Parenthood and Prayer

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December 30, 2010

I have one child. He just turned one year old. When he was born, I entered a predictable maelstrom of sleep deprivation, round-the-clock nursing, and learning how to care for him. It was amazing, of course — everyone tells you that, and it’s true — but it was also overwhelming. (I’d been forewarned about that too, but there was no way I could understand what it was going to feel like before we got there.) I found in those early months that I wasn’t able to daven much at all. My prayers mostly took the form of “Oh, God, please let me get an hour of sleep before he needs to nurse again!”

When Drew was a few months old, I created a “nursing mother tallit,” a machine-washable shawl with clip-on tzitzit, which I kept draped over the back of the gliding rocker. Sometimes, while I was nursing him, I would tug the edges of the shawl over my shoulders and try to pray. My prayers were scattered, but the tallit helped me (sometimes) be mindful of divine presence around me. And when there were inevitable spit-up incidents, I could remove the fringes and throw the scarf in the wash with the rest of the endless baby laundry.

Before Drew was born, I’d had fantasies of motherhood as a chance to engage in what Hasidim call avodah be-gashmiut, “service through physicality.” Every moment is an opportunity to be mindful of devekut, of union with God. Even while changing diapers in the middle of the night, I told myself, I would be joyful, aware that in serving my son’s needs I was serving the spark of divinity which dwells in him.

There have been moments when that has been true. But there have also been moments — a lot of them — when changing diapers felt more like drudgery than like divine service, and when I couldn’t manage to wake to the baby’s cries with anything other than exhaustion.

When Drew was about two months old, I ventured forth to synagogue with him for the first time. It was a huge production: getting him into his snowsuit, making sure the diaper bag held all of our necessaries, carrying him in the basket-style carseat to the car, making our way to shul. By the time we made it there and I got him out of his cold-weather gear, the service was two-thirds over.

For a while, I could only daven b’tzibbur (in community) if I wore Drew on my chest in a sling or if I were willing to leave the sanctuary to nurse, listening to the singing from the next room. And davening alone at home seemed implausible: the morning routine of waking, nursing the baby, changing the baby, pumping milk to keep my supply up, nursing the baby, sitting still while the baby napped on me, somehow finding a way to eat breakfast and to shower—it was all too overwhelming. I didn’t daven alone until Drew started daycare at six months.

The first time I donned tefillin again was when Drew was six months old. I had taken him with me on retreat for Shavuot, and with the support of a kind retreat community was able to make the space to wrap myself again because there were other people around who would watch him, entertain him, cuddle him. It felt good. I felt guilty for having gone so long without it. And I felt weird about the fact that I seemed to be less involved with the words on the page than I used to be.

Even at moments when I don’t have Drew in my lap, I don’t have as much focus as I think I once did. I assume that someday that will change — maybe when I’m no longer navigating the territory of nighttime wakings? But for now, that’s where I am. Accepting where I am has become a big part of my spiritual practice. I need to be okay with where I am as a mother and as a davener in this moment, instead of longing for the spiritual life I used to have or the spiritual life I imagine I might have again someday.

One of my dear friends in my smicha (ordination) class, Yafa Chase, is also a mother. We lived together in Jerusalem two years ago when her daughter was four. Now their family is preparing for the arrival of another child — a baby boy from Ethiopia — so she’s anticipating the new-parent rollercoaster all over again. I asked her what happened to her spiritual life when Ariel was born.

“Ariel is almost six,” she tells me, “and started kindergarten in September. Things really changed. For the first time in almost six years, I have a block of time that is my own.” Davening on her own feels expansive, she says. It feels strange after six years of constricted time and energy.

The key thing for her, she says, was that she established a “prayer table” before Ariel was born. On that table, Yafa keeps her siddurim, a book of psalms, a Tanakh, a candle, a few precious items (a blue box given to her by her grandmother), pictures of her family, sometimes fresh flowers, “and whatever else is a reminder of God’s presence.” First thing in the morning, she goes from her shower to her prayer space. It’s part of her morning practice, as natural and necessary as brushing her teeth.

“In the first year of Ariel’s life, going to my prayer space might mean saying ‘Good morning God, please let me have more sleep or please help with breast feeding’ and that was it. I remember that picking up the siddur in that first year didn’t happen.”

Yafa’s journey into new motherhood was also fraught in ways that mine, thank God, wasn’t: during the first four weeks of Ariel’s life, Yafa’s husband Har-li was in a car accident and nearly died. Six months later, he had further complications from the accident, and almost died a second time. “I remember praying directly to God,” she says now. “In survival mode the prayer book didn’t do it for me, which now seems strange because I have always loved our liturgy. But I just needed to speak the words in my heart directly.” Survival mode seems like the right way to describe brand-new parenthood—even without the challenges of a partner on the brink of death.

Now, she says, the siddur has become a part of her davenen again…but as they await the arrival of their son from Ethiopia, she knows that soon she’ll be back to doing what she can in the moment.

My nursing-mother tallit has been folded and tucked into the canvas box where I keep all of my tallitot. Drew doesn’t spit up anymore, so I feel safe holding him while wearing one of my “real” tallitot. My tefillin practice has returned, too. I even wrote a poem this past summer which began “Don’t chew on your mama’s tefillin.”

When I take Drew with me to shul these days, I don’t even bother opening a siddur. I sit on the floor and play with him, and I sing along from memory. (I am grateful now for rabbinic school and the opportunity it offered me to study the liturgy over these last years.) He’s become too active to want to sit on my lap; sometimes he’ll let me dance him around the room, or hold him and sway during the beginning of a silent amidah, but all too soon he’s tired of my embrace and he pushes back, ready to be crawling around the sanctuary or pulling up to standing on one of our synagogue’s chairs.

Change is parenthood’s most dependable constant, and it’s been the constant in my relationship with prayer as a parent, too. I don’t know what my prayer life will look like in another six months, much less another year or two or five. But I know that having a baby has changed my relationship not only to prayer practices but to the words of the liturgy and to my relationship with God. When I sing Baruch m’rachem al ha-aretz (“Bless the One Who has compassion for the earth” or “Bless the One in Whose womb all creation is nurtured,” depending on how I choose to read the word m’rachem), I understand God as a mother who carries all of us in the divine womb and whose abundance streams into creation to sustain us day by day.

Even so, it’s hard for me even now to accept how my experience fails to fit with my previous understanding of myself as a person who had joyfully chosen a practice of regular prayer. In the traditional understanding, women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot (including regular prayer.) Women, one argument goes, are naturally more spiritual than men by virtue of our ability to nurture new life; we don’t need prayer to keep us connected with God. Before I had a baby, I railed against that conception. I don’t like the gender essentialism implicit in the notion that men do one thing and women do another. I don’t believe that women should be exempt from full participation in normative Jewish life.

Since Drew was born, though, I haven’t always been able to fulfill the positive time-bound mitzvot which had been an important part of my pre-motherhood life: laying tefillin, counting the Omer, regular liturgical prayer. I can’t deny that my experience has been that caring for a newborn was so overwhelming that I physically couldn’t make time to pray… and caring for an older baby still takes enough of my time and energy that I don’t have as much space for regular liturgical conversation with God as I used to enjoy.

I brought this to my spiritual director, who urged me to find a way to reframe the conversation. Instead of thinking in terms of how my spiritual life had been diminished, she suggested, could I think in terms of how my God-connection has been enriched by this experience of new motherhood? Nursing, for instance, offered me new ways of thinking about myself and about God. I might not have been laying tefillin during those early months, but my body offered me an opportunity for connection with God every time my son opened his mouth in hunger. Sometimes holding Drew in my lap during prayer has felt like holding a Torah scroll: something with an intrinsic connection to God, impossibly cherished.

These days I hold on to the awareness that everything is temporary: my life-before-baby was one phase, life with a newborn was another, life with a one-year-old is still another. My spiritual life, and my prayer life —not the same thing, though there’s overlap — have both been profoundly changed by motherhood. But I know now that nothing stays the same. Drew is different every day. Someday I may have the energy, the emotional and spiritual space, to really sink into liturgical prayer again. Though even when that happens, I suspect the experience will be different from what it used to be. I’m somebody’s mother now. Even when we’re apart, I’m conscious of his existence. That changes how I relate to everything, including prayer.

Life with a baby is a continual exercise in picking up threads from earlier in the day, earlier in the week, earlier in the year. My conversations with friends and family are perennially getting paused so I can tend to Drew’s needs; then I call back, or turn my attention to the other person in the room again, and say, “…I’m sorry, where were we?” I guess it’s no surprise that my conversations with God are the same way.

One morning recently I took Drew with me to a meeting of my “spiritual companions” group, a group of four clergy who meet periodically for conversation and spiritual sustenance. One of my colleagues was talking about his spiritual life when Drew, who was sitting on the floor tearing scraps of paper into confetti, let out a hearty wail. “I’m sorry,” I said, feeling sheepish about the interruption, and rushed to collect him into my arms and soothe him.

“Don’t be silly,” my colleague said. “I can’t imagine anything more holy than listening to that voice of God.” When he said that, I felt as though a piece of my spiritual puzzle had just fallen into place. Maybe this first year of parenthood has been a time for listening to God. Someday, when I’m ready, I’ll find myself speaking again.

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