A Catholic Mom, Her Jewish Son and His Coming of Age

You came into the world on your own schedule and terms. Dad and I had waited 2 years, 41 weeks and a lengthy induction for you to arrive. So as you might imagine, when the doctor finally announced “It’s a boy!” we cried tears of joy.

But you laid silent. In protest, I think. As if you knew life on the other side of womb service would prove to be far too inconvenient.

I watched the nurses pass you from the edge of my bed onto a table, where they fussed over your lanky, naked, ruddy body until you gave up the goods. It was only after a hearty cry the professionals felt ready to place you on my chest. They let us visit long enough for a feeding, then whisked you away to the intensive care nursery.

Hours passed before we were together again. Each time a nurse showed up in the recovery room, I’d ask, “Where’s my baby?” And each time I got the same line, “We’re monitoring him. I don’t know when he’ll be ready to leave the NICU.” A brand new, wiped out and hesitant mom, I didn’t know I was allowed to go to you.

In time, I found my way down the hall. The NICU wasn’t a traditional nursery where babies lined up on display behind a viewing window. This nursery had a holding room. And protective gear hanging from hooks. There was a window, but the newborns were camouflaged by incubators, IV bags and monitors. I scanned the room and spotted you resting under lights. Oxygen affixed to your nostrils, plastic lines jammed in a foot.

A nurse instructed me to put on a yellow, paper robe and pointed toward a rocking chair on the other side of the door. I sat until she returned with a swaddled bundle. My arms maneuvered around the tubes tugging at your limbs. Once we were settled, the nurse disappeared. It only took a few seconds; you looked in my eyes, raised a fist and ripped the oxygen straight out as if to say, “What took you so long? Get me out of here!”

I called for help. No one came. We were on our own. So I took a calming breath and did what mothers do; shoved the tubes back in your nose and sang the only song I could muster up, “You are My Sunshine.” The protest ceased. A nurse looked over and smiled. “Now that’s what I like to see.”

This was the moment you became My Sunshine. My Bubbe. My son. I’ve been singing a version of the song to you every night, ever since. As we rocked, I felt like nothing could break our bond.

Until 10 days later.

Before you were born, Dad and I had decided to raise you in his Jewish tradition. I was raised in a Catholic one. Just after your bris, controversy ensued as to whether or not the bris was valid. Talk of dipping you in a ritual bath to legitimize your Judaism began to swirl about our home. The focus on commandments and religious law caused me to question whether you’d really feel like my child if your faith identity and experiences were different from my own. I was scared that as you grew up, this Catholic mom would feel alienated from your Jewish life.

Desperate for professional advice, Dad and I went to our former rabbi. She explained what we already knew about Reform Judaism; one parent being Jewish was enough to make the child Jewish. Still, she suggested we take you to the mikveh to play it safe. “Think of it as a rebirth,” she said.

I thought of the long induction, NICU visits, your protests and our rocking chair and told Dad there was nothing wrong with your original birth. There would be no ritual bath.

He agreed.

Life went on. Daily routines quickly usurped my interfaith anxiety. Between dirty diapers, bedtime stories, early morning feedings and playground outings, Dad and I found a way to integrate Jewish customs, share my holidays and create new traditions. And I figured out being Jewish didn’t make you any less my son.

I was all in. From nudging the Temple preschool director until she confirmed your enrollment and accepting a teaching job from said director a few years later, thus allowing me to learn more about Judaism, to you starting Hebrew school in Kindergarten and attending a sleep away camp which embodied Jewish values, I made sure you were surrounded by people able to give you the Jewish education I could not.

Alongside the other mommies, I schlepped you to class, conferenced with teachers, filled out mountains of forms and helped with homework. Dad stepped up whenever the religious school curriculum turned toward Hebrew, Israel or Jewish history.

For 12 years, I’ve watched your connection to Judaism blossom and become a source of pride.

Now you’ve reached the stage Dad and I have speculated about since you were a little guy clapping along to “Shabbat Shalom” during the children’s service. In less than a year, you will become a Bar Mitzvah, an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community responsible for carrying out God’s commandments. You’ll stand on the bimah alongside the rabbi and cantor and do what Jewish teens have done for close to a thousand years; read the Hebrew blessings and prayers shared at a Saturday morning service, carry the Torah scroll around the sanctuary for congregants to see and chant a passage in ancient Hebrew from one of the first 5 books of the Bible.

Bar Mitzvah prep is way out of my league. At our first orientation meeting with the rabbi to discuss how it all works, I was happy to relinquish the keys to you and Dad and listen in silent support.

My silence was quickly broken when the rabbi asked each attendee to stand up, one by one and share details about when he or she became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I was the first person in the room to explain that I had never become one of these. As I sat back down, I dropped my head. It felt as if the NICU nurse had again whisked you away.

I thumbed through your red B’nei Mitzvah binder filled with instructions, timelines, Torah portions and Hebrew blessings. Inside was a blank family tree. Part of your homework was to write down which relatives were Jewish and not to help Temple staff plan the ceremony.

You’ll have to label me as “Not Jewish.” This means, when I stand beside you on the bimah, there will be certain prayers I’m not permitted to say even though I can recite them by heart. I also won’t be allowed to hold up the Torah scroll despite my strength or dress it in ceremonial garb even though I learned the tradition as a Temple preschool teacher. That’s just how our synagogue interprets Jewish law.

While I respect the rules and appreciate how your coming of age is a spiritual connection to over 5,000 years of culture and community, as a mom, it stings not to be able to fully share in my son’s experience.

But not converting to Judaism was a choice I made. One I stand by. And so, I closed the binder and turned my attention back to its rightful place – you.

The rabbi addressed the room. “The B’nei Mitzvah is one thing Judaism really does right.”

He told us becoming a Bar Mitzvah is not only an opportunity for a 13 year old going through a period of self-consciousness, insecurity and significant physical and emotional change to learn how to take on a large task, break it down into manageable parts and present in front of an audience, but also a chance for him to experience the sense of accomplishment, empowerment and confidence realized when one goes out of his comfort zone and tackles a scary task.

When the rabbi said these words, something clicked. I’ve done those things. I know those emotions. During these coming months, I will connect with you through your journey, the process and the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to.

Today, the red binder lays open on your desk. You sit over it chanting prayers in Hebrew, stopping every few lines so Dad may offer guidance. From down the hall, I stop what I’m doing to listen to you sing. The afternoon sun streams through a nearby window. Its beams warm the tears caked upon my cheeks as My Sunshine’s sweet, determined voice warms his mother’s heart.

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Tribes, Crews & Cliques…Oh My!

A list of 34 Rules for My Daughters popped up in my Facebook feed not too long ago.

I don’t have daughters, but welcome wisdom I can learn from or pass on to my boys. So I stopped scrolling and began to read.

I couldn’t get past number two.

  1. Find your tribe and love them hard. True friends are hard to find. 

True friends, forever friends are hard to find and are invaluable. If one is lucky enough to have a few, I agree, they deserve to be loved hard.

But what’s with the word tribe? Why does a daughter, son or any adult need one of these?

I hear and see this word and a similar expression, crew enough as it relates to social aspirations, comradery and acceptance to make me wonder. Adults tag other adults on social media and refer to them as their tribe. Educators and parents want to know if a child hangs with a crew. Members new to a community go on missions to find their people.

Perhaps this language and approach encourages, as an acquaintance once explained, a sense of normalcy. She said, “If I have a tribe. My children have a tribe. Then by society’s standards, we are both doing fine.”

Or perhaps it’s rooted in basic human desire. A co-producer and writer for the television show Cheers commented on CNN’s documentary, The Nineties that “The legacy of Cheers is our need to belong. I think that’s what we as Americans are longing for.”

I’m no different. Part of me regrets not joining a sorority in college. I still sometimes think what my teenage years would have been like had I traveled with one pack instead of moving in and out of many. As an adult, one reason I drag myself to a CrossFit gym is because there, everybody knows my name.

But let’s say a daughter does find her coveted tribe, what then? Is she expected to socialize exclusively with tribe members or is it acceptable to make outside friends? Can she invite new people to join? What happens if she doesn’t want to be friends with a person in the group? Does she lose her place? Can the daughter take up different activities? Carpool with anyone else? Sit at a lunch table alone?

Many schools, communities and households make a point to foster inclusivity. Formal curriculum has been developed to teach children to Be the Difference, Be the One and Fill Buckets.

Last year, our local middle school launched a program spearheaded by the student council which required students to sit with different peers during lunch on designated days. Gossip and devices were not permitted. A student facilitator joined the table to help spark conversation.

I was disappointed to hear a few parents privately voice concern. They didn’t like the idea of forcing a child to sit with non-friends during her one, free period. Students also complained. They wanted to socialize with like-minded people and not be told what to do, when and with whom.

This year, I’m not sure if the council tried again.

To me, the lunch table switch was a great idea. Maybe it’s because I’m a kumbaya kind of mom with a kid who’s typically okay with floating. Or maybe it’s because I believe it’s healthy for children to learn about others and productive to go out of one’s comfort zone. I figured students might be surprised to find they get along with peers who they may not expect. The reality is, at some point they’re going to be required to work and socialize with all sorts of personalities. Mind as well get comfortable in a wider circle now.

Find a tribe but Be the One. Be the Difference but stick with your people. Fill Buckets but hang with a crew. Reach out, but huddle tight. The mixed messages confuse me. My guess is, they also confuse daughters on the receiving end.

Advertising that real friendship is best achieved in the form of tribes and crews belittles benefits gained from casting a welcoming net, implies self-worth is predicated upon the group and is just using benign semantics to endorse clique mentality.

Oh my.

 

To My Son: What I Found On Your Flickr Page

You posed the question after a sleep over with an old friend who has one. “Mom, can I open a Flickr account?”

Knowing Snap, Instagram and the like were out of the question, you settled on a place to store and show off your photographs.

My instinct was to say, “No.” I can’t help it but my brain works as such – Education first. Activities second. Apps later.

School wasn’t back in session a week, and I’d already joked with Dad about moving out until June. To confess, I’d been stewing and strategizing about how to help this year’s middle school experience be a good one since about mid-summer. The thought of you changing classes, managing assignments from multiple teachers, racing the bell, schlepping materials, decoding directions, and staying organized, focused and moderately positive for 180 days straight had me stressed out.

Dead set on prioritizing real experience over the virtual, we settled, Dad and me with enthusiasm and you with a grunt on a new plan to limit device use to the weekend. This wasn’t because we were trying to make you hate us, but rather to encourage you to find escapes other than Minecraft, keep life simple and not have electronics compete with other stuff. Text, email and music were still on the table, just not YouTube and video games.

So when you first inquired about Flickr, the last thing I wanted was to stoke the coals with even the most benign of social media. I was afraid if I let the string out, even a smidge, you’d unravel; sneak the iPad, choose Flickr over after school clubs, resent homework more and avoid opportunities to hang out with real people.

My mind was pretty much made up.

Then I quizzed you on your foreign language flashcards. As I read off the word and waited to hear the translation, you starred at the wall, fiddled with a bracelet, smiled, but said nothing. I observed the nothingness. As you well know, this was unusual. In the past, I would’ve said your name a thousand times. Not this time. I’m sure I was too tired to bother.

After 45 seconds you turned to me. “Huh?”

“I said the word,” I replied.

“You did? Sorry I was thinking about something.”

Dreaming. Fantasizing. Creating. I wondered, What goes on in that brain of yours?

Before going to bed, I stopped to charge your iPad and peeked at the camera’s photo album. I thought about your love of art, my tendency to hover and two speeches we heard when our neighbor’s son became a Bar Mitzvah a few months back.

During the service, the boy’s mom stood on the bimah and spoke to her son about the decision to stop forcing sports down his throat and let him pursue his interest in computers and video production even though she felt hesitant at first. “I had to trust you,” she told him.

The mom was followed by an aunt, a rabbi. She shared wisdom from ancient Jewish mystics, explaining how they believed a parent’s job was to help their children grow into who they were meant to be.

Trust.

Grow into who you were meant to be.

The mother’s and rabbi’s advice probably seems so simple to you. But believe me, it’s hard. At least for me, anyway. To heed their advice means I need to peel back my anxiety and let go of my parental instinct to protect, smother and steer.

The next day, as expected, you persisted about the Flickr. This time, I set up an account.

Right off, you and the iPad disappeared into the neighborhood shooting the landscape, buildings, everyday objects and our cat. I know very little about photography, but I knew one thing. This new freedom turned your wheels and left you charged up, focused and happy.

My proud moment didn’t last. Unfortunately, your mom was programmed to err on the side of control and mistrust long ago. I soon fell back into a familiar frame of mind after wrangling with you at the end of a long day of classes, first day religious school, a couple hours of homework and a late lights out.

Given the level of angst in our house after just one busy day, I figured there was no chance either one of us would be able to handle you having any amount of social media. To prove myself right, I logged onto Flickr to see what you posted, who followed your page, read comments and re-check safety features.

But all was quiet in photography land. I saw there were a few views, a couple of follows and even a “Like.” As I sifted through the slideshow, I also noticed something else in the pictures; something in hindsight, I should have known would be there.

You always find the light.

Discover inspiration in overlooked places.

And capture images from your heart.

“Sky during 9/11. May their spirit always be with us.”

Your Flickr page was filled with hope, perspective and love.

We’ve reached a new stage, you and I. You’re finding your way. I’m learning to let you go. You’re beginning to trust yourself. I’m practicing how to trust in you.

Over the next several months, no doubt you’ll complain, I’ll nag, you’ll forget and I’ll worry. I’ll hear my voice on repeat, you’ll lose your mind.

So let’s make a deal.

When work gets hard, the hallway’s too noisy, friends disappoint and the days are long. When I scream, pontificate or feel like we’re stuck, I say we make a date with Flickr. You can delve into your art. I’ll delight in your discoveries. And together, we’ll enjoy a welcomed escape.

No Peaking Allowed

HS class picture

The text read, Come to room 307.

I adjusted my Spanx, grabbed the overnight bag and made my way up from the lobby. Behind the door stood two of my senior year gal pals, Shazzie and Pumpkin.

Although introduced in seventh grade and kindergarten, respectively my adult relationship with these ladies had fizzled to comments, likes and emojis. No matter. There was an easy joy about being together again.

We moved through pleasantries and tossed out filters. First order of business: pre-25th high school reunion cocktails. After a few sips, we got reunion ready while discussing work, shoes, travel, preferred products for color treated hair and of course, raising kids.

 “When my son turned three,” Shazzie said, “I told a friend, this boy can’t get more cuddly, loveable, or sweet. He’s peaked. Now, every year on his birthday she calls me and asks, is it true he peaked at three?”

“Well?” I said.

Shazzie pulled out her phone and played the recent I love you, Mom message her hoarse voiced tween left when a sleep away camp counselor returned his phone during a field trip.  “Not yet,” she replied.

We sipped some more, snapped selfies sporting party outfits and solo cups, and made our way to the main floor. I slapped on my name tag and entered the windowless, dim, pint-sized banquet hall. Waiting was a small gathering of some 125 classmates from my rural town. It was as if my mom had dropped me off at the 8th grade dinner dance equip with a cash bar.

And I wondered, had I peaked? Had any one of us peaked?

Determined to find out, I shimmied past the DJ and hot buffet, quickly refilled my cup and began to flutter about the room.

I ran into my old locker neighbor, intrigued by the cross-country mountain biking adventures he shares with his wife, concurred with my former art class tablemate who opened a restaurant after rediscovering his creativity through cooking, and was happy for the classmates who came out, found love and live life open and proud.

I chatted with my elementary school bus buddy who embraced her small town roots, adores fur babies and helps to raise her nephews, admired the crew huddled around a table who, despite time and distance sustained their decades long friendship, told Pumpkin, a working mother who nurtured her artistic talents and built an impressive career in advertising, a girl I envied as a child how much I respected her, and nestled up next to my high school crush; a sweet gentleman close to retiring from a career in law enforcement who looks forward to tending his Christmas Tree farm.

Many of my classmates married; most are raising children, some are nurturing sick parents. They have been graced with experience lines and silver hairs but the essence of who they were as children lives on.

And not one of them has peaked; not the jocks, pretty chicks, worker bees, artsy rebels, drama queens or goodie two shoes. Each seemed content with who they became; aware there’s more growth to be had.

And I, who was remembered for big hair, oversized sweaters and an even larger opinion felt inspired by my first friends.

When the clock struck midnight, the lone security guard directed us to the hotel’s neighboring bar, ushering me back to the 21st century. I thought about my own tween who was due back from sleep away camp the following week and a concerned letter he wrote about his lovie. Please sew Baby Lamb when I get home. I don’t like when he loses stuffing.

Middle school is on the horizon for my boy and so begins the battle of growing up. I can already feel his struggle; the image, fitting in, friendships, the wrestle with self and his place in the world.

I’ll continue to offer the mother to son advice he has come to hear ad nauseum: follow your passion, stay kind, always be yourself.

But from now on I’ll be sure to add, Hang tight. You’ll make it through. Just remember, no peaking allowed.

HS Reunion picture

RED’S WRAP SAID WHAT?…On The Birthday of My Oldest Child

Jan’s insightful and beautiful philosophy about motherhood leaves me torn.

My head tells me to raise independent children who grow up to “love other people more than me,” but my selfish heart tugs in the other direction. I struggle with the “letting go” part of parenthood. I cry at milestones and do too much for Bubbe and Skootch every day in between.

Come to think of it, such ambivalence probably explains why I still make my 10 year-old’s bed and wipe my 6 year-old’s backside.

Aah, the conundrum that is a mother’s love. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Red's Wrap

IMG_4065I was never one of those moms who grieved their kids growing up. I thought it was great.

I didn’t want them to be babies forever. Or to be toddling around the house indefinitely. I didn’t want to stand on the sidelines of wet soccer fields with a cold cup of coffee watching confused kids kick the ball to each other on Saturday mornings that seemed to last for months. I liked being the mother of little kids but only because of its impermanence.

I love that my kids are grown up. And I say that without the least bit of angst.

Oh, I look back and I remember them as little kids. How I carried them everywhere, how I stroked their cheeks to calm them, laid on the couch with their little selves asleep on my chest, sang to them songs I made up and that no one else…

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Let Him Be Late

Walking to school

tpt-badge_contributorScary Mommy badge

Late is something I am not.

Not to meetings or meet ups.  Count on me to help the host kick off her party or the coach unlock the gym door.  In the words of my grandmother, “Five minutes early is on time.”

Then I gave birth to Bubbe who arrived one week late and after two hours of pushing.  A little guy who stopped to collect pebbles from the sidewalk, admire makeshift rivers on a rainy day, and construct block towers when he was supposed to be eating breakfast, Bubbe’s dawdling challenged my timely tendencies.

The slow approach appeared to stem from his developmental delays.  As a toddler and preschooler, Bubbe worked regularly with speech, occupational and physical therapists.  He and I did much schlepping to services during the early years.

To ensure my son got what he needed when he needed it, I planned our schedule around his clock.  I laid out clothes, organized the diaper bag, and packed snacks hours in advance.  I set timers, offered reminders, and built in daily dawdle time.  There were days when Bubbe played along, but those were rare.  “Hurry up” became a staple in my vocabulary and carrying his boneless body out the door and onto the next appointment became my primary source of exercise.

After a decade of exposure to my anxious nudging and keen management skills coupled with his hard work and a little maturity, I expected Bubbe to come to value my vision of time.  No such luck.

This tortoise syndrome became a wider concern at the end of third grade when it led to academic road blocks.  His teachers investigated.  Turns out, Bubbe’s brain doesn’t send signals as fast as mine and most peers.  To process, organize and focus thoughts and movements takes hard work and energy.  Dawdling is part of his DNA.

Armed with the information, I intended to shift my parenting approach.  But the thought of giving my child space to figure out his day at the risk of him being tardy rattled me to the core.

It doesn’t matter how Bubbe’s brain is wired.  I thought.  He has to learn how to move faster; use time wisely.

I held the reins.

Bubbe’s fourth grade year commenced with him hearing my voice on auto replay each morning.  “Get dressed.  Eat breakfast.  Find your backpack.  Don’t keep your friends waiting.  C’mon let’s go.”

Too big to fling him over my shoulder; prods graduated to threats, coaxing converted to yelling.  I was met with eye rolls, I don’t cares and whatevers.  Our home transformed into a battleground, leaving Bubbe and I frazzled and fried before the day began.

Then I went back to work.

My responsibilities multiplied overnight.  I no longer had space in my brain to try and change his.  I was forced to accept Bubbe was older and in charge of his actions.  I was also forced to accept that he no longer needed me in the same way.  I resolved to “do” my tween differently.

Step one: let him be late for school.

One morning soon after, I awoke Bubbe as per the usual routine and announced, “We are leaving at 7:45.  You have until then to get up and do your thing.”

At 7:40 he was still in bed.  “Your brother and I are leaving in five minutes.  Just lock up on your way out.  The school bell rings at 8:15am.  See you there.”

The neighbors knocked on the door.  Skootch and I left Bubbe behind.

As we walked the three blocks, I looked back but there was no sign of him.  I dropped off his brother and headed across the school grounds toward the front gate.

Still no Bubbe.

I turned the corner toward home.  There he was, strolling up the sidewalk; dressed appropriately, jacket on and with backpack in tow.  For the first morning in weeks, Bubbe was smiling.

I smiled back.

As we passed each other, my son leaned in and nuzzled his brow into my chest.  “I love you, Mom.”

“I love you too, sweetheart.  Enjoy the day.”  We went our respective ways.

And no one was late.

RED’S WRAP SAID WHAT? – 5 Things I Remember About Middle School That I Bet Are Still True…

middle school locker

Whether it’s 30 years or 50 years, Jan Wilberg’s universal truths about middle school ring true today.

I read her post and flash backed to the cans of Aqua Net arranged on my nightstand, the pages of Teen Beat that lined my locker walls, and how I seemed to be in love every other Tuesday. And although I would NEVER want to do it again, I must admit thinking about pubescent electricity made me smile. Thank you, Jan.

Red's Wrap

Middle school was a critical juncture in my life.Of course, this is only occurring to me now, fifty plus years after the fact. Here are five things I remember about middle school which I bet are still true today.

Changing classes meant I could change, too. In Science, I sat with my partner and prayed for invisibility. In English, I was reprimanded for interrupting and being sarcastic. In Art, I believed the teacher when she said it didn’t matter what my piece looked like. It was all about the technique. Each class in the day was a chance to shake off what had happened in the previous class, good or bad, start over, put on a new hat. I loved this because I’d spent the last months of elementary school waiting (in vain) to be called on to give a report on the Roman God Janus, each day was…

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