What Chanukah Taught Me About Parenting

Yesterday was my daughter’s Chanukah Chagiga. Looking around the crowded room, full to the brim with our ever-expanding pre-school, I had cause to reflect. Well, actually, in the moment I was slightly overwhelmed by the hubbub, the pleasure of seeing people I hadn’t seen in a while, and the enjoyment of watching my daughter flit around from here to there. The reflection came after I returned home and sat in the quiet of my house.

Parenthood is a funny thing. It’s an experience full of expectations, enormous emotions and not a small amount of tedium. An experience which is universal and yet completely individualized.

Pre-school Chanukah Chagigas are a good example of this. Some parents don’t mind a loud, crowded room where they will follow a small, delighted child who will be handing them various treasures such as prizes, platefuls of cookies, slightly sticky candies, and projects. Some children find the activities thrilling and engaging. Though it can be enjoyable and heart-warming, it is not an enjoyable experience for everyone. Not for every parent, not for every child.

And even for those of us who do enjoy it, it’s not necessarily enjoyable every year. There have been some years where I was absolutely counting down the minutes until a chagiga was over because I, or my child, was tired or overwhelmed or both. There are other years where I was overflowing with gratitude and emotion as I watched my child’s eyes light up with wonder and excitement.

It is not a static thing. It is fluid, like time, like relationships, like life. It’s easy to fall into the common trap of getting stuck on how things “should” be versus the reality of how things are.

It’s not easy, parenthood. I know this is an obvious statement, but I feel it’s one that should be reiterated, often. It takes focus, honesty and forgiveness. In order to do what I think is a good job, I need to transcend my own personal failings and tests, to move past my fears and self-consciousness and embarrassments. I have to constantly remind myself that, like the nights of Chanukah, the stage of early childhood will be over before I know it, and that I should enjoy these enjoyable, sweet moments while I am still in the middle of them.

This is really hard sometimes.

Case in point: The other night at candlelighting I was feeling particularly stressed. It was the end of a long day, a day full of whining and bickering, but also full of snuggles and heart-melting smiles and the exciting, if overwhelming, chorus of little voices asking all at the same time for my attention and love.

I was tired and feeling pressure to create the magical memory of lighting the menorah. These are not memories I have myself, and I suppose that can create more stress to make it especially beautiful for my children.

Again, here is where I could fall into the trap of unmet expectations.

In my mind there’s a tableaux of my three older children standing next to my husband. I am standing slightly behind the group, toddler in my arms. After he recites the blessing we answer “amen” in unison and sing Haneros Hallalu. My children (except the toddler, obviously, because toddlers shouldn’t be playing with matches) all light their own menorahs, and then I sit at the piano to play Maoz Tzur, and my children remember this perfect moment forever and their love for it never wanes.

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Or something like that.

In reality, some of my kids are there, some are unable to pull themselves away from their new Chanukah toys (can you blame them? No, of course not). Some want to say the blessing over their own menorah, others are uninterested. There is a constant anxiety about someone jostling the table with the menorahs and when it comes to playing Maoz Tzur on the piano, the music I have is in the wrong key and I do not have the mental capacity to transpose it like I usually do.

And I snap. I get up from the piano, cranky, and announce that I can’t play it. I am mad at myself for forgetting, again, to just write out the music in a better key. I am mad at myself for waiting until the last minute, again, to even think about it, and I am mad at myself for being mad about it.

Then I look over and see the look on one of my son’s faces and I remember: Memories are being made. I need to pull it together.

And I do. It’s a little Chanukah miracle right there. “She only had enough patience for one night, but her patience lasted all eight nights.”

I smile, give him a hug, and we all sing Maoz Tzur together, sans piano accompaniment.

This is the time of year we read about the story of Joseph and his brothers. There are many ups and downs, many betrayals and redemptions. Something I take away from it is that we do not often know the consequences of our actions, and we cannot know where life is taking us.

In parenting, we don’t know what our children will remember, what exactly will stick in their memories. Will they remember if we check our watch during their chagiga, or will they remember that we came? Will they remember a warm menorah lighting or will they remember the tension?

Each child is so different, with their own uniqueness and their own way of looking at the world. They will probably all remember the same moment differently. And my own memory of it will also be unique.

How will our decisions affect their own choices down the road? We cannot know. We can only do our best, be grateful when we enjoy the chagiga, and accept ourselves, and those around us, when we do not.