Last December, on the day my children began winter vacation from school, my publisher sent me a list of revisions they needed me to make to the manuscript of my book. I previously arranged to go with two other families to Adventure Plex, a giant indoor jungle gym for a play date. When we arrived, I apologetically explained the situation and asked my friends if they could watch the kids while I worked. I would be in the next room (where there was an electric outlet) if the kids or they needed me. My friends considerately agreed, and I pulled out the computer.
I furiously got to work, but I felt guilty. I recognized the irony of the moment. I was being an inattentive parent to complete my book on how to be a more attentive parent! But I didn’t have much choice, so I tuned out the noise of children running all around and typed away.
At one point, the woman nearby said to me: “I’m so impressed. I can’t believe that you’re able to get work done amidst this commotion. That’s amazing.” “Thanks,” I replied.
In thinking about that day, I realized that if I had been focused on the children, helping them with whatever they needed, and being fully present with them, no onlooker would have said to me: “Wow, I’m so impressed that you were a fantastic parent today.”
For some reason, in our culture, professional achievements seem to draw more acclaim than personal ones. Whenever I reach a professional milestone (such as passing an exam, or giving a particularly good sermon), my husband, parents and in-laws tell me, “I’m so proud of you.” For me, enduring pregnancy and giving birth was infinitely more difficult than any exam or writing project. Yet, when I delivered my children, I received many congratulations, but no one ever said: “I’m proud of you.”
In subtle, but profound ways, in our society, people tend to define themselves and their self-worth primarily by their professional achievements. For example, when we ask children what they “want to be” when they grow up, we assume that they will answer with an occupation – (such as doctor, teacher or lawyer). We don’t expect that question to be answered with identities such as spouse, parent, or friend – even though those may actually be the most significant roles.
This week’s Torah portion centers on a detailed description of the holiday calendar. Throughout this chapter, one refrain recurs. For each holiday, the text repeats, “it is a sacred occasion, don’t do any work.” These holidays are not merely chances to rest and regain our strength to work more efficiently the following day. Rather, they are intended to refocus our priorities from the professional to personal dimensions of our lives.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote:
The Jewish festivals challenge us: Do we define ourselves primarily by our work? Or do we define ourselves primarily by our total humanity, our ability to celebrate, to sanctify time, to share special moments with our families?
Ever since I read Kushner’s question, it has been ringing in my ears. After that day at Adventure Plex, I resolved to respect myself and others for their personal accomplishments, not only their professional ones. I pride myself on sustaining a loving marriage and raising children caringly more than any other dimension of my life. I define myself by my “total humanity.”
This mother’s day, let’s recognize ourselves and each other for all that we are and all that we do.
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