What Twenty-Plus Years of Parenting Can Do To You

I remember it like yesterday. It was more than twenty years ago. It was so cute and so much fun. It was the hascholas Chumash mesibah, Chumash party, or Chumash seudah – whatever you want to call it. I watched with such nachas as my bechor stood bedecked in his crown. I still have the pictures in an album. There he was, proudly clutching his precious Chumash, his young father, a kollel yungerman, still wet behind the ears with a jet black beard, standing next to him, so proud and so oblivious to the trials and tribulations of child-rearing. Having no idea at that time what it means to juggle multiple obligations, chinuch, parnassah and one’s own learning, and balancing the needs of a spouse and other family members while being torn from all sides.

Back then, as I put my arm around my crowned son, in my smile I can detect a certain amount of jauntiness at that milestone. You know, life was going according to the playbook. I had gotten married, a few years later I had been blessed with a baby boy, I made a bris followed by a pidyon haben, my son got into a cheder without too much trouble (did I say times were different?), and I was now celebrating the completion of my son’s first year in cheder with his hascholas Chumash mesibah. I was thrilled. His mother was kvelling with nachas and his grandparents came. I must have been thinking, “Well, boruch Hashem we ticked off ‘Torah.’ Now we just have to tick off the boxes of chupah and maasim tovim and we are good to go!”

Fast forward more than 20 years. Earlier this week, I attended another hascholas Chumash seudah in the same mosad. This wasn’t my oldest child, but rather my youngest. What two decades can do! You wouldn’t believe it.

From the moment those ultra-zees little boys walked in with their starched white shirts and gold luchos crowns adorning their heads, I was reaching for the tissues. When they said Birkas HaTorah and began singing the beautiful tune of ‘Vehaarev nah,” begging Hashem to make the Torah sweet in their mouths, I felt the need for windshield wipers on my glasses. No, I am not a person prone to crying. I usually leave that stuff for the other side of the mechitzah. But this was different. It wasn’t even the nostalgia of the milestone of bringing one’s youngest to formal limud haTorah, although I am certain that helped.

There are many reasons for great emotion at such an event, but I think that the underlying trigger is the fact that after being actively engaged in raising children for nearly thirty years, you realize the magnitude of the task. You realize that even if, as parents, you invest heart and soul into raising your children and inculcating them with the values that you hold dear, there are so many nisyonos and difficulties that are beyond your control and their control that they will face in this ever more complicated, crazy world in which we live.

The Heart of Parenting

The self-confidence that one might have as a young, first-time parent makes one think, “I’ve got this parenting thing under control. Love them and try to be interested in them and voila! You will have perfect obedient children who love learning and love Torah and mitzvos…”

Halevai it would be that easy. Halevai, as life becomes increasingly more complex, that a person would even have a second to get off the treadmill of life, catch his breath, contemplate the individual needs of each child, and try to understand what is going on in their lives, all while juggling the multiple needs of each child, the ongoing pressure of earning parnassah, the social obligations, shidduchim, getting your sons into yeshivos and daughters into Bais Yaakov, and let’s not forget seminary and supporting your kids in kollel and the list goes on…

You begin to realize that no matter how hard you try, you will never fully satisfy each child. You will never satisfy anyone. Not your spouse, not your parents, not your children, not your boss…no one. Why? Because you are a mere bosor vodom, a person made of flesh and blood. Adam yesodo mei’afar. We are made from dust and we are but specks of dust, yet we are expected – no, obligated – to do so much.

Inevitably, we will come up short.

There will be boys and girls having difficulty learning, difficulty socially, running into a group of bad friends, having a teacher who wronged them… Perhaps you yourself inadvertently wronged them and you might just miss those cues. You might not even know what is going on in the mind of your son or daughter. You might think that everything is great, when really it is far, far from great.

Divorcing the Emotion from the Reality

You might even be to blame for missing cues. The child may also be the one to blame, but as one of our illustrious presidents said, “The buck stops here.” We parents feel that if something doesn’t go right in chinuch, it is because we have not done our job. We are guilty, guilty, guilty.

Yes, cerebrally, if we divorce ourselves from the emotion and look at things rationally, we may realize that perhaps we are not as guilty as we make ourselves out to be. Perhaps we are not meant to be superman and superwoman, and perhaps Hashem didn’t endow us with all of the keilim needed to address every single one of the varied emotional, physical and social needs of each child, but that is precious little comfort when your child is in pain.

As I am writing this, I remember the words that my father, hareini kapporas mishkavo, said at a sheva brachos of one of my siblings. He remarked, “Parenting is something akin to a seesaw. Sometimes you have put your weight a little more to one side and on other occasions you must lighten the load on the other side. It is essentially a tug-of-war, as you push a bit and then pull back a bit, trying to achieve the balance needed for that particular occasion.”

He said this more than thirty years ago, when parenting was, in many ways, less complicated than it is today.

Their Sincere, Innocent Song…Our Most Heartfelt Tefillah

So, on Sunday morning, when I attended the Chumash mesibah of my youngest son, I couldn’t help but become emotional. Now, after all these years of being a parent, I realize how little is in our control, despite our desire, our most fervent desire, to be the best, most loving, caring and attuned parent we can be.

Children today are far more emotionally needy than they were 25 years ago. They are growing up in a much more dangerous world spiritually, socially and communally. Some of us (this writer among them) are not as clued in to this as they should be.

So, when those pure little boys, the glow of their smiles matching the glow of their crowns and peyos adorning their pure faces, started singing “Seu shearim rosheichem, and then Birkas HaTorah with the tefillah of “Vehaarev nah,” I wasn’t smug at all. In fact, with close to thirty years of parenting under my belt, I was terrified. Would the words of Torah really be sweet in his mouth? I know that in this generation, unless Torah and Yiddishkeit are really sweet, the ersatz sweetness of other things will be challenges that are not easy to overcome. Will we, his parents, be there for him, not only physically by giving him a roof over his head and food to eat but anticipating his emotional needs, what is going on in his head, what happened in school, and what pressure he has from friends and from his yeitzer hara?

Once you have been running the rat-race of life in our collective communities and have brought up multiple children and even married some off, you realize how “not poshut” everything about life is.

So, as a grey-bearded, older Totty, I have no apologies for getting emotional and offering a heartfelt tefillah to Hashem as the sweet songs of those tinokos shel bais rabbon filled the atmosphere.

Indeed, my tefillah echoes the final song that they sang at this Chumash mesibah. Their pure voices begged Hashem, “May our tefillos be pleasing to you like a korban, anah berachamecha harabim, please, in Your abounding mercy…. listen to our tefillos!”

Please, enable us to parent our children in the way they need to be parented in this generation, and please give them the ability to overcome the hurdles in store for them in this difficult generation so that they can taste the sweetness of Your Torah and Your avodah.