Parenting in difficult times
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Opinion

Parenting in difficult times

Ariel Russo, the rabbi of CSI Nyack, was educated by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and inspired by Camp Ramah. In her spare time she wrangles her kids into car seats and explores the lower Hudson region with her husband.

It was a few weeks into the quarantine period when I decided to clean my pantry in anticipation of Passover, along with preparing for my first congregational virtual seder.

It was a rare few moments when I was not by phone when I heard the buzz of the microwave. Somehow my 1.5-year-old and 3.5-year-old brought stepstools into the kitchen, got their hands on my phone, and figured out how to push buttons to operate the microwave. My phone was burnt into oblivion, narrowly escaping a small house fire, in the middle of a global pandemic.

What ensued was not my most calm parenting moment. My children’s message was clear — my attention was divided between them and work. While I do not think they really knew the extent of what they did to my phone, they felt the lack of boundaries and my divided loyalties. Their message was clear.

Parenting at whatever stage — whether we work from home or not, whether we co-parent or parent alone — without the support structures that we have become accustomed to is incredibly hard. As I just shared, I have learned the hard way about the ups and downs of trying to balance responsibilities, keeping the house calm, distinguishing sacred time, and making space for self-care.

Here are a few things that have helped me navigate this difficult time, as a non-essential worker who is working mostly from home, steeped within the wisdom of our Jewish tradition.

Presence/Shabbat/Minukhah — When it is possible, take time to be completely present. Stop work to light Shabbat candles. Bake challah with your kids. Separate from the emails and phone calls to be really focused on your family’s needs. It makes a difference.

Recognize loss/Mima-amakim keratikha Yah — When I come home from a funeral or get off a devastating phone call, it is harder for me to hear the normal complaining. Somebody is bored or sad, tired, hungry, or frustrated, and my mind goes to “Don’t you know how good you have it?” But loss is loss. There are no comparisons. My 3.5-year-old, who hasn’t seen his grandparents and friends in month, is still experiencing loss, even when rationally I am hyper aware of the devastation of this virus. He is still experiencing loss even if it is all relative.

Self-care/Shmirat hanefesh and shmirat haguf — While trying to keep our families intact and also taking care of the other people and tasks that require our attention, taking care of ourselves sometimes can seem impossible. But when we do not take care of ourselves, it becomes infinitely harder to take care of our families and other responsibilities. Exercise, healthy eating, walks, scheduled phone check-ins with friends, therapy, prayer, and meditation all are examples of ways we can nourish ourselves. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives have been upended. Grounding ourselves by taking care of ourselves helps us to better take care of our loved ones.

Create fun/Zman simchateinu — Between work, home schooling, house cleaning and organizing, and cooking, we may forget that our kids need fun, and that we benefit from having fun with them. Celebrate the good weather with sidewalk chalk, a camping expedition, or a family bike ride. It’s a rainy day? Jump in puddles, build a fort, or create a family movie night or game night tradition.

Go easy on yourself/Rachamim — My kids have been on screens more these past few months than they had during their entire lives before this. We all are doing the best we can. Some days are better than others. Without clear distinctions and boundaries, it is going to be messy sometimes. I have taken serious pastoral calls with screaming children in the background. I have missed school Zoom times with the kids, and there are days when everyone changes from their day pajamas into their evening ones.

There is a legend recorded in Talmud Shabbat 119b that describes two ministering angels accompanying someone from synagogue back to his home on Shabbat. If when they arrive, the candles are burning, the table is set, and the bed is made, the good angel says: “May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.” And the evil angel has to answer “Amen.” If the person’s home is not prepared for Shabbat, the evil angel says the same blessing, and the good angel has to answer “Amen.” Some days are better than others. Some weeks we have it together to have a beautiful Shabbat meal and table, while other weeks we are grateful that we made it to Shabbat in one piece. Some weeks our tempers get the better of us as we parent through a stressful time, while other weeks we may find better balance. There is fluidity as we navigate this uncharted territory.

Each week the angels have to agree with one another, even if they feel defeated. May we incorporate the Jewish wisdom of presence, sacred time, recognizing loss in all its forms, self-care, joy, and mercy.

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