Standing at Sinai… Holding a Very Small Hand

THE EAST VILLAGE MAMELE

By Marjorie Ingall

Published June 03, 2005, issue of June 03, 2005.
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God knows I’m no theologian. But as we approach Shavuot, I do think about the whole idea of revelation. I don’t care to hypothesize about whether God gave us the Torah all at once, in a big ol’ Sinai thunderclap, or whether Torah is given over and over as we discover new planets, create new poems, invent new widgets. I don’t know about Torah, but I think parenthood is undeniably a process of continuous revelation.

Parenting reminds you, over and over again, of the wonder of creation. We live in a posturing, ironic, cynical age. But no matter how edgy and postmodern you think you are, nothing makes you as dumbstruck and moony-eyed and aware of miracles as your own kids. As parents, we’re all standing at Sinai, all the time. We’re all privy to the divine. Even when we are covered with baby effluvia and listening to the thunk, thunk of the 3-year-old hurling her body like a battering ram against the door of one’s office, begging for Honey Nut Cheerios as one tries to make a deadline.

If your kids are the biological kind, looking into your children’s faces is like playing a spectacular, cosmic game of Where’s Waldo? You find your beloved husband’s almond eyes. The curve of your dad’s cheek. Your great-aunt’s giant, globular earlobes. You sense the chain of history. Revelatory. Heart-stopping. If your kids are the adopted kind, well, you and they may not be as matchy-matchy as sectional furniture, but you truly know from miracles. You found one another. And Shavuot is one holiday that has a lot to say to nontraditional families and to families made by choice. It’s when we read the Book of Ruth, in which Ruth makes her own rules about family. After being widowed, this non-Jewish character insists on staying with her Jewish mother-in-law. “Wherever you go, I will go,” she tells Naomi. “Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.”

The revelations of parenting are large and small, but they’re ongoing. People tell you how having a kid will change your life, but you can’t wrap your brain around just how much until you’re in the thick of it. I remember walking down the street, alone, about a week after Josie was born. My mom was watching her while I went to the drugstore. I felt simultaneously incredibly free and incredibly trapped. My arms felt weird without a baby in them. I felt untethered, like the bouquet of balloons in “Curious George.” Part of me wanted to run back home and pick up the baby; the other part of me wanted to get into a Corvette and take off for Mexico. I realized, in a primal way, that I’d never be truly footloose again. No matter how happily married you are, you know, when you’re childless, that you can always reclaim your freedom. But when you have a kid, there will never not be someone else to worry about.

Another revelation has been less fraught. I honestly had no idea how entertaining being a mother would be. When your baby is tiny, staring into her face like you’re reading runes is pretty fun. As she grows and gets more interactive, her entertainment value expands exponentially. Every couple of months, as Josie got older, I thought, “Okay, this is it. This was the best age.” “No, this.” “No, this.” Even during the terrible 2s, even during the manipulative 3s, the hilarity and weirdness and mystery expanded. Watching how her mind works, how she negotiates the world, how her empathy develops, how she invents games…well, it’s like living with a brilliant stand-up comic, a Homeric storyteller and a mad scientist — all rolled into one. I truly had no clue I’d laugh this much.

Then there is the revelation of your own infinite capacity for love. Everyone told me I’d love my second child as much as I love my first. Whatever. I was still sure I’d be the exception. How could I love anyone as much as Josie, whom I love beyond all measure and reason? How could I let in some teeny, vernix-covered interloper? How could any other child compare to my funny, mercurial, hammy little dictator? Throughout my pregnancy with Max, I prepared to lie about my heart’s accordionlike expansion. “Oh, I worried,” I said airily to my friends in my head, imagining holding court while cuddling my newborn mystery baby. “And then Max arrived, and I knew how ridiculous I was to worry.” In my fantasy, I laughed gaily and was viewed through a flattering soft-focus lens and golden light, like Barbra in “Yentl.” And then Max arrived, and I knew how ridiculous I was to worry. In my fantasy, I laughed gaily and was viewed through a flattering soft-focus lens and golden light, like Barbra in “Yentl.” And then Max arrived, and I knew how ridiculous I was to worry. In truth, at first I loved her like a kitten. She was helpless and adorable. Then she started to become a person — a sunny, observant, belly-laughing, serene Buddhalike person — and I learned that, once again, I knew nothing. The revelation: I will love Max more and more as she keeps growing and I keep learning who she is. I now know that I can love two children to the moon and back. That there is always more love in the pot. That, in the words of writer Amy Bloom, “Love is not a pie.”

I’m continually shocked that I have a mother’s authority. I used to give Josie timeouts in her crib. She couldn’t escape. She was a lemur in the zoo. The first time I ordered her to sit in timeout on the living room step, I didn’t quite believe she’d do it. But she went. And sat. And didn’t try to escape (though she whined her head off, of course). I was astonished that I had that kind of power. How could she not know I was a poseur, a sheep in Mom’s clothing? Since then, I’ve had the ongoing revelation that we all feel like frauds. I was Harvard’s admissions mistake. Every story I write sucks. But you know what? We make our own authority. And you really can fake it till you make it. As my mom, the Internationally Renowned Jewish Educator, puts it, “You put on your teacher mask, and it becomes your face.”

There’s more. I’ve had the revelation that Jewish tradition has something to say to me. I want my kids to have a connection to the songs and stories I grew up with… and not just so that they’ll date Jews. I never imagined that I’d work my butt off writing a leader’s guide for a Seder. I never saw myself leading a Seder. But this year, I did. Next year, I will again.

And becoming a mom has given me renewed appreciation for my own mother. I’ve always liked her. (And she is, after all, an Internationally Renowned Jewish Educator.) But now, I view her with awe. How exactly did she get me and my brother, born only 23 months apart, into bed every night while my dad spent all hours at the hospital during his residency? How did she work full time, cook major meals and find time to sew that raised-fist feminist patch on my Little League cap in order to discombobulate and disconcert all those dads at games? When I was younger, her advice made me roll my eyes. She was of a different generation, man. She was great, but she knew nothing of the magazine business or modern-day dating rituals or the fact that pants should not have pleats. Then when I became a mom, any sense of superiority I had about anything evaporated. I craved her advice. She was a genius.

And she tells me I have more to look forward to. “Watching your child parent,” she says, “watching the child of your child…it’s incredible. And you don’t expect it to have that kind of power.” When I reach her by cell phone, she’s having lunch with her friend Duffy (real name: Ruth) Page, another longtime Jewish educator. Duffy grabs the phone. “I have a fulfilling life. But it would have been so much less wonderful without my grandchildren. It’s fully as wonderful and awesome, in the classic sense of awesome, as your own child. Seeing your child parent makes you think you get a second chance.” That’s a revelation I really hope I experience.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@ forward.com.


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