Excerpt from Blessings and Baby Steps
Playing Superheroes: Help or Do It Yourself?
One of my son’s favorite games is playing superheroes. I pretend to call him on the phone and tell him that I have a problem—such as a cat stuck up in a tree. He pretends to be Spiderman and rescues the cat. I thank him profusely, and the sequence begins again with a new problem for him to solve.
This game reminds me of when I was a child and loved to watch the television show Wonder Woman. The lead character, played by Lynda Carter, was a beautiful, regular woman, until she spun around. Then suddenly she was wearing her superhero costume and could accomplish anything. She leaped buildings in a single bound and never even messed up her hair! I wanted to be just like her.
As parents (and especially moms), we often do what I call our Wonder Woman imitation. Lynda Carter has nothing on us! We are talented, smart, and hardworking; we act as though we can do everything ourselves. And for a while, we may be able to do it all. We can work more than fulltime at our jobs and be great parents, and we can volunteer in our children’s schools, our house of worship, or community center. Essentially we can complete everything anyone asks us to do—and the grocery shopping, cooking, entertaining, and cleaning, too.
People come up to us and say in astonishment: “How are you managing all this?” We smile and shrug our shoulders as if to say, “No problem.” We take pride in our variety of talents and accomplishments. We think that we are different. Maybe other people can’t manage it all, but I can. Then we get real. We get tired. We realize that we can’t actually do it all— or more accurately, that we can do it all, but then we are irritable and snappy.
Or if we’re really good, then we can do it all and still be pleasant—but we’re not enjoying anything. We’re not truly present in any moment—because we’re thinking about what needs to be done next. Life goes by in a whirl, and we’ve missed it.
A Hasidic tale tells the story of a rabbi who asked to see Heaven and Hell. God acquiesced to his pleading and offered him a tour. Rabbi Lionel Blue recounts the story as follows:
The rabbi found himself before a door which bore no name. He trembled as he saw it open before him. It gave into a room, and all was prepared for a feast. There was a table, and at its center a great dish of steaming food. The smell and the aroma inflamed the appetite. The diners sat around the table with great spoons in their hands, yet they were shrieking with hunger, and fainting with thirst in that terrible place. They tried to feed themselves and gave up, cursing God the author and origin of their torment. For the spoons God had provided were so long that they could not reach their faces and get the food to their tongues. They stretched out their arms but their mouths remained empty. So they starved because of the spoons while the dish of plenty lay amongst them. And the rabbi knew their shriekings were the cries of Hell. And as knowledge came, the door closed before him. He shut his eyes in prayer and begged God to take him away from that terrible place. When he opened them again he despaired, for the same door stood before him, the door that bore no name. Again it opened, and it gave onto the same room. Nothing had changed, and he was about to cry in horror. There was the table, and at its center the steaming bowl, and around it were the same people, and in their hands, the same spoons. Yet, the shrieking had gone, and the cries and the curses had changed to blessings. And nothing had changed, yet everything. For with the same long spoons they reached to each other’s faces, and fed each other’s mouths. And they gave thanks to God, the author and origin of their joy. And as the rabbi heard the blessing, the door closed. He bent down, and he too blessed God who had shown him the nature of Heaven and Hell, and the chasm—a hairsbreadth wide—that divides them.53
This story is true not only about the next life but about this one. What makes the difference between heaven and hell on earth is how we reach out and help one another.
As a parent, the difference between paradise and hell is the ability to accept help from others. The spiritual task of accepting support is difficult. Raised on the American ideals of competence and independence, we feel helpless if we need assistance. Asking for help degrades our image of ourselves as selfsufficient.
Yet in those moments, we must remember that no one accomplishes any worthwhile project alone. Like the winners of the Oscars, we are all indebted to a myriad of others for our every achievement. Many people—from the farmer to our teachers—have had a hand in our success.
No matter how powerful we are, there are times when we need help. This may entail admitting to our parents or in-laws that we need them to watch the kids for a few hours, or hiring someone to assist us. We may need a friend to act as a sounding board when we’ve lost our way. Parents of children with special needs may need to call on therapists, tutors or specialists.
Asking for and accepting help sounds simple, but it can be one of the greatest spiritual challenges of parenthood. A friend of mine with twins admitted that needing assistance was one of the hardest adjustments for her. And an acquaintance of mine with quadruplets knows on a daily basis that she needs help just to cross the street, let alone traverse an airport. In asking for help, children can be our mentors. Toddlers and preschoolers request our assistance countless times a day without shame or embarrassment. They can teach us how to ask for help with grace and dignity.
Too often as parents, we isolate ourselves, which makes parenting far more difficult. When we open up to each other, new possibilities emerge. For example, my friend Julie and I set up an exchange: she takes my daughter for a playdate and to school one morning a week, and I pick up her son from school along with my kids that afternoon. This swap not only freed up some time for each of us, but also strengthened our and our children’s friendships. Parenting is much easier when we hold the spoon for one another.
I once discussed the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” with my mother-in-law, Maya, who argued against this idea. She said: “It takes parents to raise a child.” She raised her children in Israel, half a world away from her parents in Los Angeles. Her in-laws were local but not terribly helpful with raising the kids. Her husband spent large stretches of time in the Israeli army. She did not have a nanny. Still, I reminded her that she had a school to which to send her children, as well as friends and neighbors who helped out in a pinch. Maya agreed. No matter what the circumstances, parenting is a group effort.
In the Bible, even the creation of humanity is described in collective terms. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.” Commentators were often troubled by God’s use of the plural in this verse, which could be misread as implying multiple gods. Rashi explained that only God created the world, but God first consulted with the angels in order “to teach the proper way of conduct and the trait of humility, that the mighty should consult and seek permission from the lowly.” God modeled the idea of networking. How striking that even the Almighty understood child rearing as a collective undertaking!
The flip side is also true. Although raising children is a communal enterprise, there are certain tasks that only parents can and should do. For example, while others can offer a bottle, only the mother (if she is able) can breastfeed the child—fostering that special emotional, physical, and spiritual connection. School Mother’s or Father’s Day celebrations or children’s plays are events for which parents need to make a priority to be there (if at all possible). Some of these activities are fun, like the school celebrations. But many of these jobs are tiresome—like the 3:00 AM feeding—but they are ours alone.
The Passover haggadah says that God took the Israelites out of Egypt “Not by an angel and not by a seraph and not by a messenger. Rather the Holy Blessed One God-self in divine glory and personally…” Our heavenly parent, too, understood that liberation was a task that shouldn’t be delegated, so God did the dirty work directly.54 When we do the messy tasks of parenting ourselves, we emulate this divine quality. While kids readily ask for help, they also take pride in doing things themselves. At age two, Hannah loves to say, “I do it myself!”
Kids love cooking, gardening and “do-it-yourself” projects, the messier the better. Our children can teach us to take pride in doing things ourselves. Here in Los Angeles many people have personal assistants. This sounds like a great time-saver; having an assistant to run errands could allow for more “quality time” with the kids. However, the reverse also is true. By doing the errands with our children, we implicitly teach them about household responsibility and caring for the family. Shopping with kids takes longer and is more frustrating, but often more fun. For young kids, even routine outings are an adventure—especially if the market has carts shaped like fire trucks that they can drive! In every store, my kids point out things I never would have noticed.
Depending on the circumstances, we have to determine where we can accept help and what we should do ourselves. The answers will change with time. During Jeremy’s first year of preschool, my nanny always picked him up as I was working full-time. When I stopped working full time, she initially continued to pick him up in case I needed to nurse the baby. Later, I discovered that Jeremy preferred that I pick him up, so I did. As a result, I had a more direct sense of how school was going for him. The following year, I found that although raising kids without child care was more difficult, I was much happier doing it myself. On a case-by-case basis, parents must determine whether a particular task is something they must do alone or something for which they can accept help.
The questions of what to do oneself and when to ask for help aren’t unique to parenting. These issues are important professionally as well. In rabbinical school, my dean, Rabbi Bradley Artson, taught us to think carefully about our actions as rabbis and ask ourselves whether a task was something we alone could accomplish. He explained that if we were doing a task that someone else could do, then we were probably taking away time from what only we could do. I thought of this idea repeatedly as a congregational rabbi. For example, if I was “being nice” and doing tasks that my administrative assistant could do, then I was probably reducing time on tasks like visiting sick congregants (that she couldn’t do for me). A better approach would be to train her to do more of the administrative work so that I could visit the bereaved or write my weekly sermons. Both personally and professionally, I needed to decide when to ask for help and what I alone could do.
Sometimes we get caught up in our own indispensability. We feel that we have to do everything because no one else can do it as well as we can. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “Maybe the only truly indispensable people are mothers in the first months of a child’s life.”55 However, I would argue that the indispensability of parents lasts far longer than a few months. When my son was four and my daughter was one, I was deciding about jobs. My friend Orley reminded me that someone else could serve as a rabbi of the congregation, but no one else could be the mother of Jeremy and Hannah. Likewise, no one else could write this book but me. Of course, other people could write their own books, but only I could write this book from my heart and my experiences. Being a child to our parents or a parent to our children are jobs that only we can do.
A Hasidic teaching instructs that a person should keep two pieces of paper—one in each pocket. One reads: “For me, the world was created.” And the other reads, “I am but dust and ashes.” By keeping both ideas in mind, we will neither become too arrogant nor underestimate our talents. Help can be viewed in a similar way. Perhaps, parents, too, should carry one slip of paper in each pocket. One slip reads, “I don’t need to do it all alone.” The other says, “My child needs me.”
As I have grown up, I no longer aspire to be Wonder Woman but rather to be a wonderful mother, wife, rabbi, and friend—with all my flaws, limits, and imperfections. When we shed the garb of superheroes, we discover the super people we can be!
From Blessings and Baby Steps: The Spiritual Path of Parenthood
By Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Copyright © 2011 Behrman House
Reproduction without attribution prohibited