The Jewish New Year is a time for judgment and reflection, not celebration. We gather to take stock and consider all of the ways we have fallen short, sinned and transgressed. We beat our chests, and each pounding represents a sin that either we — or some other member of the community — committed over the previous year.
I will sit in synagogue this September not only as a Jew, but also as a wife and relatively new mother. I will consider my relationship with God as well as my relationship with my one-year-old daughter, Lila. Have I been a good parent this past year? Am I a successful parent? At first blush, those two adjectives may seem interchangeable. And superficially speaking, they are, but they vocalize very different metrics.
Bad parenting may be easiest to recognize; it likely involves abuse or neglect — and if my Twitter timeline is to be believed, enrolling your kids in “Toddlers and Tiaras”-inspired pageants. However, being a “good” parent is much more complex, encompassing many shades of gray.
Every child — even within a single family — is different. Just as a batch of pancakes is made from the same ingredients yet each individual pancake is a slight variation on the others, siblings may share the same DNA but they grow into strikingly different people. “Good,” I would posit, is best for evaluating those so-called ingredients which are consistent (unlike outcomes, which vary). That variation makes “good” parenting nebulous and subjective, but the term is most useful for capturing the current, daily choices that define our own parent-child relationships.
Have we adapted our lives to prioritize our children and their needs, rather than squeezing them into our pre-existing lives? What routines create a smooth rhythm for our families? What values do we teach through our words and deeds?
Speaking lovingly is easy when life is calm. But when a child is fussy or you haven’t slept, patience can quickly become an elusive virtue. Ideally parents are self-aware. We catch ourselves if we snap; we correct ourselves; we promise to do better the next time and typically, we do. That may be the essence of being a “good” mother: striving to do your best, acknowledging any mistakes, and making a concerted effort to do better.
As someone who has now been on the job about 16 months, I can report that being a mother is both harder and more enjoyable than I had anticipated. Contrary to depictions in popular culture, motherhood is neither a fairytale nor a trap. It is earthy, emotional, fully-engaging work. It is a single job title, but the work can be done in infinite ways. And ultimately, the only relevant judges of whether a woman is mothering her child well are the mother and child in question. At the end of the day, if a mother knows she has given parenting her all, and her child is confident that he or she is cherished and loved unconditionally, that is a successful relationship.
But what about being a “successful” parent? That is a longer-term proposition, assessing the fully-cooked metaphorical pancake. If we accept this as a relevant parenting metric, outcomes remain unknown until our children are grown, and definitions of success may vary widely.
Before Lila’s birth, I defined success as raising a happy and healthy child who was proud to be Jewish. I have been blessed; Lila is an effervescent and resilient toddler who loves dancing to Shabbat music. So by my own measures, we are doing well, but we are only beginning life’s marathon. I hope that Lila is always happy and healthy and in love with her Judaism. But her life will inevitably bring plot twists, and it’s impossible to know if they’ll be from DNA, her own free will, or external forces.
As parents, we can control only so much, but that includes how we interact with our children. We should pour ourselves into these relationships, because they are central to our lives and our children’s well-being. When we err, we should correct course, continuing to learn from our children. As they grow, they teach us how to be the parents they need.
We can always find fault with our own parenting, and whether we actually grade ourselves is a personal decision. I continue to strive toward my definition of success by focusing on being a “good” parent to Lila each day. However, in this season of reflection and redemption, I encourage all parents to join me in hitting pause. During the Yamim Nora’im, let’s be gentle with ourselves and leave the judging to a higher authority.