Transforming the Mundane, Everyday Work of Parenting into A Spiritual Practice


This following is an excerpt from the new book Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting by Danya Ruttenberg (Flatiron Books 2016)

Jewish law suggests that you should not hold a child during prayer, lest she disturb your concentration, that you should not kiss your children in synagogue, to instill in yourself the idea that no love compares to love of God. If your child is crying, you should indicate—without speaking—to the child to stop crying, and if that doesn't work, you should walk away from her so that her crying does not disturb your prayer. Another source reminds fathers not to hold a diapered child before afternoon prayers, lest he become soiled and miss the start of services. All of this leads one Orthodox rabbi I know to remark that, as a result, he doesn't pray if he's alone with children. 

Obviously, traditional Jewish law wasn’t written for or by those who are in the trenches of intimate care of small children.  There is a not-very-implicit assumption that someone else, somewhere, is in charge of the sticky, huggy, needy, emotional little humans that, evidently, impede a person's ability to live a life of spiritual service. Spirituality and children are placed in opposing, incompatible spheres, and women are relegated, along with the children, away from wherever it is that they're keeping the spirituality. 

The idea that caring for children could be a core, crucial, even cornerstone aspect of one's spiritual and religious life, that loving and caring for them should be integrated, somehow, into one's spiritual and religious expression—well, it's totally absent from this thinking.  And this absence isn’t specific to Judaism.  Rather, it's the norm, in a lot of corners of the religious world.  For example, a friend who is an Episcopal priest admits that "most of us Christian parents (at least during liturgy) try to shush our children to keep them from 'disturbing' us or others." Some churches and synagogues make efforts to be "family-friendly," offering toys in the back corner of the worship space, babysitting, or separate kids' services in a different room.  I both applaud these efforts and make ample use of them, myself.  But it's true that they continue to perpetuate this notion that grown-up prayer—the "real" spiritual life—is something that happens only when the kinder are otherwise occupied.  That this kind of intentional spiritual connection cannot happen with children, or as I’d like to suggest, through them.

Across cultures, more often than not, men have been the authors of authoritative rulings and women have been at home with children.  In some places, women were part of, say, a monastic tradition, but generally not mothering at the same time.  The reasons for this are usually socio-economic, but at the end of the day, there are a whole set of experiences, issues, questions, and types of thinking that come out of doing the work of parenting that have not been integrated into classical discussions of prayer and religious practice in general. 

I wonder how various religious traditions might have formulated their approaches to prayer (and everything else) if they had been thinking about the realities of parenting small children from the beginning.  And I wonder what these traditions could look like if the questions, challenges and types of thinking that parenting opens up were taken seriously and brought into the conversation, even at this late date.

Sure, one could say that there’s a tension. On the one hand, when people talk about religious disciplines, the implication is that a person has a practice—prayer, meditation, yoga, and so forth—that gets done every day (or three times a week, or whatever), no matter what, and that the practice  Does A Thing; it changes you.  On the other, well, what parents know better than anybody, is that theories and principles are great, but when living the messy reality of life, they don’t necessarily serve.  And more than that, there might be profound truths to be learned from embracing the flux, the flow, as needed, as appropriate.  What if there wasn’t just one way to do this?  What if a lot of ways were the right way? 

In my case, I’d been carrying around the ultraviolet light, defining my religious expression by traditional rabbinic yardsticks, certain that it was the only possible option. It had served me well for a long time. But once I became a mother, I became more aware of other manifestations of light and discovered that, though sometimes my old means of spiritual practice still served me, there were other possibilities for connecting to the transcendent that, at times, spoke more deeply to who I had become, what I needed now.

Sometimes my prayer— offered up with intentionality into the great beyond— involves deep contemplation of my son’s ear, or arm. Sometimes it can be found in just being present with him, in snuggles or smiles or games or fielding questions. Sometimes I manifest it in a tiny cry— “help!”— barely perceptible even to me, when my kids’ needs are too big and overwhelming, when they’re acting out, or even just when they’re being normally spirited and rambunctious despite the fact that Mommy didn’t sleep so well last night. Sometimes prayer involves other things— singing with them, singing words of liturgy to them, saying words of liturgy to God.

I don’t think that how my prayer life has changed signifies that there’s no wisdom to the tradition; rather, who I am and what I need has changed. Spiritual practice needs to be wide enough to accommodate expansions and contractions, shifts and changes in how we exist in the world. It has to be big enough for all the love we receive and give out. “You should not kiss your children in synagogue in order to instill in yourself the idea that no love compares to love of God”? Are you kidding me? Th ere is enough room in our spiritual expressions not only for all of the love, but also for the hectic, distracted chaos that so often defines parenting, if we let it—if we are willing to expand our understanding of how much, how many kinds of, light exists in the world.

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