty kiddo.
Last year, my family went to tot services for Rosh Hashanah, and also hosted a meal! While ambitious, it certainly felt like we were able to celebrate with family, friends and our community. Yet, Yom Kippur comes with much more anxiety for me. I feel it should be a certain way. Observed. I want to be contemplating and atoning. There is so much self-induced guilt!
Maybe the guilt comes from all the ways I wish I could be doing more. Yet, I simply can’t be doing more! Parenthood has made me a shell of my former self. I have so much that I no longer am able to do, and I feel I should apologize for that. For the relationships that have slipped, the ways I used to be able to be there for others, the time I once had to show up for causes I care about! The list goes on and on. It’s not personal, I’m not able to do a lot of it anymore. Every day that my small child leaves the house clothed, and fed feels like a victory.
There’s been plenty of advice, or guilt inducing comments about not doing more since our daughter was born. The high holidays remind me that I can’t atone for others. I can simply ask myself: how can I be my best self within my current life circumstances of two emerging careers and raising a young family? How can I be the best parent that I can be? With the knowledge that I’ll have to teach my daughter atonement one day. For now, I can just hope she knows I’m trying my best for us all to have our most fulfilling spiritual connections that we can. We have started our own family traditions of cooking noodle kugel together, and a contemplative walk in the woods where we committ to one another aloud our mistakes and promises for a better year. And making sure we hear the shofar to embrace our call to alertness and presence for the coming year.
For those other parents out there: May your own growth be tied up in teaching and helping your little ones discover the world. And recognizing that too is holy work. May it be brought with joy and sweetness too!
Shanah Tovah for a happy healthy 5780!
Rabbi Elyssa Cherney blogs at http://www.tacklingtorah.com.