Why I’ll Never Be a Good Jewish Mother

The following is part of the Hevria series “Truth And Dare”, in which Hevria writers have pushed themselves to write about topics they find uncomfortable to share publicly.


I am eight years old, lying in my parents bed. In another room, my parents are arguing, yelling loudly. My mother bought me a doll; my father is angry. Why did she spend $50 on a plastic toy when she could have bought me something of real, lasting educational value, like blocks?

I inch my body closer to the wall that hugs their bed, looking for support. I pull the blanket close to my chin. I wish I could block out the noise.

I had begged my mother for that doll. I threw a huge fit at the store, I wanted it so badly. Wanted it because my cousin had one. Wanted it because it was so pretty. Wanted it because I wanted to be the kind of girl who liked playing with dolls.

But my mother didn’t want to buy that doll for me, that doll with a red dress, blue eyes and curly blond hair. She didn’t want to spend $50, money she could have spent elsewhere. She didn’t want to give in to my fit. But she did. And now, she had to defend her choice.

I desperately try to fall asleep against the sounds of my parents’ voices, too young to decipher the hidden conversation wedged within their words.

To my eight-year-old ears, their exchange is about me.

I drift away feeling this was all my fault. That somehow, I am responsible for the pain and rage around me. That somehow, I have to fix things. That somehow, I am only lovable if I am perfect.

It’s a heavy, heavy burden to bear.

And now I am a mother of four, still bearing this weight.

There are things I promised, I swore to myself, I would never do as a mother. I would never fight with my husband in front of my kids. I would never break a promise. I would never be distracted and always be attentive to my childrens’ needs. I would never lose control, always keeping my anger in check. I would never utter a hurtful word, always speaking to them with intent.

At this, I have failed miserably.

My husband and I fight in front of our children, after which our children ask us if we’re getting divorced. I am regularly distracted, on my phone, juggling so much, while my children vie for my attention. I do not always follow through on my promises. I get angry more than I feel comfortable admitting. And I have said some hurtful, hurtful things to them. To my children.

And as many times as I tell them its not their fault, as much as we talk through our feelings, I recognize how they change. How they, too, walk on eggshells. How they, too, seem like they are already building a case against me. How they, too, feel they must be perfect to be loved. My children.

At least that’s what I fear.

I am at my daughter’s birthday celebration at school, where I also work. She is sharing the special pizza I bought for her party. Receiving blessings from her teachers. Chanting the pesukim. Laughing with her friends. Once I finish sharing her birth story, I am notified that there is a visitor waiting for me in my office. And here, I feel the tug. As I quietly excuse myself from her party, I notice the pained look in my daughter’s eye.

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Moments like this pile up high like a tower of hurt and regret.

I get asked all the time, “How do you do it all???” and I have to admit- I hate this question and all it implies.

I have four young children and a husband who travels often for business. I work in a demanding job in a position of leadership, host many guests, write regularly, am active in various causes, and too much more. My professional and personal life are inconsolably enmeshed. I struggle so much. I am always feeling guilty or overwhelmed about something. And for me, it’s beyond all the angst working mothers may feel — I live in perpetual fear of messing up my children.

What does it even mean to be a good mother? Will my children appreciate the sacrifices I’ve made, or will they wish I never allowed myself to dream? Do they pray I was a different kind of mother, the one with a bag full of snacks, diapers and wipes, the one with the perfectly-planned after school activity, the one with the poised words of wisdom to soothe their pain? What already weighs heavy on their small shoulders? And what do they think, feel and hear as they lie alone in their beds?

I don’t know.

And as these questions swirl inside my soul, I am that little girl again, teetering on the edge, feeling like I’ve failed the ones I love the most.

Does G-d, the Father of us all, ever wonder if He has failed us, too? Does He care about building trust with His creations? Does He look down at us in angst, fearful that He may ruin us all with His dance of revelation and concealment? Or does He engage in a some sort of supernal math formula, where all the tears cried over thousands of years in this world equate to some sort of greater good that only He can calculate?

This is Unknown.

Last week, I had ‘one of those days,’ attending an all-day conference in the city, having to hurriedly secure three playdates and a babysitter for my children after school (yes, I could have been more prepared). On the train ride home, I skimmed this book called The 5 Love Languages of Children from our school’s library. In it, the authors posit that there are five ways to give and receive love. If we are not getting love in our particular ‘love language’, our ‘love tanks’ are not full– we feel drained and emotionally neglected. I try to decipher my kids’ love languages. Is it Quality Time or Words of Affirmation? Physical Touch? How about Gifts or Acts of Service? I wonder.

The way in which we feel love is how we need to receive love. So at home, I ask my eldest — the one I worry most about; the one I feel I will never be enough for.

“How do you know Mommy loves you?” I ask this afraid of how he will respond. Afraid that he does not believe I love him. Afraid that he is broken because of me.

He chuckles. “Are you serious, Mommy?!”

“Yes. Is there something I do that lets you know I love you?” I cannot back down.

He looks at me with a twinkle in his eye, oozing with sincerity. “Yeah, because you tell me, like, every day, Mommy. You tell me all the time that you love me so much. So I know you do.”

My heart soars with affection and relief.

My son knows I love him. Despite all my moments of weakness, despite all the ways in which I am sure I’ve already let him down, he knows I love him. That’s gotta mean something — to the children we bear, to the ones that still live deep inside — right?

Featured photo © 2011 by Suzanne Heintz, Conceptual Photographer from her series “Life Once Removed”.