J.D. Salinger wrote in The Catcher in the Rye, “Mothers are all slightly insane.” This is, of course, not what you want to hear on Mother’s Day. But it’s hard not to read it and nod your head in agreement, especially if you are a mother.
It takes a certain kind of insanity to carry another person in your body for the better part of a year and undergo the pain and contortions of birth, sometimes multiple times. Then you get the pleasure of waking up in the middle of the night for months because a creature a fraction of your size dominates your life. In the words of comedian Milton Berle, “If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?” As children grow up, you get to stay up late at night worrying about where they are, what they are doing and if they are driving over the speed limit.
Even when your children leave the house, you can still have residual worry about their life choices, state of health and if they’ve rotated their tires. As the Yiddish expression goes, “Little children don’t let you sleep. Big children don’t let you live.”
Mother’s Day is a time when we celebrate the insanity that is parenthood. It is a day for children of all ages to relinquish the self-absorption that is childhood and embrace gratitude as the recipients of enduring self-sacrifice. It offers a thin sliver of the calendar to reflect on what is involved in ushering a little person into a big, daunting world and knowing that someone else loves you more than they have the words to express.
As a mother of four, I don’t really need the cards. I certainly don’t need the gifts. In fact, I remember when my first was four, and I picked her up from nursery school the Friday before Mother’s Day. Nothing in the world tops the nursery school craft-buzz like Mother’s Day, except, of course, for Father’s Day. My daughter couldn’t hold it in and finally shared her big secret. She had made me a painted dry macaroni necklace to be worn like a Tiffany accessory. She was very excited. And she liked her handiwork.
“Mommy, I’m not supposed to tell you, but I made you a necklace for Mother’s Day,” she said.
“That’s so nice of you. I can’t wait to see it,” I responded.
“But Mommy, you have a lot of necklaces, and I don’t have any…” she countered.
She wanted my macaroni necklace. Truth be told, I wanted to give it to her. Don’t get me wrong. I love macaroni necklaces, except when Passover is approaching. But I also had to learn as a young parent myself that one of the most important ways we mentor children is by helping them have appropriate respect and deference for us, for our giving and our “insanity” in raising them.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a Jewish leader during the German Enlightenment, in analyzing the placement of the commandment to honor one’s parents, observes that it is nestled between demands that we have towards God and those we observe in creating a just and civil society. That placement is not coincidental, he believed, because it is the Jewish parent who teaches children to honor God and also respect the mores of society—the lynchpin that helps children to understand and respect authority.
We have to teach children how to respect us, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is a portal to respecting others. We help them grow respect outwards. Failure to show respect to others often happens when disrespect is tolerated towards parents and siblings.
Many mothers—and fathers—feel that there is no manual for the harder aspects of parenting. We’re all stumbling in the dark, relying on the advice of friends, the wisdom of family and the anguish of learning from our mistakes. Our children also raise us. They teach us how to parent. And sometimes it hurts. The writer Debra Ginsberg describes parenting as a human heart beating outside the body, “… Each child represented just that—a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.” It can be hard to be so vulnerable so on two days a year we ask our children to take note.
So although Mother’s Day is not an official Jewish holiday, it’s unofficially a good idea to observe it in some way. The line “We don’t keep it because every day is Mother’s Day” only works if that’s what your mother really feels. Otherwise it’s usually just an excuse for doing nothing. The day is just one small way to help our children learn to respect the difficult choices we make in raising them and celebrate the joys. And every once in a while—if we are really lucky—we might get a macaroni necklace made with a lot of love.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal. Follow her work at www.leadingwithmeaning.com.