Tag : parenting

October 23, 2020 by

Parenting During the Pandemic

SARAH SELTZER: 37, Lilith’s digital editor and mom of two.

Dear Friends,

I’m in NYC with a baby and toddler at home and little childcare help; my partner is a recent cancer survivor so we’re cautious. Like so many working moms, my job is more flexible (and provides less income) than my male partner’s, so my work overflows into lunch breaks, early mornings, naps, weekends and after bedtime. But it gets done.

When the weather is good, a two-hour trip to a park with some social-distance visiting is the day’s highlight. When we’re stuck at home? Tears, yelling, and messes.

Every day, I track Covid statistics on my phone. Early on in the pandemic, when our own New York was suffering gravely, I had my husband change my Twitter password so I would stop obsessing. I slept better. I hated that I slept better.

The tiny pleasures and stolen cups of coffee that kept me sane as a working parent of little kids are totally out of reach. Here comes the disclaimer (and we all do this) that I am one of the lucky ones, and being with my kids has its blessings, too. But as my quiet text threads with other friends who are similarly “lucky” reveal that we all feel a sense of drowning, and fear. The headlines bear this out: “Single Mothers Hit Hard.” “Real Life Horror Stories from Pandemic Motherhood.” “Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers.” The substance of these pieces? Women, especially women of color, single moms, and working moms, are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout: double burdens at home, discrimination at work if work exists, the twin terrors of anti-Black state violence and disease, a generation set back on the path to equality.

I’ve asked some women Lilith knows (but who don’t know each other) to talk about how this feels right now. Let’s dive in. Where are you all quarantining? What is your day like? What do you miss? Anything you’re OK with giving up?

 

TAMAR FOX: 36, a writer and editor who does not bake sourdough bread, but does obsess about houseplants.

I’m in Philadelphia with my five-year-old back in daycare, and it feels incredible. My partner and I both worked from home before Covid, but when it hit, we spent three months passing our child back and forth, counting the minutes until her afternoon screentime. My 12-year-old stepdaughter was going back and forth between us and her mom, doing schoolwork, understandably bored and frustrated. I spent every minute feeling intense guilt about what I wasn’t doing: being an attentive parent, focusing on work, getting dinner on the table before 8 PM.

We have childcare now, but school is starting again, and it’s going to be virtual. How do you do kindergarten online? We will likely join one of those “pods” that everyone is talking about, though I’m also worried about how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce segregation and divert resources from schools, as some have argued they will. Yet there is no possible way for me to teach my child and do my job at the same time. Every family I know is inventing its own plan, and I’m so full of rage I feel on the brink of screaming.

In the “before times,” every Shabbat we would go to a playground near our house. All our friends would be there, and for sometimes four hours or more we would just hang out–the kids yo-yoing back and forth from the slides to the spiderweb to the parents with the snacks. It is cheesy, but I just yearn to do that again. I miss sitting around for hours at a time and not worrying about dying of a virus.

 

ARIELLE DERBY: an elementary school principal and the 41-year-old mother of “two amazing kids.” She lives in Silver Spring, MD.

Hi everyone.

I’m a single mom. I have an eight-year-old son I share custody of with my ex-wife, and I had a baby on my own in November. He’ll soon be a year old, which I cannot believe. I’m a school principal, and since we went virtual on March 13 I feel like I have not stopped to breathe. Trying to run a school for other people’s kids and a school for my own (same school, but different experience, of course) and a daycare and a household all from our one-bedroom apartment was a constant succession of Big Feelings, most of them bad.

I’m good in a crisis. I felt grateful to be employed, to have (some) money to throw at our problems—like being able to pay to have groceries delivered, to have friends and family to Zoom with and reliable internet and devices for everyone. I thought we were doing pretty well, despite everything. But things started to fall apart for me around the end of May, when I realized this wasn’t a crisis. It was life.

On July 6 our daycare opened for infants again and I started sending the baby. It was amazing. He went for a week and two days and then a staff member got sick, and they shut down for three days. It wasn’t a teacher who worked with infants, but it was sobering. Following that the baby ran a low fever for two days, which caused me to get us all tested…negative.

My older son had a hard time with Zoom school. We talk a lot about feelings, and he said recently, “Everything is just so crappy now that when little things happen it just makes it even more crappy.” (He’s inherited my potty mouth.) He’s also thoughtful and sweet and funny and has spent more time playing Minecraft and watching Minecraft YouTubers in the past months than I care to admit. I am terrified about what the new school year will be like for him.

What do I long for? Not worrying about the trauma this is inflicting on my kid and all my students. Being able to buy groceries without its being A Production. Hanging out with colleagues in my office after school. Going out for coffee. Not feeling like every single fucking decision is life or death.

I started using Facebook like a public journal when this all started. I posted every day and tried to focus on the little moments of joy. My neighbors’ gardens blooming, my kids giggling. I know I am lucky. And yet. And still.

 

KATIE COLT: a writer, musician, and parent in the Chicago area.

Hi everyone.

I live in the suburbs with my husband and two kids. My daily life is centered around making sure the kids have what they need. Most of the domestic labor falls on me, as my husband has had to go into work from Day One of the pandemic (he’s a brewing production manager at a nationally distributed brewery).

Our five-year-old, a delightful and boisterous boy, is a “mover” (he physically cannot sit still) and is suspected to be ASD. Remote learning for his pre-K class was a disaster, and I am dreading our district’s remote-for-everyone plan, even though it’s safest. With my two-year-old, I’ve been trying to give him extra attention to help with his speech delay, but most of the time I just end up the referee between the kids. I’m worried that the younger one is missing out on socialization time, and that his speech delay is a result of being isolated. I feel like a failure because I can’t split myself into two people that can simultaneously give each child 100% of me.

On top of this, all I want to do is be alone. In April, I lost my dad to Covid. I’ve barely been able to get space to myself to grieve. Before this all happened, I was looking forward to sending the five-year-old to full-time kindergarten and the two-year-old to daycare a couple of days a week so I could spend time creating: writing and making art and music. I fear I will lose myself completely if I cannot figure out how to do this.

 

CHAVA SHERVINGTON: a longtime diversity activist in the Jewish community, as well as an attorney and mom in Los Angeles.

Hi everyone.

I’m a mother of two living on the West Coast with my husband and two daughters (four and six). I’m managing most household responsibilities, a house renovation, and am on the leadership team of an organization with a focus on racial equity work in the Jewish community. I’m on a hamster wheel: my husband is an essential worker, my kids are old enough to need real education and entertainment but not old enough to manage it themselves, and my professional responsibilities have exploded because of the new attention to racial justice.

My day cycles through conference calls, webinars, interior design, and refereeing household arguments. As an incredibly social person, I’m struggling with the fact that my circle has disappeared. Instead of conferences, social gatherings, smachot, and our warm shul and school community, I’m home with most of my in-person communication relegated to explaining for the 1000th time that, yes, my kids have to clean up their room even though they’re “still playing with it.”

An extreme extrovert, I am starved for adult interaction, leading me to spend more time on social media than I’d prefer to. I try to assuage my guilt with the fact that it does assist me in building relationships with my fellow Jews of color, but it also leads me to disappointment in the larger community as well, especially some responses to the movement for racial justice.

My kids are rotating between Zoom, the longest running game of house in history, and constantly anticipating the things they’re going to do when this gets better. Baruch Hashem they’ve adjusted to their new normal, but it was fraught with early behavioral regressions, chutzpah and clinginess combined with frustration that Mommy being home doesn’t always mean that Mommy’s available. My general 80s approach to parenting seems to be paying off, as my kids can entertain themselves for hours with dolls, books, and art…with only a few mishaps. I’m impressed with how resilient they’ve been and how much they’ve been willing to sacrifice until “after the virus.”

I feel like I’m creating infinite extensions on when that actually is, when they’ll be able to play with friends, return to shul, visit cousins and grandparents who live plane rides away. But I am inspired by their generosity of spirit and willingness to take this in stride. One thing I’ve learned so far is that there are lessons all around us, if only we’re willing to pay attention.

All the best,

Chava

 

AUTUMN LEONARD: a mother of two who leads workshops and conversations for parents and kids about race.

Hello new thought partners. It’s lovely to be sharing ideas. My family has been quarantined in our fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn for the centuries that have passed since March 16: the day NYC schools closed. My son turned seven two days before the closing. The pictures from his slumber party look so forbidden now, like we were fiddling on the Titanic as it sank. That was before wearing masks was supposed to be important. All of my work quickly dried up. I teach yoga and do facilitation and anti-oppression coaching. Once the yoga studios closed I had to wait and see if they would go online, and once they went online, I had to wait and see if they would invite me to be on the roster. Meanwhile my husband’s job exploded. He co-directs a parenting organization, and every single person on staff besides my husband is a working momma. My husband was the only person on his staff who had a partner who was no longer working full time, so I experienced more pressure to take care of the kids in order to free my husband up to backstop all those other mommas he works with. It was a masterclass on how I put unnecessary pressure on myself. I waded into remote learning while my husband worked up to 70 hours/week.

Remote learning was a slow-motion disaster for my first grader. He did not want to be seen on Zoom calls. I bribed my kids with chocolate to run laps up and down our hallway and stairwell. I kept taking videos of my youngest in apoplectic tears and then talking myself out of sending them to our teachers.

Here’s what I know about my emotional state: Dissociation is my superpower, I often feel fine in an emergency while knowing that in a few months or years I will have panic and anxiety and not know why. It’s like taking out an emotional loan against my future. So when this first began that’s what I did. I stayed very calm. It was an adventure. We would figure it out.

I have been teaching yoga via Zoom from my living room, or from my bedroom (with the bed flipped up against the wall), or even sneaking up onto the roof of my apartment. I have been holding space for other people while embracing how much I could not feel myself. There is a generation of kids whose entire lives will never be the same (they are calling them Generation C for Covid and/or Change). There are so many families who have been decimated.

Then George Floyd was murdered, the uprisings began, and suddenly I was absolutely incapable of pretending everything was fine anymore. So now I have become a stay-at-home momma, who intermittently teaches yoga from every room except the bathroom, who stayed indoors for most of three months—and then took her kids out to protest in the middle of a pandemic. While I have handled the pandemic of racism my whole life, I couldn’t handle the twin pandemics of racism and Covid and just stay safe.

 

ARIELLE DERBY:

I do appreciate hearing your stories, and at the same time it’s like a horror novel I don’t want to read.

Autumn, your words resonated with me. As an educator and a parent, I cannot stop thinking about the long- and short-term effects this will have on our kids. What lessons are they learning? God, I hope I am modeling and teaching resilience, gratitude, flexibility, strength…in my mind I am pretty much hiding in bed all the time.

What are our kids learning about who and what is valued in America? What will it mean for them to see and process that the grown ups can’t fix it? Can’t fully protect them? We are all affected, and at the same time my skin, my class status, my resources change the level and nature of my affectedness. Perhaps that is one thing for the “silver lining” list—having to think about and confront my privilege and what it means, the abundance of gratitude that comes with those realizations, the spur to action as a necessary response to those realizations.

 

KATIE COLT:

Arielle, this sentiment really resonated with me. What I am doing and where I am in my head are usually two completely different processes, as if I am split in two, each piece located on separate continents. When my five-year-old was a baby, I was struggling with postpartum depression and anxiety, and I was telling my mother about the terrible thoughts in my head while I was nuzzling him and feeding him. “You may be thinking of terrible things, but you’re not doing terrible things,” she said. If reassuring my kids while I quake in fear is considered “lying,” like one men’s magazine article described it, well, I’m nearly pathological. Everyday I’m full of dread and believe it MUST be leaking out somewhere, yet my kids ask to put their masks on the moment I open their car doors to unbuckle their little seatbelts. If anything, this makes me feel a little triumphant, this normalization of pandemic life. Because ultimately we have lost, but we are here.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how ineffective communities in today’s world can be at providing basic care for each other. In my neighborhood, I’m lucky to know several neighbors on my block, but we watch each other struggle with grief and loss, with working from home, with lack of childcare, and we say very little about it.

Because, somehow, the privilege we share has sent us our own independent islands, all lined up neatly in a row, and no one knows how to swim or wants to learn. Anyway, maybe that’s what the future, post-pandemic looks like to me: social contracts of reciprocity. I’m ready to jump in the water and discover how to float.

 

CHAVA SHERVINGTON:

Katie, so much of what you wrote I could have written myself. I don’t know if I would classify it as “lying” but I feel responsible for minimizing my children’s anxiety, sadness, and fear. I think there’s a distinct difference between avoiding and denying current realities, and helping children manage difficult circumstances. Given how isolating, depressing, and fear-inducing Covid, the continuing police brutality and rhetorical backlash around the current civil rights movement, and the economic downturn can be for adults, I have made specific choices around how we discuss these issues around them. I’m constantly questioning whether I’m making the right decisions about what we do and don’t discuss, but I’m hoping that I’m instilling core values around equity, justice, and communal responsibility.

And I miss my village! This pandemic has exposed the lack of governmental and societal support for women and children, how structural racism exacerbates that lack of support, and even for those in privileged circumstances demonstrates how necessary a village is. It’s also raised so many questions that society must reckon with in a serious way as we come out of this pandemic. Going back to “normal’ is not an option. This moment has exposed how normal is not working for so many of us. The new mommy wars around pods or no pods, remote learning vs. in person learning are only a reflection of the disparities that already exist.

Those of us who profess to value equity need to re-evaluate how we engage with institutions. As I see businesses who refuse to take cash, I think of all the folks with no credit or no bank accounts who are now prevented from accessing resources.

How much are we willing to sacrifice because of inadequate childcare options, how do we ensure that kids with food insecurity have proper access to nutritional meals, are employer expectations based in efficiency or in patriarchy, how do our personal relationships need to be reevaluated so that women aren’t overburdened? What are the many ways that this pandemic has more widely exposed racial disparities in health care, education, wealth, job opportunities, how many folks have been thrown into an economic tailspin due to a societal crisis? How do we build systems of resilience that don’t rely on exploitation?

One of my biggest fears is that this moment will pass, these questions will get pushed aside and pushed off until our next moment of crisis.

 

AUTUMN LEONARD:

My grandmother was an undertaker, firmly a member of the black upper-middle class in her town of Flint, Michigan. When I was a kid, everyone there knew my grandmother. She ran a funeral and undertaking business. I was seven the first time I saw a dead body in her basement. Since then I never lost the realization that death was something that could happen to any of us at any time. It has changed the way I live my life, because if you keep in mind that one day you will die it changes your idea of what is important. It has made me think a lot about how adulting is just playing an elaborate game. Some folks make up the rules to the game, and the rest of us try to win. When you look at life that way, rather than being fixed, everything seems adjustable.

The strange thing for me about Covid is that suddenly large sections of society are not ignoring mortality and the fact we can change the rules of society when necessary. Here in NYC, we could pause paying rent and mortgages for those at risk of homelessness. It’s in our power to keep people from being forced out into the streets during a pandemic. When survival is on the line, we rethink what is necessary.

I have had conversations with my 97-year-old grandfather (Jewish, not Black) about how he’s satisfied with the life he has led. I cannot imagine him saying this to me pre-Covid. I cannot imagine discussing it with my kids. But I have been discussing these things with my kids. “No matter what happens to Poppa, he will be satisfied. He is not worried.” We have no control over what happens at Poppa’s retirement home and they are all locked down there, no visitors, and anytime someone tests positive all the residents cannot leave their rooms. So suddenly we are talking to Poppa more than ever. My kids may know their greatgrandfather better than they might’ve. I think because of these discussions my kids are avid social distancers. We do not sugarcoat or ignore or pretend that anything other than our lives or someone else’s life is in the balance.

Recently we went to what we thought would be a distanced playdate and the other girls ran and hugged each other. They then turned to my eleven-year-old and tried to shame her into hugging them. My kiddo said “You have to respect my boundaries.” Until then I didn’t know just how determined she could be.

And yet I would give back knowing my daughter has a core of steel and my grandfather is at peace in a heartbeat if it meant we were not living through what we are living through.

 

TAMAR FOX:

For years I’ve been saying that the old folk tale It Could Always Be Worse is basically the story of my life, and should be printed on my headstone. As a foster parent, I do sometimes add people to my house and it always does make me feel like I’ve lost my mind, and when it’s over I always do feel this intense peace that I’m able to be there for kids that need a safe space. That has been a big piece of Covid times for me. Feeling overwhelmed and stressed and livid, and also grateful.

I worry for my friends who don’t have partners or kids. My best friend is a frontline doctor in New York. After months of excruciating work, he suddenly had to put his dog down last week, and my heart is breaking for him. I have caught myself wishing I had some alone time to watch all the Netflix, and sleep uninterrupted and keep the house cleanish for more than 5 minutes. But having people (and pets and plants) to take care of has also kept me from descending into madness.

One of the weirdest parts of all of this has been figuring out how to be there for friends experiencing loss (deaths, but also miscarriages, cancer diagnoses, job loss, etc) when I can’t give them hugs, or easily make them meals, or help with childcare. I keep thinking about how much I needed my friends when my mom died, and when we had new babies. It sucks to not be able to do the things for others that helped me. My old standards are pretty useless now. I’m doing text check-ins. Sending postcards to friends every week. But it doesn’t feel like enough.

 

SARAH SELTZER:

It’s 5.30 am and I’m nursing my baby as the sun rises: so in the new normal, office hours have begun. As Autumn and Arielle have said, the revelations and insights I may have gained because of this mass suffering—I was schlepping way too much “before,” focused on providing for my kids (Pumped breastmilk! Dinner!) rather than just being with them—are valuable, yes, but not valuable enough.

Autumn, I also broke my quarantine to walk in a BLM protest with my kids, and my partner has been doing an intensive antiracist curriculum with our oldest, but I yearn to do more that’s physical: to make marching and organizing a part of my rhythm as I used to do during Occupy Wall Street, during various feminist uprisings, and earlier, during protests of the Bush era.

One of the things I struggled with as a new mom in the Trump era is that my body isn’t mine to use spontaneously. It is the center of a small ecosystem. But sometimes I wear a teargas- proof bandanna from Occupy as my Covid mask, to remind myself that protest movements always return, that, as my mother and Lilith colleagues remind me, the period of life with young children is finite, even short, and that someday I may be marching along with my kids, celebrating victories with my kids, being taught how to be in intimate spaces with other people again by them, and with them.

And now to try to get an hour of sleep before the day begins, again.

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The Lilith Blog

September 8, 2020 by

It’s the First Day of School. Institutions Are Failing Our Kids.

Parents of young children are masters at winging it. Scary movie? Apply some magical thinking and it qualifies as a comedy. Laundry to fold? Transform the chore into a game show. Healthy dinner? Add broccoli to boxed mac and cheese.

But few of us have had to wing it on such a huge scale. On a Sunday evening in mid-March, New York City public school families learned that school was to shut down beginning the next day, Monday, March 16. Like so many, my children went to school on a Friday and at the end of the day gathered a few belongings, bid goodbye to the teachers they loved and never set foot in their classrooms again.

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July 27, 2020 by

Now. Next.

A cross-section of activists and thinkers weigh in on the present and its future— what perils we face, and what we might build from this epidemiological, social and political crisis.

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The Lilith Blog

May 29, 2020 by

I Told Our Son He Can’t Come Home

He asked to borrow the car. 

Just two weeks earlier, he’d been sheltering with us in our Hudson River town, where he’d stayed for the first two months of lockdown. Despite our pleas, he returned to Manhattan. On a whim before leaving, he took the antibody test and learned that, like 30% of people infected with the coronavirus, he’d had it asymptomatically. Considering himself safe, he asked if he could stay overnight before taking the Honda. I reminded him that no antibody test is highly reliable and that nobody knows yet whether a true positive test means a person is immune. I had to say no. 

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January 10, 2019 by

Motherhood and Godliness

In my own 15 years of formal Jewish education, I had learned many of the Jewish concepts discussed by Mara Benjamin. But until I read this book, I never would have thought of them in relation to motherhood. After reading The Obligated Self (Indiana University Press, $30), I’ll never look in the same way at biblical “nurse- maids,” God’s ongoing frustration with/ love of the Jewish people, and the power that my children have over me at times. The Obligated Self is a profound example of how feminist thought can enrich and expand traditional Jewish concepts for today

“To be a parent is, in some sense, is to be a child’s God,” writes Benjamin. An inspirational, comforting, terrifying thought. Not necessarily the fist thing that would pop into a moth- er’s head while changing diapers, cleaning food off the floor or driving carpool. It’s possible that there are Jewish mothers out there who, while performing the many repetitive, messy, sometimes boring, rarely rewarded with-a-smile-or-a- thank-you tasks of motherhood, have pondered the Jewish thinkers. It’s possible they have asked, “I wonder what Maimonides/Heschel/Levinas would think of these daily acts of care I do for my children.” But I’d imagine these women are an uncommon bunch.

Yet as a thinking/tired/working/caring Jewish mother myself, I was profoundly moved by Mara Benjamin’s readable Jewish “ethic of care.” She shows how many of the daily, multifaceted acts of maternal caregiving relate to concepts of love, obligation, and com- munity—the very concepts that are so o en discussed by male Jewish thinkers in their theological musings on the relationship between Jews and God and Jews to the larger world. Benjamin’s aim is to show that ignoring the “reality of child-rearing, and the profound existential and ethical questions that arise for those immersed in it,” has produced a de cit in Jewish thought and philosophy. In a review of ancient and modern Jewish philosophical and theological writings that compares them with feminist theorists and theologians, Benjamin comes upon the parent as a God metaphor. She sends texts that describe the relation- ship between God and the people of Israel as the ones most evocative of women’s and mothers’ experiences. (Benjamin acknowledges that bearing children and caring for them is an experience that still disproportionately affects the lives of women.) Each chapter names a theme connecting mothers’ experiences and Jewish philosophical thought. The first chapter, “Obligation,” examines a mother’s ties to her children through responsibility, duty, and affection.

Benjamin then explores how this relationship can help us reassess the ideas of “commandment” in Jewish thought. Modern Jewish thinkers, responding to Enlightenment ideas, and Jews who became eager to shed the visible obligations of Judaism in exchange for almost-equal participation in civil society, reframed the traditional idea of Jews being commanded by or obligated to God. Instead, they posited, in a universal,abstract way,the concept of individuals obligated to each other in everyday relationships. Parents, Benjamin reminds us, are obligated to their specific children, not only for those universal needs for clothng, food, comfort but also for an individual child’s unique needs and demands. Mothers also experience agency—“the exercise of action within constraints”—in their experience of raising children. The rabbis of the Talmud, she notes, also understood Israel’s agency in accepting the obligation of the commandments and their relationship with God. She cites the famous midrash of how God held up Mount Sinai above the Israelites and threatened them with death if they didn’t accept the Torah.

Yet the end of the midrash states that the Jews later “upheld what they already accepted.” That is, they armed that they were previously obligated. Mothers, too, experience this agency—of having chosen to be both obligated and constrained. Benjamin describes the duality of this experience as being at times like “slavery (‘avdut’) and at times like service (‘avodah’).” In her chapter “Love,” Benjamin examines “overwhelming, debilitating, and transformative love for one’s child” in relation to biblical, rabbinic, and liturgical portrayals of God’s complicated love for the people of Israel. “Power” is not a term o en used by modern parents to describe their relationship with their children, but it’s there. In this particularly engaging chapter, Benjamin shows how maternal power, like divine power in the Bible and rabbinic sources, always involves some control and superiority.

However (as she reminds any parent who has been held hostage by a child’s tantrum or adamant refusal to go where the parent needs to go) one’s children also wield power in the parent-child relationship. And biblical and rabbinic texts that show God as “‘dependent’ on the recognition of Israel” acknowledge this. Yet Benjamin notes that in biblical and midrashic texts, God is depicted as suffering when the people of Israel sin, engage in violence, or are exiled, a parallel to the pain parents feel when their children act badly. “This vulnerability is the price of responsibility and involvement,” writes Benjamin.

A chapter provocatively titled “The Third” delves into the many other people in a mother’s life who help her to raise her child—teachers, paid caregivers, family members, and their analogs in biblical and rabbinic texts. Despite protestations about the primacy of the nuclear family, families from biblical times onward have always had help with childrearing, and these relationships must be honored. With “The Neighbor,” Benjamin argues that parental love, rather than limiting one’s responsibility to the outside world, actually expands it to reflect the commandment to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” 

Susan Sapiro is a grant writer in Westchester County, NY, and reads and writes on motherhood, feminism, and Judaism.

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January 10, 2019 by

Before “Parenting”

I think Jennifer Traig wants to make us feel better. Parenting is, as she points out (very) frequently, hard. And she wants us to know that it always was. So much so that people do whatever they can to get out of it. And that’s a good thing, from an evolutionary point of view: kids demand more than they can get, and parents give less than they can offer, generally. And both sides come out okay. Most of the time. It turns out, as Traig chronicles in the first few chapters of Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting (HarperCollins, $26.99), that for much of human history most kids didn’t come out at all. In absence of reliable birth control and safe pregnancy- termination procedures, many more kids were born than could be supported and sustained.

Traig tells us all about the various techniques of neglect—benign and otherwise—that resulted from too many babies. Many had their desired effect: fewer kids to take care of, either because they were sent away to foundling houses or wet nurses, or simply abandoned, or because they just did not make it. And even those who did have the resources (scant or otherwise) to take care of their children barely did so. Babies were parked, tied, swaddled for days on end, or stood in the equivalent of stocks, and Men who parent get praised; women who parent can only ever fall short, though kids have survived no matter how they were raised. then left alone.

Parents simply didn’t parent their babies; even the use of the word as a verb is rather recent, as is the action it describes. This is a hugely ambitious book, spanning hundreds of years of history and almost as many parenting trends, fads, and perspectives. Traig tells us about out- sourcing and childbirth, advice manuals and diets, age expectations and sibling relationships, and discipline trends and children’s literature.

Her survey spans a wide swath of Western countries and religious approaches, with a clear mastery of Jewish- related topics and a rich sprinkling of Jewish anecdotes. The feminist tone is reassuringly clear; as much as any book about parenting can be empowering to women, this one is. That’s a heavy caveat though: while the term parenting, young as it might be, is meant to be inclusive, we all know that it really means mothering. Men who parent get praised; women who parent can only ever fall short, though not in Traig’s treatment, which does as much as it can to show us that through time kids have survived no matter how they were raised.

The one constant across the book is that every parenting framework is ever- changing. That should be reassuring: to date, no one has gotten it exactly right. Yesterday’s practical allocation of resources may be today’s abandonment, and last century’s effective discipline technique is today’s psychological torture. And maybe we don’t even have it all right today, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that others have certainly made our same mis- takes, and a whole lot of other ones besides. With a light touch, Traig takes on a pretty heavy topic. And while the jokey tone makes for quick reading, sometimes the judgment on the past feels harsh.

There isn’t a lot of the context we might need to understand why people were doing what they did. This can make it all too easy to simply laugh at the foibles of history. Traig is refreshingly willing to turn that same mocking approach on her own parenting, making readers feel like we’re all on the same team. No judgment here, at least not for today’s parents! But sometimes that willingness to laugh at herself is estranging, taking us outside the narrative of the book to question Traig a bit too often. For example, she explains the recent emergence of the term parent and the ways that parents in the past simply did not do that job. But she undercuts the real gravity and depth of work that she’s done by taking the joke too far:

“Most parents did not parent; the verb, and the concept, did not exist. Unlike us, I doubt they felt much guilt about it, much as my mail carrier doesn’t feel guilty for not mowing my lawn. It’s simply not his job, no matter how much I try to convince him it is.” No you don’t. At least, I really really hope not.

Thankfully, those moments are few and far between. At one point, Traig mentions that she’s not sure she’d take parenting advice from some of the women whose writing she’s read, but she’d love to go out with them for a beer. I think that might be true for me too: I’m not sure how much depth I got on parent- ing trends throughout history (though I learned a great deal of interesting anecdotal detail) but I’d love to go have a drink with Jennifer Traig. 

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October 3, 2018 by

Interfere Less, Observe More

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.29.53 AMWith all eyes riveted on images of babies and toddlers separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and with thousands of these children placed in institutions or in last-minute foster-care arrangements, the patterns of caring for infants and children nearly 80 years ago have a lot to teach us today.

The images of crying refugee children accompanied 16 of us—parents and early childhood professionals from 10 countries—attending an annual weeklong seminar on how to best care for infants and toddlers at the Pikler House in Budapest, Hungary in June. It was my fifth year there. What keeps me coming back is the deep font of wisdom held by the experienced staff of this amazing place— wisdom that could well help U.S. officials now causing untold trauma to young children. 

Today a day care, research and training center, the Pikler House—known as Lóczy, after the street on which it is located— was established by the visionary Jewish pediatrician Emmi Pikler as a residential infants’ home right after World War II at the request of the city of Budapest. Over more than 60 years, it functioned as a home for 2500 orphaned infants and young children and those whose parents could not care for them. Pikler applied her path-breaking approach there, documented the life of the children in photos and films, conducted research and published scientific papers. A 1968 World Health Organization study found that children reared at Lóczy turned into well adjusted adults—a stunning outcome for children raised in orphanages. Following that study, Lóczy became known as a model orphanage, and at the request of the Hungarian government, its staff regularly visited other orphanages to train them in the Piklerian approach. 

What was so different about the way children at Lóczy were raised? What is it that keeps people—including seasoned professionals— from throughout the world flocking to the former mansion in the green hills of Budapest to learn Pikler’s approach?

The children at Lóczy were cared for with respect and sensitivity and were given the freedom to follow their own impulses in movement, play and exploration. This was in sharp contrast to babies in many other orphanages who were (and still are) kept in cribs all day, given bottles to drink by themselves, and roughly hurried through care routines. 

I encountered Pikler’s ideas 33 years ago when my firstborn, Ilana, was three months old. I had travelled from my home on New York’s Upper West Side to visit family in my hometown of Los Angeles. A friend’s mother had been holding Ilana, and before returning her to my hands, she turned to the baby, looked her in the eyes, and said, “I’m giving you back to your Mummy now.” Then she turned to my friend and said, “Did I do that right?” 

I was intrigued. It turned out my friend, Hari Grebler, was being trained by Emmi Pikler’s protégé Magda Gerber, who had founded Resources for Infant Educarers in Los Angeles. I visited the RIE Center, was inspired by what I saw and bought the only book on the Pikler approach that was then available in English. (Today, there are at least a dozen, including Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect by Magda Gerber; Respecting Babies: A New Look at Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach by Ruth Anne Hammond; and Baby Knows Best by Deborah Carlisle Solomon.) 

Pikler’s ideas resonated deep inside me and I started implementing them with Ilana and later with my two boys. Rather than trying to get care routines over with as fast as possible, I tried to slow down, connect with my babies and ask for their cooperation when I changed their diapers, bathed or dressed them. Whereas other moms around me strapped their babies into seats and swings and felt pressured to constantly entertain or stimulate their little ones, I gave mine lots of time on the floor to move and play freely. I saw that they were perfectly capable of and happy to stimulate and amuse themselves. The moms in my mother’s group would comment on how active Ilana was, not realizing that their babies, often propped up with cushions before they could sit on their own, were not free to move as they pleased in that position. Despite what I saw around me, I never sat them up before they could sit by themselves, or held their hands up to walk them before they walked on their own. I also didn’t interrupt their play. In short, I trusted that if my children got the love and attention they needed during care routines and at other times, they could be free during playtime to follow their own initiative. It would take them where they needed to go.

After we moved to Israel and once my youngest was old enough for me to leave home for a couple of weeks, I began traveling to Los Angeles and Budapest for training to become a parent educator in this approach. I wanted other parents to learn what I had learned and what felt so right. I’ve been teaching parent-baby classes inspired by the approach in Jerusalem since 2013. In August, I brought the first two-week RIE® Foundations™ training to Tel Aviv.

Who Was Emmi Pikler?

Born Emilie Madleine Reich in Vienna in 1902, Pikler was the only child of an Austrian mother and Hungarian father who moved with her to Budapest when she was six. Her mother, a kindergarten teacher, died when she was 12, a development that may have influenced her choice of profession and her passionate commitment to orphaned children. Her father, an artisan who manufactured baking implements, was, “a believer with a kippah,” according to his granddaughter, psychologist Anna Tardos. 

Pikler attended medical school in her native Vienna during the 1920s, a time rich with post-World War I reformist ideas. She was influenced by the confluence of Marxism, psychoanalysis, the back-to-nature movement and the new education movement, which had roots in the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. That movement aimed for social change through education, saw children as equals and influenced Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Janusz Korczak. Pikler had the good fortune to be trained by doctors who saw the child as a whole person to be treated with respect. 

When she began her private medical practice in Budapest in 1935, Pikler was more interested in promoting healthy physical and emotional development than in curing illnesses and, according to Tardos, her patients were rarely ill. During weekly home visits (as a Jew in Hungary, she was already prohibited from working in a hospital or other institution), Pikler advised parents to interfere less and observe more. She taught them to have a predictable rhythm to the day, enable their babies to move and play freely and to respect the children’s developmental timetable. She asked them to take their time during the caregiving routines, to respond to the child’s signals, to tell the child what they were doing each step of the way and to ask for the child’s cooperation. “I want to put your shirt on. Can you give me your hand?” She encouraged parents to follow the child’s lead when he moved and played during caregiving. 

At the basis of Pikler’s philosophy is the view of a baby as a person. Of course a baby is person! you may be thinking. But how many times have you seen a parent or caregiver approach a baby and, without first saying a word about what is about to happen, simply scoop him up from behind and carry him to the changing table? Would we ever treat an adult so cavalierly? 

Pikler encouraged her patients and caregivers to approach the child, see what he is doing, tell him she is going to change his diaper, hold out her hands to pick him up and wait for a response. She saw diapering and other care routines as critical components to building the parent/caregiver-child relationship and the child’s sense of security and confidence. Rather than something to be gotten through, the care routines were seen as golden opportunities for connection. Indeed, her principles of free movement and play were dependent on conducting the daily care routines of bathing, diapering, dressing, feeding and putting to sleep in a manner that was enjoyable for the infant and that deepened the relationship between him and his caregiver. In addition to this kind of quality time contributing to emotional stability and growth, Pikler sensed what research later proved: that social/emotional relations affect brain development. Indeed, psychologist and neuroscientist, Natasha Khazanov PhD, associate clinical professor at UC San Francisco, called Pikler “an incredible visionary (who was) ahead of her time.”

Pikler’s ideas went against prevailing child-rearing practices. She was opposed to binding babies in seats or other contraptions; placing them in positions they could not get into themselves; entertaining them constantly; jiggling toys in front of them; hanging mobiles over their heads and teaching them how to sit, walk and play. 

“Dr. Pikler came out vehemently against the prevailing view of our time: to do with the baby what the adult wants—to dance with him, to sing to him, to throw him up in the air; to teach him to sit, to teach him to speak,” says Yardena Avi-Dor, who was a student of Pikler’s in the Seminary for Mothers and Teachers in Budapest in 1943. “She advocated letting the baby do what he wants at his own pace and not to struggle over food or toilet training.” 

Although she was Jewish, and the Nazis were on Hungary’s doorstep, Avi-Dor said 1943 was the best year of her life. 

“Europe was at war. We had no hope, no horizons,” Avi-Dor told Lilith. “But every one of the 23 Jewish girls in my class remembered it as the happiest year of her life. It changed our relationship with ourselves. Emmi Pikler turned our worldview on its head. I wasn’t the only one who had a stern, punishing mother, and suddenly we could breathe, we got respect. We grew up…She gave us back our childhood confidence.”

Training Jewish Girls — And Saving Them

I found Avi-Dor through a Google search in Hebrew for “Emmi Pikler.” She had been one of dozens of girls trained as caregivers by Pikler during World War II. In 1940, Pikler already had a reputation as an outstanding pediatrician and was well known through her popular Hungarian book on child-rearing (“What Can the Baby Already Do?”; in German, Peaceful Babies, Contented Mothers). That’s when Rabbi Dr. Imre Benechowki asked her to organize the curriculum and recruit teachers for the seminary he founded in response to the government’s almost total ban on Jewish high school graduates attending university. The seminary, which met in a basement on Tigris Street, was sponsored by the Jewish community of Buda and authorized by the Ministries of Education and Religion. Each year from 1940 to mid-1944, about 25 Jewish girls were trained at the seminary. One of them, Judit Falk, went on to become a pediatrician and directed Lóczy after Pikler retired.

I’m speaking to Avi-Dor, now in her late 80’s, in a café in downtown Jerusalem. White-haired and walking now with a cane, she is excited to be sharing memories from this formative time in her life.

“I could talk about what I learned from Pikler forever,” she said. “It’s as if there is a box in my head full of ancient treasures and suddenly the box opens and its contents spill out and I can’t stop the flow.” 

Indeed, Avi-Dor remembers her training in great detail. She said the charismatic Pikler hired the best teachers of education, psychology, movement, crafts, philosophy, drawing, classical music and gardening—and even a teacher of children’s songs. And she taught there herself. She required that those of her students who had unresolved issues with their parents undergo psychoanalysis so they wouldn’t unconsciously act out their issues with the children who would be in their care. 

“My mother called me bad, ugly, stupid,” said Avi-Dor. “The therapy saved me. I was allowed to feel what I felt. I began to accept myself.” 

Pikler had definite views and not only about child rearing. “She wouldn’t allow us to take notes during class,” Avi-Dor said. “We were to listen, to look at the lecturer and only later at home, to write down what we remembered.” Avi-Dor continued this practice in her university and graduate studies in Israel. 

The Hungarian seminary’s curriculum included progressive elements such as the movement education of “bodywork” pioneer, Elsa Gindler, whose work on sensory awareness influenced Wilhelm Reich, the radical physician, psychoanalyst and body therapy pioneer. Some of what went on in that seminary in the 1940’s resembles today’s hippest yoga studios. “Our exercise teacher, Lili Edelstein, said ‘Listen to the body, the body speaks’,” said Avi-Dor. “She taught us to lie down on the floor and relax, to pay attention to the breath.” 

Forced to close the seminary in May 1944—six weeks after the Nazis invaded Hungary—Pikler used her connections with high officials to ensure that her students were hidden and/or given false papers if they weren’t spirited out of the country to safety. 

“Emmi was very much in demand as a doctor, especially by government ministers, the aristocracy, members of parliament, all the big Nazis,” said Avi-Dor. “She was famous—a German speaking doctor with new methods. She used her connections to send everyone she could to safety. She placed my friend, who studied in the seminary the year before me, as a nanny at the home of the Hungarian justice minister, who had been her patient. Like the others, Osnat had forged papers.” 

When asked if Pikler herself had forged the papers, Avi-Dor proudly said, “We did,” referring to her fellow progressive Zionist youth movement comrades. (Avi-Dor escaped Hungary with her youth movement in 1944 and reached Israel the same year.) 

“We had two methods,” she continued. “The boys pretended to be drivers or warehouse workers and would steal blank documents from Interior Ministry warehouses. We girls would fill out the certificates and stamp them with the stamp of the Jewish National Fund. The police didn’t check that carefully. If they had, they would have realized… The smarter girls would stand in line at the Interior Ministry behind a person declaring a death and asking for the right forms, and listen for the name. It takes time to issue a death certificate and in the meantime, they would go to another department and ask for that person’s birth certificate.” 

Two former patients provided false documents for Pikler, her daughter, Anna, and her husband’s parents (her husband was a political prisoner at the time). Anna acted as a nanny in one of the families and Pikler pretended to be a governess in the second family’s home. By October, Pikler had arranged for her daughter to join her in the home in which she was hiding. “I wasn’t allowed to call her Mommy,” Tardos recalled. The Piklers survived the war and continued living in Budapest.

Pikler’s Influence

Word of the work being done at Lóczy began to spread outside of Hungary in the 1970’s. Inspired by a visit, French psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Myriam David and psychologist Geneviève Appell, wrote Lóczy: An Unusual Approach to Mothering in 1973, which spread Pikler’s ideas around the world. In the documentary film, “Lóczy, a Place to Grow” by Bernard Martino, David calls the caregivers there “angels serving humanity.” Indeed, we see the caregivers in the film providing care with exquisite attunement and even joy. (I saw the same attuned, sensitive, joyful care when I observed at Lóczy in 2007.) To achieve this extraordinary level of care, Pikler fired the experienced caregivers she had initially hired who were too set in their ways to learn a new approach, and engaged inexperienced high school graduates from the countryside who loved babies. Each of them went through a rigorous training and shadowing process, as do the caregivers at the Lóczy day care center today. 

Today, Pikler’s influence is international, with the late Princess Diana’s niece, among thousands of others, being raised according to her principles of free movement, autonomous play and mindful caregiving. Over the years, thousands of early childhood professionals and parents from dozens of countries have flocked to Lóczy to observe and to attend training sessions and seminars. Others learn about the approach from the many books and films produced by Lóczy and RIE. Among Pikler devotees are many Waldorf and Montessori early childhood teachers. They say the Pikler approach is congruent with their philosophies and fills in the crucial birth to age three gap, which is not the focus of the other two approaches. 

Says Liz Hagerman, a therapist, Pikler student and Waldorf teacher in Washington, D.C.: “Pikler is the ‘how to’ for Steiner’s ideas about supporting the development and well-being of the child from birth to three. It’s a perfect complement.” Pikler students who are Montessori trained agree, adding that both approaches emphasize respect for the child, self-initiated activities in a prepared environment and the importance of observation in enabling adults to understand and empathize with young children. 

A growing number of day care centers—including in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and even Israel—are also adopting Pikler’s recommendations. Her emphasis on primary caregiving and continuity of care (that is that children stay with the same caregiver throughout their day care years and that one caregiver be primarily responsible for each child) is finally being adopted by national early childhood organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

There is, however, some misunderstanding in many articles and blogs; it is simply incorrect that Pikler advised against picking up a crying child or singing or playing with one’s children.

Changed My Mothering

“I encountered Pikler’s ideas when my firstborn was an infant and they dramatically changed the trajectory of my mothering,” said Countess Karen Spencer, the late Princess Diana’s sister-in-law and one of People Magazine’s “25 women changing the world.” 

“It was liberating to learn that my daughter could have time to explore on her own and that so long as I was really present during caregiving, it was okay for me to be getting on with everyday tasks in between those moments of togetherness. It was a framework that allowed me to cope with the 24/7 nature of motherhood. It took the pressure of constant perfection off and unlocked a very natural and connected relationship.” Inspired by what she learned, Spencer founded Whole Child International in order to improve conditions in childcare institutions around the world, using Pikler’s approach as her basic philosophy. 

Emmi Pikler directed Lóczy for 33 years and continued to lecture and to conduct research and consultations after her retirement until shortly before her death in 1984. While she was invited to Israel by Feldenkrais practitioners, she never made it there. A handful of Israeli early childhood professionals, including Miri Keren, M.D., former president of World Association for Infant Mental Health, director of the Geha Infant Mental Health Unit and a lecturer at the Sackler Medical School, have traveled to Lóczy for trainings. Keren, who also is the consulting psychiatrist to a residential baby home in Tel Aviv, says, “This approach facilitates growth and well-being in infants, teaches parents to observe without intruding or overstimulating and is a tool for prevention. A number of these principles have been implemented in an Israeli residential nursery with positive impact on both infants and caregivers.” 

Now widowed and living in a nursing home near her grandchildren in Jerusalem, Avi-Dor is gratified that Pikler’s ideas have spread around the world and that there are more than 450 mothers in a Pikler Facebook group in Israel, dozens who have participated in Pikler-inspired parent-child classes there and several Tel Aviv preschools that work to implement the approach. 

“My studies with her were worth more than everything I learned in teachers’ seminary here in Israel, or at university for my master’s degree,” said Avi-Dor. “If not for Emmi, I could never have done what I did—working in special education with juvenile delinquents and being able to honor their spirit, to give them respect and a sense of security. 

“It was the experience of my life.” 

Ruth Mason is a journalist and certified parent educator living in Jerusalem. She works at Shatil and blogs at timesofisrael.com.

 

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The Lilith Blog

September 13, 2018 by

As a Male Rabbi, I Plan to “Lean In” to Childcare

This year will be a year of profound change in my life – and the opportunity for my spouse, Mirah, and me to change minhag, the customs of our people. It is no secret that clergy in committed relationships often crater their partner’s careers. I have seen colleagues use holy words as pretense to ignore their partner’s needs – and at my worst, might have done so myself. It is narcissism wrapped in the language of Torah.

We denigrate both ourselves and our tradition when we demean the people to whom we father daughter beachshould be most committed – especially when we do it in the name of God. When people decry organized religion, it is our hypocrisy as clergy that gives them legitimacy.

I enter this Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, filled with trepidation about what I might do, or fail to do, when a new baby enters our lives. We both plan to continue working and will do our best to co-parent. But I fear that my failure to lean into parenting will ruin Mirah’s career. 

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