The Doubting Mother

Do my kids measure up?

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As a parent, I'm fairly insecure. I'm convinced I lack any number of traits crucial to my children's spiritual development. (At least I'm not alone. When a parenting instructor asked our class, "Who here feels inadequate as a mother?" and I raised my hand, I saw that every other mother there had raised her hand as well.) Parenting is, after all, a daunting task: how can I, a grossly imperfect person, possibly help my children become all that they can become?

But sometimes there's a glimmering moment that makes me feel I'm at least on the right track — like the moment that happened several years ago.

My children were still young. I was visiting the States and got together with an old college roommate I hadn't seen since graduation. We had taken very different paths in life: she was a non-religious doctor married to a lawyer, living in New York, and had two children. I was a religious lecturer on Jewish topics married to a rabbi, living in Jerusalem, and had seven children. It was an interesting reunion.

I went out to lunch with her and her family, and we had a great time catching up on each other's life. I was especially impressed with her very well-behaved children, who seemed to get along so well. Moreover, at the tender ages of nine and six, they radiated the worldliness common to Jewish kids born and bred in Manhattan. The nine-year-old girl had the air of someone who knew her way around, and the bespectacled six-year-old boy looked and talked like a small college professor.

The comparison to my own very wholesome yet far less mature and sophisticated children was rather striking — and intimidating. And it stirred up all my parental self-doubt: maybe I'm not giving my kids enough cultural advantages (including restaurant manners); maybe I'm not making reading enough of a priority; maybe having a large family is preventing me from investing enough in each child's intellectual development; maybe...

I was feeling smaller by the moment.

Until dessert.

The six-year-old took out a large, chocolate bunny he had apparently been saving for the occasion. He began breaking off little pieces and slowly putting them in his mouth one by one, savoring them with obvious delight.

His nine-year-old sister looked on enviously. "Can I have some?" she begged. "Just a little bit? Please?"

With great forbearance, he sighed and said, "Well... all right. Here." He broke off a small piece of chocolate and gave it to her. She took it gratefully.

That's when my self-doubt dissipated. Yes my children squabble, tease each other, and don't sit long in restaurants. And they haven't been to the opera, their schools don't have accelerated classes and they don't look, speak, or act like college professors. But if one of them had a large, chocolate bunny, it would be voluntarily split equally seven ways. My children, for everything they're not, are givers.

Then Came Teenagers

The realization born of moments like that kept my confidence afloat for several years. Then, almost overnight, I found myself with a home full of teenagers. (When the oldest child in a family becomes a teenager, the next few do simultaneously.) Hormones were flying, attitudes were ever-present, and sibling relationships weren't always exactly warm. Giving, while not absent, wasn't the guiding principle in my children's lives.

"Don't worry," a friend reassured me. "Everything you put into them is still there. At the right time, it'll resurface, even more beautifully than before." I sure hope so, I thought. But I was surprised just how beautifully.

My 16-year-old daughter, Temima, has very slight curvature of the spine. It was detected early, and at age 14 she was prescribed a back brace, meant only to prevent further curvature, which she was to wear 20 hours a day. Few things could be as devastating to a teenage girl. After several miserable months, I heard of a holistic practitioner named Dr. Rosen who might be able to help her. Within a few weeks of treatment, her back looked quite straight. Although nervous about it, I eventually agreed to let her stop wearing the brace. She was thrilled, and couldn't wait to tell others about this wonderful alternative treatment. I thought it wisest, however, to wait for the results of her next X-ray.

The X-ray, unfortunately, showed no significant improvement. We were all disappointed. Since the curvature had not worsened, it seemed okay for her to continue not wearing the brace. At the same time, I didn't yet feel we could responsibly recommend the treatment to others, which Temima was very much hoping to do.

Dr. Rosen had from the beginning felt that Temima would benefit tremendously from acupuncture. Temima, however, is extremely squeamish about needles, and nearly passes out at blood tests. So she had absolutely refused. Now the doctor raised the issue again, only to be met with the same firm refusal.

Then, with the date of her next X-ray approaching, Temima suddenly agreed to acupuncture. I was pleased, although I had no idea what had affected the change of heart.

Predictably, Temima found acupuncture not only unpleasant but very upsetting. The first session made her feel faint and sick; another really hurt. She hated and dreaded it. On top of that, her back showed no discernible improvement. Yet she kept going. I couldn't understand why.

One afternoon after she had returned from her weekly treatment, I made a point to praise her. "You know, this is really something," I told her. "You used to be scared to death of needles, and now you're doing acupuncture every week. I can't tell you how impressed I am by your courage."

"I'm not doing it for myself," she replied.

I was taken aback. "What do you mean? Who else would you be doing it for?"

Her answer stunned me. "For other kids with curvature of the spine. Maybe their parents will be afraid to try alternative treatments unless the results can be proven. If acupuncture works on me and my next X-ray shows it, we can tell them about Dr. Rosen, and those kids won't have to wear a brace."

My daughter had grown from a giving child, happy to share a treat equally with six siblings, to a giving young woman willing to suffer on behalf of people she didn't even know.

And I felt God patting me on the back, telling me that despite all my maternal shortcomings, maybe something did go right.