Truly Transformative: Motherhood and the Spiritual Practice of Parenting

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May 9, 2014

My mother always said that she never believed in God until she had kids. Something about my brother and I coming into being — from sex into clumpy cells, and then somehow into little creatures that emerged from within her with noses, ear canals, and personality quirks — changed everything about how she understood the world to work. She never told me, really, what had happened for her, but if I had to guess, I’d imagine words like miracle, impossibility, and soul would be involved.

Obviously, not everybody has that exact same experience, but it does seem to be the case for a lot of us that becoming a mom tends to rearrange things about how we understand the world and ourselves in a lot of ways, both easy to articulate and hard to name.

Some of that transformation is physical, of course, and logistical, emotional, and all sorts of other things. But for many of us, our concept of spirituality is rearranged as well. Certainly it was true for my mother, and it was true for me, as well, though in a different way. I was a 34 year-old rabbi with a penchant for mystical experiences when my first son was born — and I was astonished to discover that still, my understandings of God, prayer, and practice were thrown, utterly, against the wall when I became a mom. Despite some disconcerting moments when I realized that things weren’t quite where I had left them, it turns out they’ve manifested as something else on the other side.

The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that parenting is, and can be, a spiritual practice in its own right. And that in some ways, the Jewish tradition offers myriad tools for those of us deep in the trenches of the Lego-strewn years — ways to find the exquisite joy of the present moment, ways to transform those moments of anger, frustration and despair, and ways to understand ourselves in the big picture of it all. And at the same time, I think, taking the work of parenting seriously can have implications for the ways that we think about and practice Judaism, as well.

Parenting is exhausting and crazymaking. It pushes you to the limit in all sorts of ways. And it’s transformative. And it can be, in all of its messiness and challenge and complexity, a means to connect with, and more deeply understand the sacred and the holy. And to let those connections change you, too.

So this ELI Talk is about all of these things. It’s about radical amazement, prayer, and God. It’s more of a musing than a guidebook. It’s a conversation in progress. I’d love to hear what you think.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the author of the Sami Rohr Prize-nominated *Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, The Pasionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, and other books. She was named one of 10 “rabbis to watch” by Newsweek in 2013 and serves as an educational consultant to Hillel. She tweets at @TheRaDR.*

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