A year ago I sat down to start writing a column about parenting based on the weekly Torah portions. I was initially a little apprehensive; would I find something to write about each week? To be sure, there was a rough patch there in Leviticus, amidst all the sacrificial rites. I was also kind of tingly, though, at the prospect of taking a fresh look at texts I’ve known my whole life.
The column began with this week’s portion — Exodus. As I wrote in that first essay, this portion is the beginning of the book of Shemot, which is Hebrew for names. The text begins aptly, with a list of the names of Israelites who “came to Egypt with Jacob.” (Exodus 1:1)
Last year, when I wrote about these verses, I was writing about being a mama to an 18-month-old kiddo who was just stringing together his first words. I wrote about trying to find the right names for his big emotions, and remembering that what we say is powerful. I wrote about trying to understand, and be understood by, someone small and inarticulate.
A year later, a lot is the same and so much is different. Just yesterday, for example, when I asked my toddler if he’d like blueberries, he answered, “Ani davka ma’adif tutim, mama” (I actually prefer strawberries, mama). Clear as day. He is a very articulate little person, and has even started saying, “I need space,” when he wants to be alone or isn’t in the mood to hug. Our parenting challenges aren’t about trying to understand the garbled syllables in our little one’s mouth now. He makes himself understood in two languages, without any trouble.
As I write these words, I’m sitting on an easy chair in my sister-in-law’s home in Berlin. As I mentioned last week, the three of us made the transatlantic hike to meet our baby nephew, who turned three months old a few days ago. He is tiny.
We were supposed to be here for a week and then hop an El-Al flight to Israel, to see friends and family we hadn’t seen since mid-2020. But no such luck. A new COVID-19 variant running rampant among the nations and borders crashing closed again means that we aren’t going to make it home this time around. How could we see our grandmothers in good conscience, knowing how dangerous this virus is? How could we take our unvaccinated toddler on flights, into airports, to see people in a new country, knowing contagious the omicron variant is?
Instead of packing up for a flight last night, I spent the evening texting my friends and family that I’m sorry, we have to cancel all of our plans and head back to New York.
I’ve written so much about COVID this year, which doesn’t come as any big surprise. The pandemic has thrown a wrench into so much of what I expected early parenthood to look like. This week is just one more example of that. As I read the list of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt, I thought of my own family. The list of people I was so excited to hug and spend time with. Who I will now wait, again, for my child to see and connect with. The list of new cousins who I have yet to meet.
The whole thing makes me deeply sad. And exhausted in a down-in-my-bones weariness way.
Looking back at this year (and at this portion) there’s another theme that stands out to me as well: The struggle with the power of the things I say around my kid. Another no-brainer. I’m a writer — of course I worry about words.
Our kiddo repeats everything we say now. Today, my sister-in-law looked at the breakfast table and declared, “Wow, this is a feast!” Our two-year-old parroted back, “It’s a feast!” without missing a beat. These moments are mostly hilarious. Until they’re not.
Two days ago, for example, my kiddo and I were picking out granola in a nearby supermarket. He chose an appealing packet — magenta, with pictures of fruit and nuts — and handed it to me. Without thinking twice, I turned it over to read the ingredients. “Oh no,” I muttered, “this is full of sugar.” I didn’t think he’d heard me.
I should probably mention, at this point, that I (like many, many people, especially women) have issues with food. I think way too much about what I eat, how much, what’s in it. I’m distinctly aware of these difficulties and want to refrain from passing them on to my kid. One of my goals, as a parent, is to raise children who enjoy food without the heavy qualms that weigh on so many people I know and love.
Sugar notwithstanding, I handed my kid back the packet of granola to put in our cart. I don’t speak or read German, and it probably wasn’t as bad as all that. He wouldn’t put it in, though. “No, mama!” he said, scandalized “It’s full of sugar!”
My heart dropped. “No, baby, it’s fine!” I said, “Some sugar is okay, love, and I’m sure this is great granola. You made a wonderful choice.” I was probably overselling this packet of oats and cranberries, but I couldn’t stop going on and on about how it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
It’s striking to me that a year ago I was also trying to find the right words to help my baby shape a healthy reality. “We decide the words that will make up our and our child’s world, which is a thrilling prospect. And also kind of terrifying,” I wrote.
Dear reader, I’m still terrified.
I know that the weight of my child’s whole reality isn’t on my shoulders alone. I know that he learns from his other mom, from his teacher at daycare, from his friends. Even from Leo the Truck, his favorite cartoon. I know his world will keep expanding. I wonder, will I figure out a way not to take my missteps so hard?
One thing that a year of writing these posts has taught me is that I need to work on trusting my wonderful kiddo. The truth is that he’s capable, and smart, and adaptable. He’s funny, and curious, and a quick learner. He can probably handle his mama saying the wrong thing every now and again.
I also need to work on trusting myself to get it right. Someone smart told me recently that the world doesn’t throw curveballs — it is the curveball, and we’re on it, trying not to spin away into the ether. I didn’t know I’d be watching Israel shut its borders and calling to frantically change my flights. I didn’t know I’d be wandering the aisles of a German supermarket, extolling the virtues of granola. I didn’t know a lot of things, though, and I still figured them out. Just like my kid figures things out. Just like our ancestors did before us, when they made the trek to Egypt and then to the Promised Land.
Maybe that’s the most human thing of all: Fumbling through life, not knowing, but trusting ourselves to find the right path. If not the first time, if not the second time, then eventually. And together.