Motherhood is put on a pedestal in Judaism.
This works well for the women who are naturally nurturing, who love small children, and who might choose kindergarten teacher as their dream job.
But what about those women whose teeth are set on edge by board games, who—even as they’re inspired by the image of happy children braiding challa with their calm and patient mother—would find doing so a minor form of torture?
What can we say to women who aren’t naturally attuned to the joys of being around small bodies and minds, who, though they love their children deeply, find the thought of spending years and years picking up Lego and spooning applesauce into little mouths daunting?
For some mothers, it might be comforting to remember that while those early years of hard physical labor, little sleep, and constantly being on—that early childhood demands—are fundamental, they are not the sum total of the mothering mission. Mothering continues during the teenage years, and goes on after your children are married and each of those periods of life require completely different skill sets.
Sometimes, those mothers who are not that great at toilet training and pushing kids on swings excel at schmoozing with teenagers or being supportive of their young couples. It is reductionism of the highest order to frame mothering as diaper changing and bedtime stories. At the same time, it is equally dishonest to ignore the fact that parenting requires years and years of sometimes tedious, often draining, always demanding work, and the sacrifice of many, many druthers.
THE ULTIMATE TREASURE
Why is having children such an ultimate value in Judaism? And make no mistake about it—it is. Bearing and raising children (if one is capable of being a good-enough mother/father to them) is probably the most cherished and important thing a Jew can do. Halachically, having children trumps almost everything else in importance.
One reason is because when we have children we’re doing what Hashem adjures us to do in Devarim (30:19). By having children, we “choose life.” Choosing life is not a slogan. It’s a minute-by-minute commitment not to be lulled into a vapid stupor by the onslaught of superficiality with which Western society indoctrinates us—where quality of life is synonymous with comfort and not too much noise or mess. “Choosing life” is holding on tightly with both hands to the idea that life is quality.
The Midrash, in a play on words, tells us that the verse “Kol neshama tehallel kah, every soul will praise G-d,” can also be read as every breath (neshima) praises G-d. Each and every breath of a human being—just being alive—is a validation of the greatness of G-d who wondrously enables an eternal soul to reside within a finite, physical body. This is true even without a person’s conscious awareness—how much more so if they fill their days with acts of kiddush hashem, i.e. struggling, however unsuccessfully to give expression to that soul—which we hope and pray our children will do.
It’s not a coincidence that the more secular a society becomes the more their birth-rate plummets. The desire for children is a direct result of being in a passionate relationship with G-d. If life has no ultimate meaning, then we live, we die, and we try to have some fun in between—and children, certainly many children—are not all that conducive to fun.
But if life has meaning, then I’m on a mission and the nature of a mission is to spill outwards into other lives. A life seriously lived overflows into a desire for children.
Hashem promises progeny to Avraham “Because I know that he will command his children and his household after him to guard the way of Hashem” (Breishis, 18:19). The burning desire to touch the future makes the clearest statement about our relationship with Hashem in the present. Children are a spillover of our passionate relationship with Hashem into the next generation.
PEOPLE, GLORIOUS PEOPLE
The gift of children is the gift of being granted a chelek in yishuv ha’olam, of populating the world with human beings who will lift this world out of purposeless anarchy and bring it to a place where His greatness is revealed. “Not for chaos did G-d create the world, but to be populated with civilization” (Yeshaya, 45,18).
And however many children we bring into the world, we’re told never to be satisfied. Rashi in Koheles (11.6) tells us, even if you learned Torah in your youth, keep on learning even when you get old. Even if you gave tzedakah when you were young, keep on giving it when you get old. And even if you are blessed with children, never consider the ones you have now enough.
As Rambam famously tells us, each and every additional child is a vast and infinite opportunity to bring the world to its ultimate purpose: “even if you have other children, adding one soul to the Jewish people, is… compared to building a world.” (hilchos ishus, 15:16).
For someone who values life, there is nothing this world has to offer—not the most worthwhile career and not even opportunities to spiritually influence others for the better—which can compete with the immensity of having children (While there is some discussion in the sources about a person limiting the number of their offspring so as to have more time to learn Torah, the overwhelming consensus is that there is no basis for that).
FUN DOES NOT EQUAL PLEASURE
Knowing this, however, does not necessarily turn us all into earth-mothers who adore answering questions before six am on why ants walk single file. Which, when you think about it, is completely OK.
For some reason, there seems to be a cross-cultural expectation that women be “naturally” attuned to motherhood — even as we specifically admire men who are mind over matter and do things against their nature. An integral part of being human, though, whether you’re woman or man, is the ability to go beyond one’s natural inclinations and do what one’s mind and heart tells us is right.
Some men love learning, others do it only because they know they have to. Some men love the attention to detail involved in analyzing esrogim for hours, others have zero proclivity for it, but may do so anyway because they think its important in order to develop chavivus hamitzva or for dikduk halachah. Some Roshei Yeshiva might, by nature, prefer learning to counseling a bachur about shidduchim, while others might feel the exact opposite.
Greatness is when you do something lovingly and happily even when it’s not your natural inclination, because you’ve made the conscious decision that this is what Hashem wants from you at this minute. We express our humanity when we use our intellect, our awareness, and our very souls to decide how and where we’re going to invest our time and energies.
Interestingly, this push and pull between our natural inclinations and our spiritual drive to do the right thing is brought out specifically through a woman. Chana, the mother of Shmuel, seems to see nature as a reasonable claim on G-d. She says to Hashem, You gave me the body of a woman—obviously designed to birth and nurture—how can You not allow me to use that body to have a child?
Yet, while it may have been her natural maternal drives that were the impetus for her heartfelt prayer, what made her great was her rising above her primeval longings and her natural “mother-bear” nurturing instincts and tapping into her higher, soul-conscious self. It was going against her nature which allowed her to dedicate her child to G-d. Surely bringing Shmuel up to Shilo as soon as he was weaned crashed with every fiber of her “natural” mothering instinct, and yet, it was that act of going against her nature—of reaching deep inside herself, to find her real prayer—that not only produced Shmuel, but gave the Jewish people the template for prayer forever.
The truth is that our personal inclinations, talents and abilities were given to us by Hashem, and as we know—but often forget — Hashem doesn’t make mistakes. The fact that we may not be naturally inclined to love the non-ending physical care, the noise and mess, the philosophical discussions about bedtime, the need to be consistently on, is not necessarily in our hands.
What is in our hands is how we do things, and what thoughts we tell ourselves about what we’re doing.
GETTING OFF THE GRANDSTAND
Some of the angst around this topic stems, perhaps, from the tendency in our society to rhapsodize about “the Role of the Jewish Woman.” But if we look to our sources, it’s not that clear that women (or men) actually have a specific role. Or, more to the point, at the end of the day “the role of the Jewish woman” turns out to be exactly the same as the role of the Jewish man: Do what Hashem wants of you in the particular situation that you find yourself (regardless of whether you love every aspect of it.)
For some men, doing what Hashem wants might mean developing their nurturing side, learning to communicate effectively, changing diapers, and taking care of small children (check out a kollel home during lunch time when the wife is still at work…or even a three-year-old cheder classroom).
And for some women, doing what Hashem wants of them might involve being merchants as in Eishes Chayil, winning over evil like Esther Hamalka, fighting wars like Devora Hanevia, manipulating outcomes like Rivka Imeinu, being innovative, daring, and determined like Miriam Hanevia…or maneuvering a stroller and a bunch of kvetchy children through a parking lot, and doing multiplication tables with a recalcitrant learner.
Was Recha Shternbuch, who saved thousands of lives in the Holocaust — and who probably did not spend a lot of time folding laundry — a great Jewish woman? What about childless Sara Schneirer?
Indeed, it’s possible that sometimes Hashem specifically does not grant a woman children in order that she be free to do something different with her life.. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin z”tl maintains in his Oznayin La’Torah that not only was Sara Imeinu childless for most of her life, but Hashem did not even give her a womb, in order that she not have “even a flicker of hope of having children in a natural way” so she’d be able to “devote her entire soul and being to the holy mission of bringing people back to Hashem.”
Of course, Sara’s barrenness was a Divine decree, not something she chose for herself. The question of what would have happened to Klal Yisroel if Sara Schneirer had merited to have a family, in which case she would probably not have started Bais Yaakov, isn’t a question we need to deal with. We learn from Chizkiyahu Hamelech, who was faulted for avoiding having children (since he knew they’d be wicked), that our responsibility is to bring children into the world, not to second guess Hashem.
But the idea that a woman’s tafkid is broader and more all-encompassing—and involves all aspects of her being—is still true. Even a woman blessed with a large family will still have many years of life—and many areas of life, even within her child-bearing years—which will not be connected to mothering or home-making.
CHILDREN VS. RESUMES
Still, a woman who understands the value of children may indeed have to give up wonderful, fulfilling, fun, and even very worthwhile opportunities. Even if she could have been a high-powered lawyer or surgeon, even if she could have touched people’s souls through music or art or literature, she may choose not to, because she’s cognizant of the supreme value of life.
For a person unfamiliar with Torah values, it would be hard to understand how a woman can choose to give up “developing” herself and her career in order to spend her life changing diapers and making sandwiches. She could have had a wildly successful advertising agency or hedge fund, and instead she’s fanning away flies in the playground!
But if after a hundred and twenty years a person comes to heaven without an impressive resume, yet with having tried to the best of their abilities to bring emotionally and spiritually healthy avdei Hashem into the world, we believe they will not lose out. The converse— arriving up there with an impressive resume bought by choosing “self-development” over having children—may not fly as well in a world of truth.
As an aside, self-development in Western lingo is often just a euphemism for developing the professional skills needed to “succeed.” While it’s true that any endeavor we’re involved in has the potential to help us know ourselves on a deeper level—and in that way, self-develop—there’s no question that it’s in the area of our intimate relationships with the people closest to us that we are offered the most intense opportunities to truly develop ourselves as human beings.
Beyond all the philosophical pontificating, the thing about having children, as Erma Bombeck pithily pointed out, is that once you have them, you have them.
That simple truth—ultimate tafkidim not with-standing—requires all hands on the deck. The basic, brutally honest truth is that children need their mothers and they need their mothers present. The most important things mothers do for children can’t be delegated (although lots of the menial tasks surrounding mothering certainly can).
Children need their mothers to be interested in who they are and what they do, they need their mothers to love them unconditionally, they need their mothers to model the right way to be and the right perspective on life. And they need to be around their mothers enough for all of this to be impactful.
Despite what we’ve been told, quantity time is quality time. This is true whether your child is 15 months old or 15 years old. Mothering is about being there, often in the background. It’s because you’re there that you know the rhythm of your child’s life. It’s because you’re there that those transformative moments of revelation suddenly happen.
And as an interesting side-point, if you do it well, it doesn’t really matter that you didn’t love it. The bachur being counseled does not ever need to know that the rosh yeshiva might have stifled an inward groan when he came in — and your child doesn’t have to know that given your druthers you would prefer gazing at the stars, or having a cappuccino with a friend, to sitting squished on the couch with five squirmy bodies reading the same book for the hundredth time.
Sometimes it happens that years down the road, one of those toddlers whom you found so challenging (and who has, in the meantime, shockingly, turned into an adult) says or does something that warms your heart, and you recognize your own input. And you discover something fascinating. Feelings dissipate, actions leave their mark forever.
Even if your teeth were falling asleep from boredom on that park bench, you were still there. Even if you could think of a million things you’d have rather been doing than making a tent out of blankets on a boring Sunday afternoon, you were there, and so were the creative tents—and so was the lesson that you can make lemonade out of lemons. And that is what made an impression.
You don’t have to love the nuts and bolts of mothering. You have to believe in the vision. Through our children we touch eternity, but as with many crucial things in life, the wrappings can be less than enthralling. That doesn’t make them less eternal.
As the famous line goes: “when there’s a ‘why,’ any ‘how’ is possible.” Mind over matter does not mean plodding along resignedly because there’s no choice. Mind over matter means a conscious choosing to see the big picture.
In this sense, parenting is a metaphor for the life of the Jew—a soaring vision translated into thousands of plodding details. Judaism is not about what comes naturally to you. It’s about keeping one’s eyes on eternity, tapping into the reservoirs of joy, there for the taking when we choose life.