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What moms get in return: The unexpected enlightenment of parenting while female

What if our own crucible of self-sacrifice can teach us more about enlightenment than male mystics ever could?


Danya Ruttenberg
May 7, 2016 2:00PM (UTC)

This essay is excerpted and adapted from "Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting," which is now available from Flatiron Books.

A lot of things get thrown into a blender when we have kids – our logistics, our finances, our priorities, probably our sanity a little bit. And for most of us, our identity – our very sense of selfhood – also gets taken for a spin. You know? Suddenly what you want and what you need gets put on the back burner, and who you are and have been in the world shifts dramatically. The baby’s hunger at two a.m. takes priority over your exhaustion. Her seven thirty p.m. bedtime means that you’re probably going to say no to that night out with friends (at least most of the time, given what baby-sitters cost these days). Your love of travel is at odds with the fact that your vacation days now cover the times when school or daycare is closed. Simply put, when you become a parent, so often, it’s not all about you anymore. Or hardly at all.

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This is, at least in part, a wonderful thing. The love we feel for our children can pull us out of our self-involvement, and sometimes the generosity and compassion that are fostered with our kids can spill out to all – or many – areas of our lives.

But, of course, it’s also hard. This extreme shift in focus isn’t necessarily easy for every parent, or something that all embrace comfortably. One recent study found that a majority of new mothers described themselves as lost, lonely, and/or bewildered. Another study found that a majority of mothers felt as though they had lost their identity after having a child; many missed going to work, and most found it difficult to adjust to the fact that they couldn’t just go out whenever they wanted to anymore.

A lot of spiritual practices talk about the renunciation of the self – the “ego,” it’s usually called, the impulse to make everything about me, me, meeeeeee. Mastering that impulse is considered one of the great achievements in pretty much every religious tradition. For example, the kabbalists talk about bittul ha-yesh, the nullification of one’s “somethingness,” that which makes us who we are. It’s a means of putting God in the center of our thoughts and actions – not ourselves.

As the eighteenth-century kabbalist Issachar Baer of Zlotshov formulated it, “The essence of serving God… is to attain the state of humility, that is, to understand that all your physical and mental powers and your essential being depend on divine elements within. You are simply a channel for the divine attributes… You have no independent self and are contained through the Creator.”

Issachar Baer is saying that when we serve as a channel for something else – for God, for love, for giving, for service, for care – that “independent self” falls away. And we do this through actions that emphasize humility. From a spiritual perspective, this is a good thing, because that need to make it all about me all the time interferes with understanding that we are, ultimately, a small part of the great interconnected everythingness.

This should be great news for parents, right? Every day we’re given a crash course in quenching our ego and our desires, in extending ourselves in the care of another. As the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray once put it, “The path of renunciation described by certain mystics is women’s daily lot.” Mothering is synonymous with giving over the self, with humility. So we should be in fantastic shape, spiritually, then, right?

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Except that it’s more complicated than that. As Carol Lee Flinders points out in her masterwork "At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst":

"Formulated for the most part within monastic contexts, [precepts of spiritual practice] cancel the basic freedoms – to say what one wants, go where one likes, enjoy whatever pleasures one can afford and most of all, to be somebody – that have normally defined male privilege. That is, men in any given social class have always possessed these liberties to a far greater degree than women of the same class. To the extent that he embraced these disciplines, therefore, a man entering the religious life would have experienced a dramatic and painful reversal of status: hopefully, an all-out assault on ego. Yet no one around him would have been in any doubt that he had undertaken that reversal voluntarily. Women, on the other hand, have not been in a position to renounce those privileges voluntarily because they never had them in the first place…"

That is, women have historically been – and perhaps are still – raised with the message that they shouldn’t have desires in the first place, that they should, well, be self-sacrificing and giving and put their needs second to those of their children, their partners, their employers, their families.

A couple of years ago, an ad went viral that talked about “the world’s toughest job.” Prospective candidates were told about what was “probably the most important job,” and described work that involved standing constantly, with no breaks, no vacations, no sleep, and no pay – and then, the big reveal: This is a job description for moms! Moms work so hard, for free!

It is telling that, even in 2014, the ad felt it necessary to clarify that we were talking about moms – not dads, not parents in general. However much actual parents are dividing labor around the house (and, of course, plenty of families have two moms or two dads or only one parents of whatever gender), our culture continues beeping out the same old messages. I saw something similar on Pinterest recently: “A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

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These messages run so deep that we often don’t see how we’ve internalized them. It’s not for nothing that a major book on gender and salary negotiation is called "Women Don’t Ask." Men have been, by and large, raised to feel comfortable – entitled – to ask for more money in negotiations. To sit with legs sprawled wide apart, taking up plenty of room on the subway. To have a certain kind of an agency and, yes, selfhood, as they move through the world. The spiritual practice of annulling the ego is a healthy and productive way to address that sense of entitlement.

But for a woman who was told her whole life that she should diet because she’s more attractive when she takes up less space, and who has received a million different cues large and small that her career, her ideas, and her contributions to the world will be taken less seriously than those of a man, this is fraught terrain. When Irigaray said, “The path of renunciation described by certain mystics is women’s daily lot,” she was being sarcastic. Male mystics made a fuss about giving up freedoms and serving humbly because, for them, it was a countercultural move that produced radical effects. For women, it was just business as usual.

So where does that leave those of us who parent while female? Where does that leave our ego, our sense of selfhood, our real, actual love for our kids, our perhaps sometimes desperate desire to get out there in the world and, you know, do taxes or something, anything to reclaim our sense of being someone other than Mommy? What does it mean for our ego – and our spiritual potential – when we enter the crucible of self-sacrifice that is motherhood?

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And what if there were another way? That is to say: What if our acts of selflessness can actually support the self, in a deep, authentic way?

When Tracey was in the sixth grade, she got a horrible case of head lice. In order to spare her long, beautiful hair, her mother, Ella, had to comb it out thoroughly – a time-consuming process – twice a day. It was hardly how Ella fancied spending her time, not with the millions of other things that needed to happen each morning and evening in a family of four with two working parents.

And yet Ella found that this extra time, set aside to help her child with yet another task, had an unexpected consequence. It had been a rough year for Tracey and Ella – as adolescence often is between girls and their mothers. But, Ella reflected, “there, in all the mayhem of making her do her homework, dealing with her hormonal storms, and everything else, there was a twenty-minute span where I just touched her in helpful ways, and she liked being touched in those ways, and we were quiet together.” And in this quietness, not only did Tracey and her mom create something of a détente and help themselves find each other amidst the difficulties of the year, but it created a space of calm togetherness that Ella discovered she herself badly needed. “Head lice, those horrid little buggers,” she reflected, “became a reminder of our simple human connectedness and the possibility of peace.” That possibility infused her days, offering her powerful nourishment.

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The work of parenting has the potential to both develop our selfhood in healthy ways and to encourage us to grow in empathy, generosity, caring, and connection. In fact, rather than being an all-or-nothing proposition as far as our ego and self goes, parenting might bolster that ego; it might help us get someplace new entirely.

In contemporary culture, self-sufficient autonomy is often considered the marker of maturity – existing as an isolated, independent self (whose ego can then get broken down in contemplative practices, as the dominant narrative around spiritual development tells it). The psychologist Dana Jack, however, suggests a different model, one of the relational self in which our selfhood and our interpersonal connections actually support one another. In this model, she writes, “intimacy facilitates the developing authentic self and the developing self deepens the possibilities of intimacy.” The more we give to others, the more we can be our true selves. The more we are able to live authentically, the more we have to give.

And even more than that, philosopher Sara Ruddick suggests that we can’t even fully see the other people in our lives if our selfhood is not intact. She argues that we need to be able to let go of our egocentrism in order to make space for a true encounter with another, but, paradoxically, that work has to come from a place of security. That is, you need to be in a solid place in order to let go of yourself to fully encounter someone else. Real empathy, she suggests, involves finding another without looking for yourself in there – seeing who they are as themselves, not as a projection of your own stuff. You need to know who you are in order to be able to do that effectively.

I don’t know about you, but there are a few people in particular in my life – my partner, some cherished friends, my brother – who I feel really, actually see me. And when I’m with one or more of these people, I feel able to be the best, brightest, shiniest version of myself. And at the same time, these are the people who kick my butt, both explicitly and not, to be better than I am. When I feel seen, I feel more whole, and that enables me to be more giving, because empathy and compassion are in the driver’s seat. The kind of giving I’m able to do when I’m full up on love isn’t the exhausting, boundary-less, somewhat indiscriminate doing for others that I sometimes get sucked into – you know, the kind that makes you want to tear your hair out and say, “Why didn’t I just say no to this?!” Giving just feels different when it’s offered from a rooted place of selfhood and connection.

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And with my kids, well, more than anyone else they force me to really see myself. There’s no bigger clarification of my priorities and values than having to communicate to these small human beings in formation. I can decide how Yonatan and I talk about the presidential election, about the homeless man on the street, about the contents of his kiddie Bible. His questions to me – Why doesn’t that man have a house? Why would Abraham do that to his son? – push me to better understand my own perspective on the world, and ideally make me more thoughtful about what I want to download into someone else’s brain. When I’m able to really be present with my kids, it fills up my batteries with love and connection. It regrounds me in who I am, and from there, it becomes easier to remember what it is I am meant to be doing in my own actual life, and gets me out of the house of mirrors that is others’ ideas about (or my perception of their ideas about) who I am and what I’m supposed to be.

Ella didn’t originally consider the act of combing out her daughter’s lice as a purposeful gesture aimed at fostering intimacy; it was just yet another task that she had to perform in her role as mother. But as she entered into it, she found heartfelt quiet at its center. When we go looking for that connection, when we give out of love and the desire to see another – even, or perhaps most especially, our own children – we often find that it helps to nurture our own sense of selfhood on levels that we might not anticipate.

In what ways do we give that deplete our selfhood? And in what ways do we give that fill us up, that foster something fundamental? What does parenting look like when we give purposefully?

Because it’s true that “becoming zero,” in the manner of the mystics, is one path to the awareness of our interconnectedness with everything. But living through and into that interconnectedness is, I believe, also a means of getting there. We can experience our interdependence with others – most especially with our families, most especially with our kids – in ways that also serve to nurture our selves, and that even help us to grow.

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In Pirkei Avot, a first-century collection of Jewish wisdom, the great sage Hillel asks three questions that, I think, get to the heart of the paradox of parenting and selfhood: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”


Danya Ruttenberg

Danya Ruttenberg is author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. She was named by Newsweek as one of ten "rabbis to watch" and by the Forward as one of the top 50 women rabbis in America.

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