Thursday, September 8, 2011

Drawing close and the gift of distance

Inspiration comes from unlikely places. I’m no big fan of Elizabeth Badinter and her views on the current mothering culture, but I just came across a quote from her in a New Yorker article that I love. She says, “If you’re a mother, you are either too present or too absent; you can’t win. You have to be a Mozart of maternity to reach the right absence-presence balance.”

Bandinter is referring to actual physical presence—the time a mother spends in the home with her children, versus the time she spends on her own pursuits. But it’s also true of emotional presence and absence. Deciding how involved to be in my children’s relationships, in their decision-making, in their play is a delicate balance as well.

I’ve had this dance in mind for the past weeks A.N. and Y.B. started their first year of what our family calls “big girl gan,” preschool for the 4-5-year-old-set.

Last year was the first year they spent in a program out of the house, and it was our family’s first year in Israel. We sent the girls to a small private preschool located in their ganenet’s home. The environment was warm, nurturing and slow-paced. The other five girls in the gan came from homes that looked much like our own, and we liked their parents. The food, the music, the toys in the gan were similar to the ones we choose ourselves. The marvelous ganenet spoke to our children in English and gradually introduced them to more and more Hebrew.

It was the perfect gentle transition to the school experience, and to life in Israel.

This year is very different. The girls have started at a public preschool with nearly 30 other children. A single teacher and her assistant are responsible for this crew. Our daughters will hear only Hebrew and play with a broader swath of kids. Deciding on a school for them wasn’t easy, as I’ve written about, but I feel great about our decision so far.

On the first morning of gan, the girls were jumping out of their shoes with. They chose their outfits and their hairstyles carefully. They breezed into the gan building with enthusiasm, hung their little lunch totes on hooks, and settled onto the carpet with a game. Parents were invited to stay for the first 45 minutes, so I watched them as they spotted their neighbors and friends, made some initial observations about Racheli, their teacher (“She’s dressed all in white!” Not quite, but still an optimistically light-colored ensemble for someone who works with small children), and took in the atmosphere around them.

Soon I realized that I was hovering over them. So I wandered around, schmoozing with the other mothers and saying hello to children I recognized. I checked on B.A., who was sitting contentedly in his stroller by the door, perusing a board book. Y.B. and A.N. got involved in an activity with Racheli. I could have stayed another 15 minutes, and I’d told the girls I would. But they had forgotten I was there. So I took B.A. and went home.

* * *

I began formally nurturing my kids’ independence around when they were around 5-6 months, both times around. That’s the age that l like to start creating a stimulating play environment and then leaving them alone to explore. I try to be home most of the time, but not involved in the kids’ activities.

For instance, right now I am sitting in the nursery with my laptop as B.A. enacts some sort of elaborate dress-up/pretend -cooking/davening extravaganza around me. I often speak as I write, trying out the sounds of my words, and B.A. repeats them after me and weaves them into his play. Occasionally, I answer his questions or encourage his imagination, and then he continues on with his process.

I do not do floor time. I do not take roles in their play-acting. I do not build block towers. I do not lead activities. If they get frustrated, I will sometimes help them transition to another activity. But my most frequently-uttered play suggestion is, “Go into the nursery and close the door behind you.”

I encourage, I mediate, validate, I commiserate. When I’m giving them one-on-one time, I do whatever they want and give my attention only to them. But the rest of the time, they’re on their own.

And yet, I’m almost always in the home. And wherever I am, I’m thinking of them.

I find that giving my kids physical distance comes naturally to me. I like my own space, so gently nudging them away is intuitive. Emotional space is harder. That’s where I must be a “Mozart of maternity”—figuring out how to acknowledge their feelings and teach them how to express them in socially-appropriate ways. Recognizing they are separate people whose choices must sometimes be their own and who must face the consequences of their actions. Staying out of their disputes or intervening when necessary. This is the hard stuff.

* * *

We now find ourselves month of Elul, which precedes the awe-filled holidays of Tishrei—Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Each month of the Jewish year has its own unique spiritual energy. Elul is a time of growth, of realigning myself with who I want to be in the year to come. One motto of Elul is, “the King is in the field.” Another is, “I am my Beloved’s and He is mine.” I experience God as close by, ready for us to approach Him and renew our relationship.

God’s love is vast and huge, awesome and overwhelming. But God doesn’t hover, like I did on the first day of gan. If God’s allowed me to be truly aware of the Divine Presence suffusing and transcending all reality, it would be suffocating. Instead, Hashem seems to remove Himself and allow for the illusion of independence. He gives me free will and a sense of my own separateness.

This separateness is beautiful—it allows for all the color and variety of my individuality. But it also makes it hard for me to connect with the inner dimension of existence. God is like a parent Who takes Himself out of the picture so I can grow and blossom.

For the human parent, this balance of attention and distance is hard to master. But in Elul I remember that God is always present and loving, watching and waiting for me to become my truest self and draw close to Him.


Faitha said...

Oh, how very beautiful. God does not hover. In times of sorrow I often think of Him, at his remove, quietly sorrowing with me. A very lovely post Chaya. Thank you.

Ima2seven said...

The last four paragraphs of this post are just awesome. Love.

pam opper said...

Beautiful piece, Chaya. Speaking as a parent, I wonder if God does not hover in his own emotional, parental space we can not see. This is as it has been for me. Hovering can be very private and invisible.

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