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Good Enough Parent

In our tradition, we often compare God to a parent, and ourselves to clueless, wayward children. Our expectations about God’s parenting can teach us a lot about our own responsibilities as Godlike figures (uh, sometimes) to our own children. As Rosh Hashanah approaches and we begin the introspection and self-inventory that are as much a part of this season as brightly colored leaves and sharp new pencils, we consider how to emulate God in our role as parents. Perhaps, as we prepare to launch into the litany of ashamnus and breast-beating that characterize the holiday, we should consider exactly how guilt-ridden we need to be.

In “The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Lifecycle Events” (Behrman House, 2000), Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin writes, “One grand lesson of Rosh Hashanah is not that we have to be perfect, but that we are, and can continue to be, very good. It is suffi cient if we strive to achieve our potential. It is only when we fail to be the fullness of who we are that we are held accountable.” She quotes the 18th century Hasid Rabbi Zusya: “In the world to come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Indeed, our tradition distinguishes between the G’dolim and us regular folk — we don’t all have to be Moses, Einstein or Sarah Silverman. (Maybe especially not Sarah Silverman.) But even if we aren’t capable of accomplishing as much or overcoming as many challenges as our heroes, we aren’t off the hook. We don’t get to slack. As individuals and as parents, we’re expected to do our best. That’s what God the parent looks for.

Cardin’s words got me thinking about the theories of the British child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), the guy who gave us the term “transitional object” (aka lovey, blankie, or in Maxine’s case, odd faded green stuffed elf-baby in long Wee- Willie-Winkie-style hat, known in our home as “Soft Baby”). Winnicott also came up with the idea of the “good-enough mother.” The good-enough mother meets her baby’s needs, but also, gradually, lets time lapse between the baby’s demands and their being met. That way, as the baby grows up, he learns the difference between self and other, understands that he’s not omnipotent, learns to problem-solve for himself. The “perfect” mother, on the other hand, satisfies her child’s every need instantly.

As a result, he becomes an entitled little weenus. He never learns empathy; he demands that his parents intercede when he gets a C in organic chemistry his freshman year of college; he screams, “Mom! It’s not right!” after being sentenced to jail for driving with a suspended license after failing a sobriety test. Oh wait, that was Paris Hilton. My point exactly.

Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) took Winnicott’s “good-enough mother” theory a step further. He wrote “The Good Enough Parent” (Knopf, 1987), and may I say yay, Bru, for acknowledging that dads and people who are not birth moms can parent. Anyway, Bettelheim pointed out that if we grimly persist in trying to model perfection for our children, we teach them that we expect them to be perfect too. When we helicopter-parent, we not only fail to teach our children independence, we teach them that they’re doomed to fail. Because they quickly learn that in the real world, which shockingly does not, in fact, revolve around them, they won’t be repeatedly told they’re perfect. And we teach them to be cynical (because we’ve lied to them) and contemptuous (of themselves and others, because no one can live up to the impossible standard that’s been set for them).

Like God, we parents should be patient with human frailty, and teach that value to our children.

Bettelheim writes, in a parallel of Rav Zusya’s insight, “The parent must not give in to his desire to try to create the child he would like to have, but rather help the child to develop — in his own good time — to the fullest, into what he wishes to be and can be, in line with his natural endowment and as the consequence of his unique life in history.” And further, “The goal in raising one’s child is to enable him, fi rst, to discover who he wants to be, and then to become a person who can be satisfi ed with himself and his way of life. Eventually he ought to be able to do in his life whatever seems important, desirable, and worthwhile to him to do; to develop relations with other people that are constructive, satisfying, mutually enriching; and to bear up well under the stresses and hardships he will unavoidably encounter during his life.” Good stuff. So insightful, we can consider forgiving his idiotic blither about “refrigerator mothers” causing autism. (See, I’m in the holiday spirit. Look at me, forgiving! Tekiyah, baby!)

When I’m wracked with procrastination (and where Josie gets her perfectionism, I have no idea), my husband Jonathan says simply, “Better is the enemy of good.” (Google is not helping me figure out who said that first. Could be Voltaire, Thomas Edison or some guy at NASA.) In other words, just do it. Just try, just write, just engage, just pray. Don’t worry about being perfect. If you’re not paralyzed by the fear that you’ll fail, you may deliver better than good. But if you don’t actually get cracking, you won’t have the chance to fi nd out.

Actually, you won’t have anything at all. And that’s a lesson we want to pass along to our kids. Find that middle place where you’re neither a slacker nor someone who’s so hard-driving she’s twisted in knots. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but don’t be too quick to forgive your own trespasses, either. Strive for balance between work and family. And as we move into autumn, and apples and honey and fi rst grade and nursery school, work on imitating God’s qualities of mercy, kindness, benevolence. (In other words, be like the guy who gave Nineveh another chance, not the smite-y, rageoholic nyah-nyah-you’re-a-pillar-of-salt guy.) You needn’t be perfect, but you do need to be tolerant of others’ imperfections. God knows I need to work on that one myself, as a parent and as a human.

L’Shana tova.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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