National Jewish Book Award Finalist 2016
A deeply affecting, funny, insightful meditation that challenges readers to find the spiritual meaning of parenting.
Every day, parents are bombarded by demands. The pressures of work and life are relentless; our children’s needs are often impossible to meet; and we rarely, if ever, allow ourselves the time and attention necessary to satisfy our own inner longings. Parenthood is difficult, demanding, and draining. And yet, argues Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, if we can approach it from a different mindset, perhaps the work of parenting itself can offer the solace we seek.
Rooted in Judaism but incorporating a wide-range of religious and literary traditions, Nurture the Wow asks, Can ancient ideas about relationships, drudgery, pain, devotion, and purpose help make the hard parts of a parent’s job easier and the magical stuff even more so? Ruttenberg shows how parenting can be considered a spiritual practiceand how seeing it that way can lead to transformation. This is a parenthood book, not a parenting book; it shows how the experiences we have as parents can change us for the better.
Enlightening, uplifting, and laugh-out-loud funny, Nurture the Wow reveals how parenthoodin all its crazy-making, rage-inducing, awe and joy-filled momentscan actually be the path to living fully, authentically, and soulfully.
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About the Author
Danya Ruttenberg was named one of ten "rabbis to watch" by Newsweek and one of the "50 most influential women rabbis" by The Forward. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, and elsewhere. Her first book, Surprised by God,was nominated for a Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature and was a Hadassah Book Club selection. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and children.
Read an Excerpt
Nurture The Wow
Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting
By Danya Ruttenberg
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Danya Ruttenberg
All rights reserved.
So Much Is Different Now
Parental Love as a Portal to Infinity
There had been so much pain, and then there was pushing, with more pain. Then, suddenly, here was the nurse, gingerly placing my son in my arms.
"Oh," I said.
There he was.
In one moment, so much abstraction became real. Embodied. This was my son. I hadn't been aware that I had been missing anybody in my life until, suddenly, he had arrived.
The day and a half in the hospital was surreal, blurry. A haze of sleep, sleeplessness, and baby. It seemed immediately clear that his name would be Yonatan — which, in its English spelling, Jonathan, shares its first letter with my mother's name, Janie. From the moment we uttered his name, we knew it was right. This was who he came into the world as. He wasn't some generic baby. He was himself. Already.
We all went home midday on a Thursday. Nir urged me to go outside and get some fresh air, just to walk around the block. Reluctantly, I left our newborn with his father and ventured out into the February afternoon.
Everything was surreal, off. The cars were driving very fast. The noises of the birds and the Green Line train were disorientingly loud. Colors seemed brighter. Everything was pulled up into a sort of supercharged three-dimensionality: extra solid, but also extra strange. I had never experienced the wind on my face so powerfully. As I walked, I wept. I was overwhelmed. Out by myself for the first time after Yonatan's birth, I began to understand how radical a change had just taken place. I was returning to the world, but I wasn't the same.
Later that day, I wrote in my journal, "All the doors in my heart have been blown open and now I'm standing in this great overwhelming light."
Blinking in the glare, I began to try to understand what this love pouring through me was all about. It's not that I hadn't loved before, both Nir and in other relationships, family and friends, lots of people in a lot of different ways. But something about what I was feeling for Yonatan was unlike anything I'd ever experienced.
How do we make sense of this parental love? What are we supposed to do with it?
Among other things, this love makes us do stuff. Sure, oxytocin courses through our veins when we snuggle up to our kids. But oxytocin only has a half-life of about three minutes and, as I would soon see, it takes more than that for us to be willing to get up a zillion times in the middle of the night, to let someone vomit in our laps, to decide not to leave a colicky baby out in the snow. This aching, pulsing love is what pushes us to offer up who we are, and can be, to these insane little creatures that have, somehow, almost inexplicably, come into our care.
Our culture has long been invested in the notion of a mother's love being untainted, virtuous — a redemptive light that shines with maximum sentimentality. Victorians referred to mothers as the angels of the house. The mother was selfless; she embodied morality and unceaseless giving. As Virginia Woolf described it, the mother
... was intensely sympathetic ... utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it. ... Above all, she was pure.
She was pure, and her love was pure. (She was also white and wealthy, but that is, perhaps, a whole other conversation.) This Victorian ideal of uncomplicated selflessness became, on so many levels, the defining standard against which mothers were judged into, through, and beyond the twentieth century.
In fact, the myth of mommy's perfect love persists today: A perusal of any online greeting card site will offer cards that say "Mothers are angels" and "Moms know love by heart." "What can I wish you on Mother's Day? You're already so rich in all the things that really count ... a loving heart, a joyous spirit." "Moms have a special magic."
The idea that maternal love is full of this unsullied magic doesn't leave a lot of room for moms to be angry, resentful, frustrated, exhausted, at the end of their ropes, and hiding in the bathroom while the toddler rages outside because she just needs one ... second ... alone. And how is a woman who radiates a saintly, selfless mother's love supposed to also be a savvy negotiator, a cunning businessperson, a driven intellectual doggedly pursuing her research? This stereotype of mothers' love both sets us up for unattainable standards and complicates our ability to move through the world.
This myth of mom's perfect love also belies a lot of people's lived experience. Plenty of people have suffered tremendously at the hands of mothers who were capricious or cruel, who discounted their child's needs, who were withdrawn or abusive — or all of these things.
Do all mothers love their children well? Of course not. Is parental love somehow better, more pure, more moral, more redeemed than the love siblings feel for one another? Than that of lovers? Friends? Are nonparents simply never capable of reaching the depths of emotion that parents experience?
No no no, nope, I'm not saying that. But I am saying that I have experienced my love for my own children as metamorphic, with implications I couldn't have anticipated. This love has broken me open and has changed me, utterly, surprisingly. For a lot of parents — of whatever gender — the experience seems to be similar.
This love, it's big. It changes us. It's messy and it's complicated and it swirls around all the exhaustion and frustration and irritation and ambivalence and desperate desire for grown-up conversation. Parenting isn't one long extended frolic in a sunny meadow as unicorns and butterflies cavort nearby. It's gross and it's gooey and it's crazymaking and it's hard as hell. But inside all of it, there is this feral, fierce love for our children that drives us and changes us and takes us to the brink of insanity, and back from it, again and again and again.
* * *
What is love, anyway? And what does it mean to love?
The story we're told by our culture is that, when the protagonists of the romcom finally, after eighty-eight minutes of complications and reversals, get together and share that first kiss at the airport gate before she gets on the plane, the relationship itself will be straightforward and easy. Once love is in the picture, it all snaps into place.
Which, as anyone who has loved, or tried to love, can attest, is a joke. Love is hard. Love is a painful mirror for our imperfections. And, most importantly maybe, love isn't a single, fixed state. It's an action, or a series of actions. The feminist theorist bell hooks cites author M. Scott Peck's definition of love, based on the work of the philosopher Erich Fromm. Love is, she claims, the "will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth." "The will to extend yourself": to push past your comfort level; to, you know, work really hard. That means doing things you never thought you'd do, and may not particularly want to. But you do them. You stretch and extend, because someone needs you to, so that they can grow.
That kind of extending of the self looks like all sorts of things. In my marriage, for example, it's meant that during a conflict I've had to sit uncomfortably — holding my peace despite really wanting to process things verbally — because my husband needs some solitude and emotional space before moving toward a resolution. I think about the times I've had to battle my boredom at the sandbox so that I can actually engage with my kids, who really want me to talk about fire trucks with them. Extending the self is about the moment when the tantrum is going down right as you need to be getting somewhere and you realize you have to slow down and pull, from underneath your annoyance and your desire to just physically force the child out the door, some compassion to help dial down her out-of- control feeling. It's about the willingness to get out of bed at two a.m. to be with the child who's totally shaken by a nightmare. According to hooks, love is in the nurturing of our own or another's spiritual growth; we do that all the time. It's about enabling our beloveds to feel secure, enabling them to be able to do the work they need to do. It's about enabling them to feel the warm rays of our attention on their skin, even when we kind of actually want to just zone out and play Candy Crush on our phone. Sometimes it means taking care of their physical needs even if we're not home emotionally — keeping them fed and safe and warm counts for an awful lot when you just want to hide under the bed or catch the next flight to Tijuana. So, OK, let's add Candy Crush back to that list, too.
Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister behind the TV show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, said once that "to love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now." Here and now. Screaming his head off because you won't let him play with your glasses. Nastily grabbing a toy out of another child's hand. Miraculously unable to hear your repeated call to stop playing now and wash hands for dinner. Absolutely determined to leave the grocery store with some ridiculous, disgusting food item you have no intention of buying.
That moment when we say, I accept you — even though being with you is awfully hard right now — that's love. It doesn't mean there aren't consequences — we don't have to accept terrible behavior. But part of how we love our children is in choosing, again and again, to take the whole child, including the demonic parts that might be in charge after hearing "no" at the grocery checkout. And as Rogers notes, loving is about a striving to accept, not the completed act of acceptance itself. This striving is also kind of an extending of the self. And the choice to accept someone, no matter who and how they are — well, there's nothing more conducive to their spiritual growth than that.
* * *
"Look at me!" Most parents hear this about 28,805,348 times a day. God knows I do. Look, Mommy, I'm jumping on the couch! Look, Mommy! I found a stick! Look, Mommy, I climbed up on the chair myself! Look, Mommy! I'm wearing your shoes! As psychologist Becky Bailey notes, "Children want and need to be seen." I mean, we all do, right? There's nothing I want more, some days, than for Nir to pat me on the head and say, simply, "You've worked hard." Or, "You were really brave." Or even, "I see that you're sad." I want, I think we all want, desperately, to be seen for who we are. I, for one, feel most loved when I feel accepted as myself, warts and all. So, too, with our kids.
Philosopher Sara Ruddick also talks about this work of loving our children as the attempt to see them. She writes that a parent
learns to ask "What are you going through?" and to wait to hear the answer rather than giving it. She learns to ask again and keep listening even if she cannot make sense of what she hears or can barely tolerate the child she has understood. Attention is akin to the capacity for empathy, the ability to suffer or celebrate with another as if in the other's experience you know and find yourself.
Part of the work of loving our children is about being able to ask them "What are you going through?" and to listen to what they tell us — through words or some other means of communication. To hear their answer even on the days we most want to throw in the parenting towel or (proverbially) wring their sweet little necks with our bare hands. To try to find our children where they really are, and to suffer or celebrate with them "as if in the other's experience you know and find yourself." Part of love is about extending ourselves in empathy in order to understand the other and having, as Ruddick puts it, "faith that love will not be destroyed by knowledge, that to the loving eye the lovable will be revealed." Love is about seeing the other exactly as they are. And seeing that person more clearly, even through the flaws or imperfections or pain, is a chance to more thoroughly encounter the beloved.
Last week I heard Shir calling for me at two a.m. I stumbled down the hall to him, still mostly asleep. He was hot to the touch and asking for milk. I shook myself awake-er and took him into the kitchen, filled a sippy for him, took off the sweater blanket his grandmother had knitted for him, and checked his temp: 103.9. Ugh.
I gave him some Children's Tylenol, changed his diaper, held him while he sucked down his milk. He burrowed into me, a little boy who didn't feel well. I stroked his hair. Kissed his sweaty little forehead. When he seemed to be slowing down, I whispered to him, "Do you want to go back to your bed now?" He whispered back, "No!"
So while I was sitting there, exhausted, on the floor of the kitchen, with this fevery child in my arms, watching him try to insert his forehead into the hollow of my neck, I asked, wordlessly, "What are you going through?" And even though the answer I would have liked to hear was, "Now that I have medicine and milk I'm ready to go back to bed like I normally do," what I got from him, through his body language and his tiny little whimpers, was, "I don't want to be alone."
Being able to see him in this moment helped me to love him, and helped me be able to respond to him in love. This time, anyway, his emotional need was one that I was able to meet. So I took him over to the futon in the guest bedroom and we lay down together. He coughed in my face. He tossed and turned and fidgeted and generally had a hard time getting comfortable. He didn't feel good, and he wanted his mama. He slung his little arm around my shoulder, he wriggled into that little spot in the crook of my arm that is both utterly sweet and absolutely not comfortable for me. I was tired. I was cranky. He fell asleep diagonally, snoring like a trucker through his stuffy nose.
I wanted to push him away, to send him back to his bed or at least get him solidly on the other pillow to ensure some — any — possibility of getting some damn sleep. But this was something I could do for him. It's not a particularly heroic example — I don't think I deserve special cookies for taking care of my sick kid. But most of the time, our acts of nurturing, these little moments of being willing to hear our children's stories and to let those stories matter, are pretty mundane.
The next morning Shir, fortified by sleep and fever meds, was playing with the just-emptied laundry basket. I was trying to convince him to bring it into his bedroom so we could put the dirty clothes in it, like you're supposed to. (I'm not sure if you're supposed to let the clean laundry sit in the basket for five or six days and pile up new dirty clothes in the general area where the basket's supposed to be, but that's, uh, kind of what happens around here.) Yonatan wanted the basket, and started to grab it from Shir. I told him no, reminded him that we don't take things from the hands of other people. Yonatan threw a small fit, crying that he wanted it, and tried to take a swing at me. I felt the irritation rise; it certainly didn't help that I'd been up half the night with his sick brother. Why was my older child being so petulent about something so insignificant? I told him again that we do not take things from people's hands. His tantrum started to escalate.
Finally, through the exhausted fog, I remembered, What are you going through? I looked at him and said, "It seems like you're frustrated and disappointed and that you really wanted the basket." Through the annoyance and grumpiness, through my desire that this child just please get over it because I did not deem this to be important and I was tired and didn't feel like managing it ... through it all, somewhere in there, I was able to find the question — to see the child on his own terms, not on the ones I so very much wanted to impose on him.
The moment I related to him with love, with a willingness to see him, his attitude changed completely. He chilled out almost instantly and wandered off to play with something else. I was able to retrieve the laundry basket from the toddler and even to complete the small task I had set out to do. Dirty laundry in the hamper! (For twenty-four whole hours before it's turned into clean laundry being ignored!)
In the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve eat the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, even though they were told not to. When God goes looking for them, they freak out and hide, like pretty much every kid who screws up. And God calls to them: Ayeka — where are you? As parents, we try, in our best moments, to go looking for our children. Even when we kind of don't want to. Even when we're exhausted and frustrated and wish our children would just hand us the damn laundry basket already. But still, when we can, we seek them out — to understand where they are, to see if we can find them.
Excerpted from Nurture The Wow by Danya Ruttenberg. Copyright © 2016 Danya Ruttenberg. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 So Much Is Different Now: Parental Love as a Portal to Infinity 15
2 Sweeping Cheerios from the Floor: Finding Inspiration in the Mundane 45
3 Frustration! Anger! Desperation!: Transforming Hard Feelings 65
4 I Have So Much Control Over Someone's Life, But Ultimately I Have No Control: Rethinking Power and Powerlessness 107
5 Speaking on Your Heart: Prayer as Lullabye, Lullabye as Prayer 130
6 Exhaustion and Poop: Finding Meaning in the Body Stuff 158
7 Pecking Under the Table: How the Magic of Child's Play Can Infuse Our Lives 181
8 It's Not About Me Anymore? Creating a New Kind of Selfhood 209
9 Seeing Everything with New Eyes: How Parenting Changes Our Vision of the World 229
10 What Gives Us Goose Bumps: Parenting as a Mystical Encounter 257