Parenting How-To: Looking Beyond Diapers and Tantrums to Find Spirituality

Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting
Danya Ruttenberg
Flatiron Books, 320 pages, $25

I’ve read my share of parenting books. There’s a​ stack by my bedside table that inevitably tips over with my three kids’ rambunctious play nearby. With a 3, 5, and 7 year-old in the house, there is always the crisis du jour that I am looking for some fresh insights to figure out how to manage various situations, such as a behavior that needs rectifying or an extra dose of sibling rivalry that is getting a bit out of hand. Or sometimes it’s a need to figure a really important issue that will have x-y-and-possibly-z-long-term-implications on my child’s development, like how can I teach my children good habits around money, and exactly how much allowance I should give them?

So many of the books on the market are responding to a targeted need.

But Danya Ruttenberg’s new book, “Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting,” is different. It’s creating a need for parents to see beyond the (seemingly endless) monotony of caring for young children, and to discover the deeper and sustaining meaning of it all.

Ruttenberg is a writer, a rabbi and a mother of three, who weaves together these parts of her identity to share her insights with her readers. As the talmudic rabbis say, “words that come from the heart enter the heart.” And as you read her book, you feel the dissonance she experienced upon first becoming a mother — how caring for little children came at the expense of what was once a robust spiritual life. But upon the birth of her first son, Yonatan, she was drawn to turning that assumption on its head; parenting doesn’t need to get in the way of a spiritual practice, it can become one.

Ruttenberg’s perspective is fresh for the Jewish parenting field. Books have been written, and programs have been launched that use the challenges of parenting as a way to connect parents to Jewish life – learning the prayer modeh ani as a way of experiencing more gratitude, considering the sh’ma as a way to ease a fraught bedtime routine, using Shabbat table rituals as a way to ensure that at least one night a week no one is running off to soccer practice.

It all sounds great in theory. But what happens when the Friday night Shabbat dinner becomes the least favorite time of the week? (Whose idea was it to bring the red grape juice and put it in the hands of a 3-year-old with a white tablecloth nearby?) Using Jewish ritual as a way into Jewish life can sometimes be another kind of behavioral intervention similar to the ones offered in parenting books, but with a Jewish twist.

They don’t address the inner landscape of a parent.

In her inimitable style – sometimes sassy, other times soft and reflective, Ruttenberg tills the soil of that inner landscape.

Teaching children to pray might be important, but what does prayer mean to a parent who is at the end of her rope? For Ruttenberg, uttering the barely audible phrase “help me” into the Great Beyond softens her to let the frustration melt away.

And how about the expectation to sit on the floor and play with our children? (Ruttenberg writes, “A lot of the time I find my kids’ play, well, boring.”) She offers a reframe: “I’m less captivated by the game than I am by the quieter moment in which I can just witness, you know, them.” She re-conceptualizes everyday parenting moments with traditional Jewish language culled from the sacrificial service in the ancient Temple, terumat hadeshen, or the sweeping of ashes from the altar following the previous night’s sacrifice. As parents, our mundane acts become daily offerings. Ruttenberg writes, “We sweep out yesterday’s ashes to make space for everything we can offer up today. And when we perform these acts of care, we find ourselves drawing close to our kids, being brought near to them. Again and again and again.”

For each issue that a parent faces, she names it, and offers a reframing — all with a hefty dose of Jewish wisdom and modern psychology along with Buddhist and Christian teachings.

Embedded in her book is a critique. While religious traditions (Judaism among them) can be read to teach us so much, it also falls short. She writes, “theology has been dominated, for many hundreds of years, by people who have not been their children’s primary caregivers. I wonder how things might look if more of us with this complex, cuddly, messy, exhausted reality began to insert our voices into the mix?”

Her writing is compelling, and I found myself wanting more of her insights into parenting together with a partner. Her husband was mentioned in passing and had a supporting role. I know that for me, with a husband who has very strong opinions in the parenting arena (Did he not get the memo that I am the “lead” parent here?) the conflicts and differences between us while parenting take up a lot of bandwidth in our home. What about coming to appreciate the differences in our partners’ parenting approach as another deep spiritual practice? Maybe that will be something she addresses in her next book.

Her last chapter spoke to me the most. Ruttenberg writes, “…perhaps the work we do to care for our kids trains us to attune more closely to the still small voice that is so often hidden in our day-to-day — the voice of deepest insight that some of us call God.”

So often as a parent I feel like I am operating a very serious piece of equipment with no training manual. Now my 7-year old is fast-tracking into teenager hood, with his screen savviness, his interest in his and other people’s anatomy, and a-bit-too-independent-for-his-own-good. It’s easy for me to lose sight that beyond all the advice, tactics, and suggestions out there, listening to my own still small voice to find the right answers and discover the deep insights is the wise invitation I need.

When my daughter toppled the stack of books from my bedside table recently, she hastily put “Nurture the Wow” back, but turned it upside-down. Nurture the “mom” is how the inverted title of Ruttenberg’s book looks. Like a subliminal message, that’s just what this book surely did.

Dasee Berkowitz is an educational consultant, community builder and writer. She is Director of Ayeka’s Becoming a Soulful Parent project. She currently lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three children.

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