Book Review by Rabbi Rachel Esserman: The joys and frustrations of being a parent

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

(JTA coop) – If you search for “parenting books” on, 186,916 book suggestions appear. The works range from those that cover all aspects of child rearing to ones focusing on a specific problem; for example, how to get infants and toddlers to sleep through the night. They also feature discussions of different parenting types – being a free-range parent or a helicopter one – and specific types of parents – for example, Tiger moms and Eagle dads.

Readers might be grateful that Rabbis Dayna Ruttenberg and Susan Silverman have not written books about how to raise your child. Instead, their new works offer something different: they discuss the joys and frustrations of being a parent, and how it can change your life. In “Nurturing the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting” (Flatiron Books), Ruttenberg offers suggestions on how child rearing can be a spiritual experience. Silverman more narrowly focuses on her own family – particularly the process of adopting two children from Ethiopia – in “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World” (Da Capo Press). Both authors use Jewish imagery and concepts to explain their experiences, although each also speaks to a general audience.

Nurture-the-Wow-coverRuttenberg is quite clear on what she hopes to accomplish: “This is not a guide to raising spiritual children – or any kind of children, for that matter. Like so many parents, I’m muddling along, trying to figure out how best to care for the specific human beings I have been issued, and I’m not always sure if I’m making the right decisions… I’m certainly not going to tell anyone else whether they should co-sleep, cry-it-out, attach or free-range their kids. This is not a parenting book; it’s a parenthood book. It’s about the adult experience of parenting – about what it often is and what it can be.” Ruttenberg is the first to admit that she gets cranky and tired, and loses patience and wants to yell or just escape to a safe place where little hands aren’t grabbing her and no one is yelling “mom-meeeeee” every minute. However, she also believes it’s possible to experience the boredom and mess of childhood differently – as a way to attain what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.”

Ruttenberg notes that few people think of child rearing as a spiritual experience. However, she believes that parents have available to them “master teachers of radical amazement”: their children. For example, her books show how children experience a sense of awe – the “wow” of her title – in almost everything they do. That’s because children focus exclusively on the current moment – be it a great stick to play with or an interesting tree to look at. Unfortunately, their intense concentration usually interferes with their parents’ agenda – whether it’s the need to get to a doctor’s appointment or go grocery shopping so dinner will be ready on time. Ruttenberg suggests that if adults stop thinking about the future and focus on being in the present moment, their lives will change. Not only will they experience a sense of “wow,” but they will also understand what their child is feeling, which can help with meltdowns, temper tantrums and other difficult behavior.

Ruttenberg notes that learning to do this is an ongoing process, one at which she frequently fails. However, when she does succeed, she not only helps her child, but creates a spiritual connection.One specific Jewish example is how she connects the post-bathroom liturgy found in the morning prayer service to dealing with her children. The prayer thanks G-d for making certain that all of our openings and closings work, something without which we would be unable to stay alive. Ruttenberg believes mothers have never been taught to think of this prayer when dealing with the messy body moments of their children, whether it’s changing diapers or toilet training. The blessing also reminds her of how much is out of her control – of her inability to guarantee her children will always be healthy and safe. She notes that “it’s not necessarily a comfortable feeling, but it takes me to gratitude. There in the midst of changing yet another diaper or dragging a reluctant toddler to the bathroom one more time, we can think of this benediction and experience a fuller appreciation for the moment at hand.”

Ruttenberg’s ideas about finding spirituality in the every day will resonate not only with parents, but with others in the midst of difficult relationships. Readers might quibble about whether or not what the author suggests is possible, but Ruttenberg continually notes that she fails as often as she succeeds. However, she sees her successes as worth the effort, both for herself and her children. Her book does a wonderful job reminding us of the importance of connecting to those humans – small and large – who can drive us crazy one moment and fill us with amazement the next.

casting lotsUnlike Ruttenberg’s work, which would fall in the self-help category, Silverman focuses not on giving advice, but explaining how her messy, imperfect family came into being. The author comes across as neurotic – someone who lives in perpetual fear of losing a loved one, even with therapy – although this makes sense after reading about the freak accident that killed a younger sibling. Although Silverman has two natural children (both girls), she decides she wants to adopt. The majority of her memoir talks about her first trip to Ethiopia to adopt a son and how this change affected her family. However, Silverman is not content with three children: after giving birth to her third daughter, she returns to Ethiopia to adopt a second son. Rather than present herself as a model parent, though, the author shows just how messy and mixed up her life is – and how filled with love.

In fact, Silverman believes that all lives are messy, that “we are all broken, we just are. But if we are a little lucky, and very willing to learn how, our shards and pieces can form mosaics of love and relationships – unwieldy, vibrant and cracked as they must be.” She uses Moses and the breaking of the tablets to explain her idea, noting that, in addition to carrying the second, unbroken set of tablets Moses received from God, the Israelites also carried the smashed ones with them: “Like the Israelites, carrying our brokenness can give us truth, dynamism and purpose.” Silverman admits that she doesn’t know where her family’s path will take them, but her hope is to create a true, loving and welcoming home for them all.

Silverman bravely shows the problems her family faces and never pretends she’s perfect. Even the difficulties her older daughters have in school – behavioral and scholastic – are related, as are her steps to help them, which aren’t always successful. Readers may find fault with the author’s behavior, but it’s hard to criticize her burning desire to spread love to as many people as possible. Silverman’s memoir is a brave, moving work that helps us expand our ideas about what it means to be a family.

Rabbi Rachel Esserman is the executive editor and book reviewer for The Reporter Group published by the Jewish Federation of Broome County. Her editorials and reviews have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association and the Syracuse Press Club.

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