V’Ahavta: Prayer and Parenting

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December 1, 2011
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Danya Ruttenberg

For new parents, a prayer practice that one had before having children can change considerably — aesthetically or otherwise — after the birth of a child. Once my son was born, I found that with a baby in the sling, my davening became less about transcendence (or the attempt to get there); prayer took on more embodied qualities, just as so much of his early infancy was about his bodily needs, and mine. Initially, I worried that I had lost some groovy sense of holiness for good. But I realized that I had been whispering the liturgy into Yonatan’s ear, as if he were my conduit to the Infinite, and that worked just fine. I didn’t need to float; I could get what I needed with my feet firmly planted.

My relationship to prayer changed again as Yonatan became an active toddler who attempted to break loose — or break everything — if not supervised at all moments. I had to figure out how to connect spiritually while distracted, slightly harried, and with a divided focus. (If momma sleeps with one eye open, she certainly prays with one as well.) It was instructive. Things also changed when he became old enough to sing liturgy on his own, and brought my understanding about shared prayer experiences to a new, intimate level.

Of course, for many parents of small children, the challenge is logistical as well as philosophical. Finding even ten quiet minutes in the morning to daven can be challenged by exhaustion and the urgent demands of one, or several, small people depending on adult care and supervision. Depending on how one thinks about the obligation to pray, the complications can be quite frustrating.

Different parents work it out in different ways. Among my friends and colleagues, some utilize a partner’s help. Some mothers daven while nursing or driving, accepting interruptions. Some try to sing a couple of major prayers together with their children. Others set out toys and hope the distraction holds. Rabbi Susan Grossman once said that she often had a child “holding onto my leg while I gave him a foot pony ride to the tefillah that I sang out loud.”

Other parents — mothers and fathers — have shared stories about shifting their sense of daily obligation into the realm of spontaneous prayer while their children were small: Some people lacked time in the exhausting chaos of a busy morning to focus on a contemplative practice; others felt spontaneity was right at this life stage. It worked best, they said, to connect to God through little expressions of thanks or petitions for help and patience.

Rabbi Michelle Robinson draws on the metaphor of seasons to frame her relationship to prayer. “For now, it is the time for the profound, radical amazement I have singing “Ma Tovu” together with my children as we rush to school, bags in hand. This is the time to savor that joy. Before I blink, the kids will be grown, the next season will arrive,” bringing more time to engage in the traditional communal prayer that she also loves.

Of course, for some parents, finding the energy or time to integrate any prayer practice seems simply impossible, and they simply let their prayer lives fall by the wayside for a time, or for good. In other families, there might be resentment or envy if one parent has a set time and/or place to daven, and the other is left to make it work however s/he can.

Many new parents find opportunities for wonder that happen in the cracks of life — on a neighborhood walk, at the dinner table, or in the bath right before bed. And there are a myriad of mundane times, as well, moments of repetition ripe to be sanctified by a tradition famous for making the quotidian holy. Lullabies, which already have a meditative, liturgical quality, can be drawn from the siddur, and reciting tkhines — prayers written in the 17th and 18th century by Ashkenazi women about motherhood — can be meaningful prayer forms as well. And many other possibilities exist — for example, the asher yatzar prayer, usually said after a bowel movement, thanks God that all bodily openings work correctly. Why would it not be appropriate to recite this prayer while changing a dirty diaper, or after nursing?

While the arrival of children changes almost everything for a new mother or father, for regular daveners, one’s prayer practice — and one’s prayer life as a whole — are impacted as well. Happily, for many of us, parenting opens up a whole new realm of spiritual possibility that was heretofore unimaginable.

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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a member of the Sh’ma Advisory Committee, is the senior Jewish educator at Tufts Hillel on the campus of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. She is the author of Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon), a finalist for the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature, as well as editor of five anthologies.

1 Comment

  1. This essay resonates with me deeply. I’ve written some on my own blog about how my relationship with prayer, and my prayer practices, changed upon the birth of my son — and now that he is a toddler instead of an infant they are indeed changing again. (I actually just shared a poem yesterday called “Early Maariv in the Toddler House,” about marking maariv-time as I played with my son and his toy trains: http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2011/11/this-is-evening-prayer-at-5pm-as-kislev-gets-underway.html)

    Thanks for this addition to our literature about prayer and parenting.

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