I never was a big reader of parenting books.
I know I read Anita Diamant’s How To Be a Jewish Parent when I was pregnant, because I dimly recall seeing it in the bathroom when I returned to consciousness sometime around Josie’s fourth birthday. (It’s since been renamed How To Raise a Jewish Child, if you’re on a Google mission.) I’m sure it was good—my mom gave it to me, and she has good taste—but I cannot recall a single thing about it. It’s just gone, along with my memories of both my children’s newborn-ness.
While pregnant with Josie, I also read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. It felt revelatory back then. Lamott was single and 35 when her son Sam was born; she was a recovering alcoholic and a born-again Christian with a sense of humor. She admitted to feelings of fury and helplessness in a way that seemed raw and real and new and kind of terrifying. Also, hilarious.
When my kids were under 5, I regularly referred to The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, and Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book. One was a super-dry but useful and well-indexed problem-solving device (oh-my-god-is-poop-supposed-to-be-this-color-and-have-seeds-in-it-oh-ok) and one was a hippie guide by a doc whose wife gave birth to eight and nursed them all (and-if-you-don’t-want-to-co-sleep-why-did-you-even-have-a-child). Between those two books I felt reasonably secure.
And that was it.
I felt no need to read anyone else’s thoughts about parenting. I didn’t want to hear about how other babies are smarter or more adorable than mine. I didn’t want to wallow in anyone else’s sentimentality when I was perfectly capable of creating my own. And when I was in the trenches, I didn’t want other people’s confessions about depression or anger; I already knew that life with a baby could be really fucking hard.
But now that my kids are older, and I don’t write about them anymore without their express permission, I love reading other parents’ perspectives on raising big kids. Babies and toddlers are an extension of us; teenagers are all about separating from us. We have less say and less sway in what they’re becoming. I hoped that three new parenting books would provide the kinds of insights I sought.
I should have figured that Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wasn’t really writing for me when I saw the subtitle of her book. Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting has poop in it. The current poop in my life comes from cat butts; it is rarely radically amazing, but then again, it tends to clump and is therefore not traumatizing, either. Ruttenberg is a rabbi, and she is smart and funny (I interviewed her for a piece on thinking Jewishly about teenage girls’ sexuality and was smitten with her brains and sass), but her kids are still little. For me, reading her book felt like visiting a house you grew up in—it’s familiar and warm but already feels like a memory, and while it’s interesting to look around, before long you’re thinking about where in your former hometown you can get a good cup of coffee.
I can see this book being so meaningful for parents of small kids, though. Ruttenberg talks about how little our religious sages—of any faith—have to say about the actual work of raising children. As she puts it, “a lot of the dazzling ideas found in our sacred texts about how to be a person—how to fully experience awe and wonder; how to navigate hard, painful feelings; how service to others fits into the larger, transcendent picture—was never really explicitly connected to the work of parenting.” She talks about parenting as a spiritual practice, with the drudgery and intimacy and love twining together into just that kind of transcendence. For parents who are meditative, spiritual people who find themselves thrust into a rude new world of body functions and raw need, finding a new sense of self can be difficult and jarring. Ruttenberg quotes rabbis, Christian and Buddhist leaders, theologians, and Jewish texts in service of helping new parents integrate pre-kid and post-kid spiritual lives.
She points out that the word korban (sacrifice, in Hebrew) comes from the verb “to draw close.” In Temple times, animal sacrifice was a way to show fealty to God, to bring intention to our lives as meat-eaters, to think about the preciousness of life. Post-Temple, prayer took the place of sacrifice, but now, she posits, “I wonder if we shouldn’t also see our acts of love and service for our children—and maybe the other people in our lives—as sacrificial offerings, as holy acts.” When the arrival of baby Shir drives a wedge between her and toddler Yonatan, it’s the small acts of togetherness and work than bring her and her older son back together. “Things started to shift,” she writes. “Each sock. Each snack. Each bath. They build, and build again. They make something—they are our offerings, our sacrifices, our acts of devotion and service. They are holy, these acts of intimate care, and they are part of how we love our children.” The holy permeates the normal. What I liked most about this book was that it places childrearing smack in the center of powerful, personal spiritual practice. It takes parenthood very seriously, in a religious way.
If Ruttenberg’s a spiritual teacher, Catherine Newman is a poet. Her book is only peripherally Jewish; she calls herself an “agnostic half-Jew.” But her level of anxiety—let’s be real, a book called Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years indicates an author with no shortage of anxiety—makes the book feel very Jewish. I had hoped that the promise of “childhood’s messy years” would mean she’d talk extensively about raising older kids. Newman was a writer to me before she was a parenting writer. I started reading her before I was even contemplating pregnancy, and I was excited to see what she’d have to say about having kids who are older than mine. Alas, she focuses on when her kids were little, with a few tantalizing glimpses of Teen Ben, who seems pretty damn awesome, and I wish there were more of him here, but I get why there isn’t. She respects her kid’s space and his stories to tell.
But I still enjoyed this. It is so, so funny. And like Nurture the Wow, it’s a quick read. You will want to call everyone you know and read chunks of it out loud to them as you cackle. When Newman described her daughter Birdy at the dinner table, “in an ecstasy of cornbread,” working her food around and around in her mouth before “extruding a pale tube of it from between her lips, like she’s a coin-op polenta machine,” I snorted like Snuffleupagus. She describes the promise of babies growing into sentient, helpful older kids: “They will buckle their own seat belts and make themselves toast and take their dishes to the sink instead of flinging them from their high chairs to the floor like the drunk, tyrannical fathers from Irish novels.” She explains why she thinks it’s better to be the second child: “Second kids blossom and spread inside that airy absence of scrutiny, while first kids are so often sweltering inside a kind of worried parental greenhouse where they get clipped into odd, neurotic topiary children.” In one of those few little images of Teen Ben, she promises the reader, “Your son will stand in the bathroom doorway with a smear of foam above his lip and a razor in his hand, chatting into your bedroom. You will put a finger in your book to keep your spot while your man-child fills the doorway with his tall, talking self. You will remind yourself to listen to the actual content, not just to the fact of his little lemon-drop voice getting buried alive in gravel.” Little lemon-drop voice getting buried alive in gravel. Perfect.
I have only sympathy for the low-level disquietude that runs through the book. I understand when Newman says that children “are lost to us over and over again, their baby selves smiling at us from photo albums like melancholy little ghosts of parenthood past. … Loss is ahead of us, behind us, woven into the very fabric of our happiness.” I have less patience for what sometimes comes off as bragging about her clearly very excellent, kind, amusing children and her intense engagement in the warm, golden-tinted light of happy perpetually crafting family intimacy. (But then she quotes her children’s dialogue so perfectly I forgive her: “Birdy, move away from my dresser, please, so I can get my pajamas out.” “Well, Benny? I need to stand here? Because I have hiccups and am hiccupping. It’s my choice, Ben. It is my choice.”) The book has the lulling yet choppy rhythms of life with small kids; there’s no tangible momentum, no narrative thread … just a collection of observations and anecdotes and laugh-out-loud lines, occasionally smudged with self-satisfaction.
Boasting is not something you can accuse Rabbi Susan Silverman of. I had no idea what to expect when I picked up Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World, but I was hooked from the first sentence: “My whole life I felt like God’s bitch.”
Whoa. I was impressed over and over with this book’s mouthiness and bravery. As a child, Silverman saw God as essentially a terrorist, a potent being that held the fate of her family in His capricious hands. She felt she had to be perpetually on guard to negotiate her family’s safety, because “at any second the Big Guy could flick me a booger and whomp, my mother would be gone.” She concludes, “I had to keep Him happy.”
The book zigzags—sometimes confusingly—back and forth in time. Silverman’s parents are horrid to each other. Her baby brother dies when her parents go off on a cruise, and it’s as if he never existed. After her two younger sisters are born, her parents add a foster sibling to the family … but when her mother gets pregnant after a year, they simply give the foster daughter back. Her mother nearly dies in a car crash. It’s no wonder Silverman perpetually bargains with a terrifying God. And yet, she’s perpetually funny. (Her endlessly quotable dad is troubled but hilarious; her sister is comic Sarah Silverman, who says when she meets her new nephew for the first time, “You know what babies love? Ethnic jokes.”)
In college, Silverman falls in love with a Jewish activist; after they break up, she’s drawn increasingly to Jewish life and decides to go to rabbinical school. Spoiler alert: She and her fiery dude get back together and have five kids, three by birth and two by adoption: Aliza, Hallel, Adar, Zamir, and Ashira. Silverman’s parents finally split for good, and both remarry, apparently far more happily. Silverman’s step-sister from her father’s second marriage is the one who accompanies her to Ethiopia for the first adoption. (When Silverman changes her new son Adar’s diaper in the orphanage, she whispers to her sister, “This is the first uncircumcised penis I’ve ever seen,” then adds, “Well, sober.”)
The book’s not perfect. I sometimes felt that despite the radical honesty much of the book offers, Silverman still pulled punches for the sake of shalom bayit, peace in the home—which I respect, even though it left me wanting more. I wish the editing had been tighter: We hear twice about baby Sarah’s chanted litany of swearing, twice about Susan beginning rabbinical school without knowing the Hebrew alphabet, twice about Susan’s daughter biting other kids when she’s hungry; several times about sister Laura’s green eyes; several times about Susan’s skinniness and long braids.
But Silverman’s book is the only one of the three that gets into the dark heart and real anger and conflict in raising children. One of her kids is a biter into middle school; one withdraws into her own imagination. One yells, “I hate my skin!” (He doesn’t want to be brown.) At one point, she slaps a child across the face. She and her husband fight, while the other two books I read feature perfect husbands. I was spellbound by her wrestling with whether to have Adar converted by a judgmental Orthodox rabbi, even though she and her husband are progressive, egalitarian Jews, because she wants Adar’s Jewishness to be accepted everywhere, by everyone.
As a child of divorce, Silverman wrestles authentically with what it means to be a familial unit. “The family I have today was not made in our blood, but felt in our bones,” she writes. “Not a whole cloth, but patches and seams. Only after we stopped holding our nuclear family together, desperately smearing ourselves in some sort of emotional superglue, only when we let the pieces fall apart, were we able to build something real. We were a mosaic—or, perhaps, Mosaic.” She tells the story of the Israelites carrying the first, broken set of Ten Commandments with them in their wandering. “Like for the Israelites,” she writes, “carrying our brokenness gave us truth, dynamism, and purpose.”
As I read all three of these books, it dawned on me that each author was writing the book she needed to read. Silverman was trying to rebuild family from the ground up, so her book is a fragmented and fractured narrative journey that stressed the power of storytelling. Ruttenberg’s book came from the struggle to relocate herself as the spiritual person she’d been before kids, to validate the changes in her own attitudes and practices. Newman’s book, with its tidy short chapters, feels like an effort to freeze her older kids in memory, to use her poetry and humor to make comforting little treats. My own parenting book comes out in August, and I suddenly suspect I wrote the book I needed to read, too. But we’ll talk about that another time—soon.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.