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.

 

Who My Son Saw at a CrossFit Competition

All photos courtesy of A. Osinoff

Little boy behind the barricade, who do you see?

A Competitor
Pressing alongside a Goliath. The playing field level. Shared load. Shared bench. Shared barbell. Same standards. Same reps. Same rest.

A Teammate
One who spots weight, tracks time and counts lifts. A partner who values the other’s emotional risk, ethic to prepare and commitment to try. A mate who listens to ideas, strategizes beforehand, encourages during and dances after.

A Woman
Eyes on the ceiling. Spread legs. Bare arms. Chiseled back. Flexed quads and seeping curves. A woman who trains her body as a machine, teaching it to breath, move and perform with power.

A Lady
Who is feminine, not despite but because she sweats, stinks, struggles and shakes. One who tapes her thumbs, wraps her wrists and grips the barbell with glitter, chartreuse nails. A person who considers sneakers, tanks, a weight belt and tights as fashion and is consumed by the task over her tousled hair, silver roots and exposed lines.

Your Mom
Who feels proud, accomplished, happy and hopeful that by watching me, her children are learning anything by anyone is possible.

Little boy, when you grow tall enough to see over the barricade, what will you do?

Be mesmerized no more.
Accept a person’s capacity, albeit female or male to be strong.
Expect equal partnership between genders as essential.
And assume that the only “it” any human ever asks for is respect.

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.

I Was Skeptical About Childhood BFFs – Then My Son Made One

George & Harold-Captain Underpants

Skootch met his best friend at town camp the summer before kindergarten over a bagged lunch and some arts and crafts.

They instantly hit it off in a George and Harold from Captain Underpants sort of way, bonding over giggles, grand plans and hijinks.

When school started, the boys asked to play together – often. But play dates were scarce; sprinkled between grown up obligations and older siblings’ activities.

Undeterred, they made a point to hook up at recess.

According to Skootch, that’s where the magic happened. During their 45 minute daily ritual, imaginations ran wild, games were played, deals were struck, choices made and feelings validated or hurt.

Whenever conflict ensued, Skootch, who has a temper never held a grudge. For this particular compadre, he was always willing to apologize, forgive and forge ahead. “We’re good friends, Mom,” he explained. “Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves.”

In short, these little guys loved one another.

This year, we parents ushered in the summer with a family barbecue. The boys took it as an opportunity to collectively pepper us about a first sleepover. Wanting to enjoy the sun, drink our beer and eat fried cheese in peace, we quickly agreed.

With my tween away at camp, it made sense to host the event. Besides, as a person who grew up a  floater of sorts and as a mom of an older child who has yet to find his partner in crime, I was curious to know what this 7 year old BFF business was all about.

The sleepover commenced early evening on a Wednesday after camp. I took the boys out to dinner at a “fancy” restaurant. They bunked on an air mattress in our playroom.

From drop off to pick up, Skootch and company had little use for grown-ups. Engrossed in food, spy games, Legos and banter, my job was limited to paying the bill and managing logistics. No redirecting, mediating or negotiating allowed.

In return for my compliance, they let me observe their world.

By bedtime, I had been educated on the intricacies of nose picking, heard their opinion regarding ear wax and listened to commentary on the absurdity of Trump’s wall, the treatment of diabetes and the varying degrees in which amusement park rides give their stomachs’ the butterflies.

Come morning, Skootch rehashed how he had poured water on his sleeping friend’s head and expressed repeated concern for his buddy, who punched Skootch mid-sleep as he dreamt about an altercation with a class bucket dipper.

In the end, the boys couldn’t wait to schedule a second date.

Because of my personal and prior parental experience, I’ve always been skeptical of BFF bonds. It’s one of the reasons I’m lazy about setting up recurring playdates and sleepovers. To do so feels forced. I want my sons to find and build friendships exclusive of too much adult interference, meet new people whenever possible and avoid the comfort of cliques.

Skootch’s ongoing hesitation to open himself up to new people only validates my concern. Anytime I remind him to play with different children, I get push back. “No thanks. I like one friend at a time.” For Skootch, sticking by a loyal friend is less chaotic and offers a sense of security.

So I keep preaching inclusivity, the idea of having good over best friends, being proud of the ability to mix with different personalities, the value of independent thought and the importance of giving and having space.

But I must admit, watching a genuine connection between two children at a sleepover leaves me less jaded and grateful that Skootch has a chance to grow up alongside a peer with whom he can experience trust, patience, flexibility, empathy and fun. It’s a gift not ever young person gets.

For as long as Skootch’s BFF relationship lasts, I’ll be there to encourage, but not to engineer. After all, the future of their friendship is up to them – not me.

I Said What?…What’s Cute Got To Do With It?

“To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” – HRC

During one of Bubbe’s sports clinics, I pulled out my writing notebook while Skootch was distracted by a fidget spinner. Two mothers, with their young daughters playing underfoot chatted nearby.

Mom 1 took out her phone.

Mom 2 leaned in. “Is that a picture of your babysitter? Wow. She’s cute. You don’t want to hire cute girls. They won’t be available to babysit on a Saturday night.”

I stopped mid-doodle and glared. Oh no she didn’t.

But she did. This woman, my peer, implied with conviction in front of her young daughter that the “cute” girl’s time, however she defined the adjective, was more valuable. A “cute” girl has more friends and a full social calendar. It is she who is considered successful and worthy. The less “cute” ones are not as good.

Skootch flicked at his spinner. “You okay, Mom?”

I lied. “Yes, sweetie. I’m fine.”

Growing up, I saw myself as the less cute and therefore less worthy girl in the photograph. Like many females, I was the recipient of direct and indirect messages equating physical appearance with societal and individual value.

The matriarchs in my family dipped their toes in feminist ideology. My mother was first in her family to pursue a college degree and worked throughout my childhood. My grandmother managed the household finances. But what overshadowed their progress, and what I remember more were the comments from adults about boys liking girls with long hair, quips highlighting my big bones and feet and being called belligerent whenever I voiced a passionate opinion.

A worthy woman was thin, pretty and pleasing; her role was to find a husband, care for him and raise his family. Anything beyond such convention made for trouble.

I was a trouble maker.

A women’s value being tied to and limited by her appearance as defined by tradition or opinion made zero sense from the outset. Still, it took me decades to apply the theory to myself. Even now, during the “this is who I am” phase of life, I will default to a negative personal narrative especially at first glance in a mirror or of a photograph.

The self-deprecation reflex feels unsettling because I know it’s wrong. It also reminds that the unhealthy messages and experiences we absorb as children leave a perpetual stain on one’s spirit. No matter how hard we scrub, they never fully disappear.

Today, countless organizations, authors, artists, public figures, communities and families are taking deliberate steps to reframe the conversation and encourage a generation of girls to equate worth and beauty with strength, curiosity, passion and personality.

The young ladies with whom I interact in my community are proof the shift is taking hold. There’s the middle schooler who competes as an Olympic weightlifter, the high school junior who uses food as fuel to build strength and endurance and the 18 year-old who responded, “It’s not about how I look, it’s about how I feel” after I told her she looked great.

Their sense of self is rooted in power, emotion and idea. Such wisdom at an early age will only nourish their confidence and embolden them to demand future employers, colleagues, friends and lovers to judge females based on human, not physical qualities.

Kudos to the mothers and fathers who are raising these women. And shame on those who didn’t get or care to read the Smart Girl  Like a Girl  Strong is the New Pretty memo.

While I can’t control what garbage spews from a random mom on a sideline, I can learn from inspirational young ladies and curtail personal comments rooted in insecurity. And I can use language around boys and girls that emphasize character over cute.

We adults have many things to be mindful of these days. Being careful not to perpetuate the “cute girl” cycle is no less significant.

Update: TODAY Parent’s Choice Award

As some of you know, Red said what? was a finalist for the TODAY Parent’s Choice Award. Thank you so much to those who took the time to vote. While I didn’t win, I feel lucky and humbled to be included on the ballot. If you like parenting reads, the winner was Mom Babble Blog. My favorite finalist was Tara Wood. Enjoy!

MOTHERWELL SAID WHAT?…Motherhood and Waiting: From Boys to Men

Motherwell is a digital publication created by Lauren Apfel and Randi Olin “that tells all sides of the parenting story.”

Lisa Romeo, the author of this essay which is part of Motherwell’s series on Motherhood and Waiting “teaches writing to graduate students, and publishes a blog for writers. She is proud of her two young adult sons, boy number one and boy number two, and is committed to the never-ending practice of motherhood and waiting.”

God willing, I too will reap the benefits of waiting.

“From Boys to Men”

Here you are again. Waiting. It’s what parents do, or at least what you think most mothers do, or anyway, it’s what you do.

First, you wait to conceive, wait for the fertility tests to reveal what flaws and whose, wait for the drugs to work, wait for that positive pregnancy test. You try to, but can’t describe the fearful waiting through a high risk pregnancy, the anxious waiting of prenatal testing, the watchful waiting for boy number one to blossom. Wait for the right time to have the second baby, wait after the miscarriage to try again, wait for that strangle-throated boy number two to leave the NICU.

Wait. Hope. Pray. Wait.

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