I had made it to the end of an exhausting day and I was completely worn out. Coping with a child struggling through an intensely difficult period while caring for my other children and running my home had left me empty. Finally, after putting the younger children to bed, I crawled to my room with instructions not to call me for anything short of an emergency. As I took a deep breath and started to unwind, the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the name on caller ID and even as my brain knew I couldn’t deal with anything else tonight, my hand was already reaching out to answer.
“Is this the mother of Ben (name changed)?”
My heart sank and I almost burst into tears. I didn’t feel up to dealing with another complaint.
Ben was a good kid and while I couldn’t imagine him behaving terribly, he was a normal boy and could certainly have done something that would draw censure. When I affirmed that I was Ben’s mother, the caller identified himself as a principal of a local high school who prayed at the same synagogue service as Ben each morning. My heart sank further. As a homeschool mom at the end of a day that had left me feeling drained and inadequate, I imagined this principal was likely calling to explain why I was incapable of educating my child on my own.
But that isn’t what happened. “I pray beside your son every morning and I want to tell you what an impressive young man he is. Each morning he greets others politely, offers assistance, and prays with maturity. He is a credit to your family.”
I hung up the phone and burst into tears, but these were tears of gratitude to God for knowing what my sore heart needed that night and for a stranger who had looked me up in the phonebook in order to share praise of my child with me. That night occurred almost ten years ago but I still feel buoyed when I remember Rabbi S.’s phone call. Instead of going his own way, he introduced himself to my son, remembered our name, looked me up, and called me just to share nachas. (Nachas is an untranslatable Hebrew word every parent should know connoting pride and pleasure in one’s children.)
Motherhood can be a lonely venture. Our heroic moments occur out of sight; no one witnesses our struggles, challenges, or triumphs. We feel invisible as we navigate grocery stores, post offices, and libraries juggling strollers, diaper bags, wearing a baby, and corralling a wandering toddler. While many are quick to judge, very few smile at us or offer encouragement or assistance. Every mother can be sure she will get a call of complaint. Very few are confident they will receive calls of admiration.
My caller understood an integral truth about motherhood and broader society. Although it appears as if each mother operates individually in her own home, Jewish tradition teaches that motherhood and family life is at the foundation of a healthy society. A community or country that respects motherhood and values the family as the building block of society will thrive, and those that don’t are on the path to ruin. Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 is known to Jews worldwide as the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei. The theme of valuing womanhood and motherhood runs through Ki Teitzei, but is epitomized in Deuteronomy 22:6-7.
If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest... and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go... in order that you may fare well and have a long life.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (Orthodox rabbi and leader of German Jewry in the 1800’s), points out that the Torah’s promise that one will fare well and live a long life is only offered for this commandment and for that of honoring one’s parents. Both directives protect the dignity and honor of motherhood. If a religious Jew is walking along a country road and finds a mother bird sitting on her eggs or chicks, he is forbidden from taking that mother bird home for dinner. He must let her go free because at the moment he encountered the bird, she was fulfilling her job as a mother, nurturing and protecting her young. The Torah’s respect for motherhood extends even to the animal kingdom to illustrate the paramount importance the Torah ascribes to a mother’s role. The mother bird is freed precisely because she was in the nest guarding her babies. Showing honor and respect to a mother, even an animal mother, is the basis of a person’s happiness and future, hence the promise “that you may fare well and have a long life”.
Rabbi Hirsch teaches that the Torah’s guarantee of beneficence and longevity are not only directed to individuals who honor and protect mothers, but to societies who do so as well.
When a society respects the dignity of motherhood, it will flourish and grow. A culture that disparages motherhood will disintegrate.
Unfortunately, most of the world today doesn’t recognize the foundational importance of families and parenthood to broader society. Although this trend is deeply troubling, we needn’t throw up our hands in despair. Each one of us has the ability, like my nighttime caller, to honor and protect motherhood. Regardless of your age, stage, or gender, each of us can support young parents in our communities. Here are three suggestions for your consideration.
Compliment - When your child’s friend behaves politely in your home, your neighbor’s child interacts maturely with you, or a toddler sits patiently ahead of you in line at the grocery store, take the time to compliment their parents. A word of encouragement goes a long way to a tired parent. A quick comment, phone call or text with a good report heartens and strengthens a parent.
Smile - The mother with the screaming kid in the parking lot and the father of the child playing with the tray table behind your airplane seat are doing the best they can. They feel the world’s (judgmental) eyes on them and you can be sure they’re struggling. Extend grace by smiling and perhaps offering a word of encouragement, “I’ve been there too. You’re doing great.”
Support - If you are in a position to offer help or support to a young mother, consider doing so. Perhaps you can run an errand for her or entertain her child with a story while waiting in line. Extend an offer, “I’m going shopping today. Is there something I can pick up for you?” Even more than the significant help you may provide, you will help a young mother feel supported and seen.
Souper Mom - Join a new initiative to support a neighborhood mom by bringing her a serving of soup, (homemade or store-bought), to give her an emotional lift along with a nutritious meal. It's tough to volunteer to make dinner for a whole family, but it's easy to bring a single serving of soup so that a busy mom can have a hot lunch and feel appreciated. My sister and I began this program recently and the moms who received soup have shared with us how much this small gesture encouraged them. Print our card to accompany your gift or make your own!
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