From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. In 2020, we are reviving the signature advice column, helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in this digital age. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep your heart open and your phone on
As someone who is usually there for others, I’m finding it very hard to do so right now. All my family and friends are in need of comfort at the same time — me included. What do you do when everyone is in need of attention at once?
Elizabeth, Los Angeles
If you are someone who keeps tabs on everyone in her life, this moment can feel truly overwhelming. The texts, calls, FaceTime interruptions and Zoom meetings alone are full of panicked, sick, grief-stricken people in search of solid ground. And, alas, there doesn’t seem to be much of it right now.
But, check yourself. We are not actually “all in need of comfort at the same time.” If you’re anything like us, the difficult emotions come in waves — some days are totally manageable, some are a disaster. One of us Abbys spent last Shabbat hiding under the covers crying, but this past Saturday happily making cinnamon rolls for her family. Even if our outside circumstances aren’t changing much, our internal experiences of them will, and it’s vital for our sanity to notice those small, moment-to-moment changes.
If you are being inundated with friends or family members clinging to you for support, it’s O.K. to put up boundaries for your own sake. This is going to be a long road and you do not want to burn out on caring for everyone else just one month in.
And you need to keep your heart open and your phone on for those who really will be in need of much more comfort and support — those losing loved ones. You can do this by taking care of yourself. (Put on your oxygen mask first!) This might mean going on bike rides, taking a bath, reading a book at night — or simply not answering every text that comes in from every last contact in your phone.
You can’t be the only one cleaning the toilets
My husband and I are both home with our three kids under 5, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who knows the bathroom needs to be cleaned or the sheets need to be changed. I’m thinking all day about when to do the laundry and clean and I get the sense that he’s…not. How should we be dividing up domestic work during this time?
Domestic Dotty, Los Angeles
Dear Domestic Dotty,
Sing it, sister: every single person in the house has to step up. Period. There are more meals, more messes, more stress, more diapers, more people around ALL THE TIME. This is a pandemic, for crying out loud. You can’t be the only one cleaning the toilets!
Sit down, hash out the major chores, and divvy them up. In her book Fair Play, Eve Rodsky points out that one of the key components to sharing domestic labor is that whoever takes on each task fully takes over the task. So if it’s your husband’s job to clean the kitchen, let go of that mental load. DO NOT WIPE THE COUNTER. Establish what a completed job looks like — then forget whatever is not on your list.
Make sure to play to each of your strengths and situations: If your husband likes to cook, let him plan and execute the meals. If you find calm in a clean pillowcase, take on laundry. Be explicit.
Make lists for everyone — even the kids. Your toddler putting away a crayon can be a feat that you later all celebrate together. One of us Abbys illustrated a to-do list for every family member. The other made a scavenger hunt that included picking up dog poo. We’re not proud of that one. Okay, maybe just a little.
Last but not least, a heartfelt “thank you” can do wonders. So make sure you say thank you for doing the dishes; thank you for wiping down the groceries; thank you for leading that family calisthenics class.
And thank you for writing, Dotty.
Let them worry with you
Our family of Jewish worriers has always tried to have a policy of transparency about medical conditions: we promise to tell one another whenever one of us is sick or injured. Now, we aged parents are separated by a continent from our adult children, who have young children and are working from home.
One of us has developed a very painful knee condition that under normal circumstances would prompt a visit to the emergency room. It is being managed over the phone by our physician who is on the front lines with Covid-19 patients and who obviously cannot do a proper physical exam or X-Ray. Should we let our kids know about this while we are toughing it out?
Grandpa Mike, Toronto, Canada
Dear Grandpa Mike,
Have you ever heard E.B. White’s quote about worrying? “Never worry about your heart till it stops beating.”
That can be applied also to knees. It sounds like you are handling this situation very wisely and responsibly, so your children have no need to worry. But yes: TELL THEM.
We Abbys both come from hearty lines of worriers. Also, a fair share of martyrs who didn’t want to “trouble anyone” with aches and pains. One of us decided she could recover from a bike accident by walking it off and repeating the mantra, “I’m O.K..” Didn’t work. Instead, she had to deal with bruises, stitches, and the wrath of a very worried mother who wondered why she was getting a call from a hospital. You keeping your medical crisis to yourself is not going to make it easier on anyone.
In fact, sharing your current condition can actually help your children. We prescribe you a hot bath, a piece of kugel, and a listen to psychologist Brené Brown’s TED Talk about the power of vulnerability. Brown makes a strong case for connecting through our weakest moments. When we dare to admit we’re hurting, we give a real gift to those who want to be there for us.
Grandpa Mike, tell the kids your troubles. If you don’t, they’re just gonna find something else to worry about.
Feeling overwhelmed? Need advice? Just want to know which pajamas are acceptable for grabbing your takeout? We gotchu. Write to email@example.com.
Don’t feel bad about feeling good
I’m embarrassed to be enjoying all this home-alone-with-my-children time when there’s so much illness, panic, and fear in the world right now. I should keep it to myself, right?
Happy on the Inside
Dear Happy on the Inside,
Um, what kind of Koolaid are you drinking and do you have an extra gallon?
#JustKidding. #Not Really. #MaybeALittle.
Listen Happy, this is a beautiful thing, so please swallow the embarrassment. Who does it help? Yes, this is a uniquely horrible time for hundreds of thousands of people, but it is also a time of incredible healing and compassion. Every day, there are doctors, nurses, janitors, cashiers and mail carriers risking their lives for the good of our society. In our own homes, we’ve seen brothers and sisters painting rainbow mandalas, cleaning toilets, and serenading grandparents over Zoom. Any one of these things is worthy of celebration.
Happy, your joy does nothing to worsen the illness, panic and fear in the world. On the contrary, you could bring some hope to a seriously struggling planet. There is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that we Abbys are fond of called tonglen, and it goes like this:
Focus on someone who you know to be suffering.
Breathing in, imagine drawing that person’s suffering into your body so she/he/they can be free of it.
Breathing out, send that person new, clear, buoyant light.
Repeat as many times as you like, with as many people as you like.
Your happiness will not dwindle. It will just continue to expand.
Bintel Brief: Worry, comfort, cleaning & enjoying it.