The author, center, with her children Anna and Adam, in 2014. // Photo courtesy of Judy Bolton-Fasman
For eight years I’ve written a weekly parenting column for a local Jewish newspaper in Boston. My valedictory column will be published just before Rosh Hashana. When I accepted the job, I made it clear that I would not be writing a “how to” column. Nor would I consult parenting books, which, to my mind, frequently state the obvious. No, I was going to live out loud — mistakes and all — and with their consent, so were my children.
My daughter Anna was 12 and my son Adam was 9 when I started the column. They were natural story generators. All I had to do was drive carpool and listen to the sagas going on in the backseat. I learned about who was being bullied, who loved whom, who didn’t love whom and most importantly, if my children were happy. Although I strongly felt the Yiddish proverb that you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child ring true to me, keeping my children happy through my own intervention was not my goal. Of course, I wanted to swoop in and fix whatever was bothering them, but most importantly I wanted to teach them coping skills.
The parenting columnist gig was not mine alone. From the outset, my children and I were partners in this writing venture. I agreed never to write about anything puberty-related and I was forbidden to talk about any details of their social lives. I also read them every single column in which they were mentioned. I soon discovered a huge benefit to reading my column out loud to my children: it kept me honest. No poetic license for this parenting columnist.
The author (left) and her son in the Dead Sea, Israel. / Copyright Avital Norman Nathman
There’s a certain sense of overwhelming fatigue that comes from spending hours traipsing along the streets of Tel Aviv under the hot summer sun. Even my mother, who accompanied my almost 8-year-old son and me on this outing and can truly shop till she drops, started flagging. After walking a few blocks in the wrong direction, we reoriented ourselves and grabbed the No. 19 bus, which would take us back to my uncle’s apartment in Rishon. I was exhausted. My mother was exhausted. My son? Still running high on his seemingly endless supply of energy. It must have been the three extra falafel balls he scarfed down at lunch.
I pulled out a notebook and pen, hoping they would keep him occupied on our 40-minute ride. The bus quickly filled up, and the seat next to him, the one across from me, was taken by an older woman who looked kindly at him. Over the next 40 minutes they formed an unlikely bond as she gave him sweets and he showed her the math tasks he’d given himself. They chatted — a mixture of halted Hebrew and English — until she got off, a few stops before us.
“I made a new friend,” my son told his grandfather later that day. “I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.”
Welcome to Israel.
The following day we decided to do it all again, because one cannot get enough of shopping in Tel Aviv — at least according to my mother. Not wanting to be too much of a burden, we had my aunt drop us off at a bus stop somewhere near Tel Aviv on her way to work. We managed to get on the right bus, but weren’t quite sure when our stop was coming up. My mother and I tried to keep an eye out for it, but an excited boy who wanted to point out every last thing made it difficult. The bus rapidly filled up the closer we got to Tel Aviv. It stopped in Yaffo, and I was fairly certain the time had come to debark.
Earlier this week the New York Post ran a cover featuring Chirlane McCray, the First Lady of New York City next to the banner headline: “I WAS A BAD MOM.” I am so glad they did this.
The Post article was a summary of the profile of McCray by Lisa Miller in New York Magazine, which they saw as something that was “bound to horrify most moms” and “shatters the carefully crafted image of de Blasio’s close-knit family, which helped vault him into office.”
Alicia Silverstone has a new book out and I wonder why it is selling.
For starters, it has a impossible to remember title, the sort that only Fiona Apple can get away with: “The Kind Mama: A Simple Guide to Supercharged Fertility, a Radiant Pregnancy, a Sweeter Birth, and a Healthier, More Beautiful Beginning.”
Second, in spite of, or maybe because of, the “kind” in the title, this book will only make its readers feel like crap.
Welcome to motherhood, millennials. According to a new report from the parenting website BabyCenter, the newest crop of moms, ages 18-32, are rejecting the helicopter parenting they experienced as children and are opting for a more relaxed approach.
When I spoke to Jennifer Senior, author of the new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”, I told her that my experience reading her book felt much like the state of being she describes in the title. As a mother of 15-month-old, I am still in denial about the long term struggles inherent to this whole parenting thing and it was often painful to accept her smart analysis of the topic.
The book looks at all the reasons we are less happy than we’d like to be, or at least thought we would be. Some of these, like the fact that toddlers are incapable of rational thinking, we can only battle through acceptance, while others are things we can actually do something about. The one that stood out to me was the decline in community, best known as the “bowling alone” phenomenon, and how the resulting isolation only works to make parents’ lives even less fun than they need be.
I spoke with Senior about why parents are so much lonelier these days and how Shabbat dinner might save us all.
We parents believe, at first, that we’ll keep the number of toys in our homes manageable. That we won’t become one of those families with plastic toys constantly piling up underfoot. We imagine that our kids will play school and house; that they’ll throw a ball around when friends come over. We imagine that once they’re old enough, the kids will simply “play.”
How’s that working out for most of you? I’m guessing that I might have some soldiers ready to enlist in my war on toys — what my husband I have started calling The 10 Toy Plan, which we plan to downgrade to a Five Toy Plan by the summer. At first the idea sounded impossible, until I considered the facts in my home (and yours).
To protect has always seemed to me to be the first duty of the parent. Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with my husband and three young children, I knew what it was I wanted to shield my children from: violence, fear, social disorder so profound that it would unsettle their very sense of safety in the world.
Last year, when I began to volunteer in an inner-city school in Detroit, my challenge was not to explain to my own children the violence the Detroit kids faced on a daily basis — that did not even occur to me to discuss; it was way too scary. Instead, I had to confront the unbearable injustice of limited opportunity, as well as the effects of an inheritance of racism. It was painful to me to talk with my eight-year-old daughter about the fact that the Civil Rights movement, which she had studied, had left some problems unsolved. “Til today?,” she asked, in disbelief.
In late August, my husband, Ori, and I took our children to Israel, where we planned to spend a sabbatical year. Both of us had lived there previously, Ori for eight years, serving a full-term in the army in the early 1990s, and myself for two years in the same era, with many summers spent in Israel since. I was also born in Israel to American parents who lived here at the time, and my grandparents and paternal aunt and her family all made their lives here. My children have all visited before, too. They speak and understand Hebrew to varying degrees, and when we were still living in Ann Arbor, they attended schools that were replete with Israel-activities and study.
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?
Grandmothers and more experienced mothers: You’re starting to scare me. I appreciate the constant cooing over my little girl, I do. But the nostalgia you regularly voice is worrisome.
My year-old daughter, Lila, and I are regularly stopped by women who identify themselves as having “older” or “grown” children, and most don’t sound so happy about it. More experienced mothers constantly urge me to “enjoy this time” with my baby — as if I’m not — always assuring me “it goes fast.” As you say these things, you sound either wistful or like you’re delivering a warning.
Is it adolescence that everyone has in mind, when I fully anticipate Lila’s being in full teenage-rebellion mode — mortified by my every comment and very existence? Or is it something else, something more enduring? Perhaps it varies by mother.
On a recent outing to the supermarket, Lila was wearing her eye-catching pink floral hat. “Take pictures,” a woman told me. “When she’s older, she’ll never believe she wore that. I know. I used to dress my kids in special clothes like that when they were younger, but now they’re teenagers.”
She looked unhappy as she said it — her voice betraying the sentiment of my own mother’s oft-repeated maxim: “Bigger kids, bigger problems.”
Upon seeing Lila, a grandmother we often bump into in our neighborhood talks about her grandson. Apparently, he was a few years behind me in college. Standing before me, his mother – who also lives nearby – seems lost in her memories, recalling how she stayed home to raise her two sons. It sounds like those were cherished days.
Truth is, some of you sound almost heartbroken.
One of the best protest signs I’ve seen lately was at Saturday’s ‘National Protest Against the War on Women.’ It reads: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” I”ll amend that in my response to the question, Katie Roiphe raises, of whether or not there’s a taboo around being childfree. Yes, there is, and I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation.
On my next birthday, I’ll be 34, which, from what I understand, is around the time my biological clock is supposed to start screaming at me, although I know folks for whom this screaming started a while ago.
But I’ve known I didn’t want children since I was one myself. I’ll be honest: There’s nothing attractive about child-rearing to me. And I hope that if I ever start to hear this alleged siren of breeding, I’ll be able to hold the fact that my life right now is the life I want, and that once children are had, I can’t go back in time and get that life again. (Nope, not even when they’re 18 or 30.)
If there is one thing I’ve learned in 33 years of living in a female body, it is that every decision I make that’s not in line with traditionally accepted gender roles will be pathologized. Without children, Roiphe suggests that I can’t even be a grown up in the right way. Apparently, what makes someone a grown up is doing what people tell you to do — even if you know, deep down, that it’s not what you want or what would be good for you.
Teen Vogue magazine began mysteriously arriving in our mail a couple of months ago (probably because I subscribe to Vogue proper and the algorithms know how old my children are), and I am doing my best to keep it away from my 13-year-old daughter.
I take a quick look through it and then tuck it a few layers into the recycling pile.
To be sure, Teen Vogue includes an occasional redeeming story, like this one about young philanthropist Yael Cohen, and her F*** Cancer organization, which has raised more than $1 million to fund education about the early detection of breast cancer.
Still, it doesn’t seem to counterbalance the dozens of stories about fashion and makeup and TV personalities that avalanche through on paper and on the magazine’s website: Ashley Greene in jeans showing that she has a huge space between her thighs! Fairy Tale Prom Dresses! Actress Emma Watson, looking oh-so-Twiggy, and her ‘Red Carpet Secrets!’ Kendall and Kylie Jenner, new ‘creative directors’ for Venus brand razors talking about why they never leave the house without shaving their legs! How they learned from their older sisters, like, how to shave and, like, the right way to do it with, like, shaving gel!
These are not the models of woman-hood I want Girlchik exposed to.
More diligent and disciplined parents, tracing the first months of their kids’ lives, fill out pretty diaries, recording the minute progress, saving bibs, pasting photographs — in short, getting started on the great family blackmail file. We’ve made a few feeble attempts in that direction, too, but the efforts weren’t exactly sustained. Our son’s first birthday, however, loosely coincided with the publication party for my first book of poetry, “Jazz Talmud,” which contained, among other writings, a few frenzied efforts to capture some of the particularly memorable moments and sketches of our son’s life. To coincide with National Poetry Month, (April) I recorded them:
Jake Marmer is a poet and performer, and a frequent contributor to the Forward.
Like “Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik, I am an observant Jew, and had my first child while completing my Ph.D. (Mine was in experimental psychology; the actress’ was in neuroscience.) And like Bialik, I endorse and practice many aspects of ‘attachment parenting’: breastfeeding and late weaning, baby-wearing (using a sling), bed-sharing and positive discipline. So I thought I’d be a big fan of her new parenting book, “Beyond the Sling.”
And, indeed, there is much that drew me to her book. For example, I like the idea of being part of a community of parents struggling with how not to bribe their kids. But there are also aspects of “Beyond the Sling” that pushed me away.
Bialik explains in her book that she achieves her high-touch, high-attention parenting without the nannies or babysitters or personal chefs that you might expect from a TV star. But the author seems oblivious to the fact that her version of attachment parenting requires families to forgo a second income and to have either one parent who works a flexible schedule (like her husband did when their children were young) or outside help. And she bypasses altogether the reality of single parenthood.
A renewed search for Etan Patz’s remains has concluded. Nothing was found.
The 6-year-old boy allowed to walk to his school bus in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood on a May morning in 1979 never made it. Instead, he was kidnapped, and his parents had ripped from them the chance to tuck him into bed each night and raise him to be a good boy, kind and sweet and loving.
Etan’s murder led to many things: National Missing Children’s Day, each May 25, the anniversary of his disappearance. It began a national conversation about how independent we can afford to let our children be — and that conversation continues to this day and again moved the fore, following the abduction and murder, last year, of little Leiby Kletzky, in Boro Park.
Years ago, a matchmaker told me, “A stranger is just a friend you’ve yet to meet.” I laughed, finding the sentiment corny.
After all, as a native New Yorker I’d been raised with the opposite philosophy. My father had warned: “If a stranger talks to you, run away. They’re either dangerous or crazy.” I grew up in the suburbs of pre-Giuliani New York, and my parents didn’t want my sister and me talking to strangers anywhere.
I have since straddled my innate New York nature and my non-New York location, when talking to strangers. Nothing has tipped the balance more than becoming a new mother, as chatty strangers are now everywhere. Lila is both the magnet and the barometer, instantly separating out suitable conversation partners, based on how they react to her.
Let’s face it: an overwhelming number of the modern world’s greatest achievements have come from the United States. Behind all of those accomplishments are human beings, all of whom, presumably, have mothers and fathers. So I ask: If this is true, why are American parents — more specifically, American mothers — so insecure about the way they raise their children? Why are they so certain that somewhere else in the world, parents in other countries and cultures must be doing it better?
First it was Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” comparing American mothers unfavorably to their Chinese counterparts, and finding Americans terribly lacking when it comes to producing classical music virtuosos and getting kids accepted to Harvard. Chua made moms very existence did not revolve around schlepping children to study with the world’s top violinists, and drilling them in algebra and chemistry feel horribly lacking.
Now, after the mommy brigade has barely recovered from Chua-mania comes “Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting” by Pamela Druckerman. The title alone turned my stomach with its implication that if French parenting is wise, the Americans version must clearly be unwise. The British publisher of the same book judiciously injected a little skeptical humor into the title, naming the book “French Children Don’t Throw Food” (because, really, would the British ever admit that the French possessed superior wisdom?)
Susan B. Anthony was born 192 years ago today; we share a birthday. I am 43. The late great suffragist once said: “Our job is not to make young women grateful. It’s to make them ungrateful so they keep going.” Much of my Jewish practice these days is about gratitude. But in light of our shared birthday this week, I’ve decided to dwell on some serious ingratitude.
I grew up in the 1970s listening to “Free to Be You and Me,” and singing joyfully that “Mommies Are People.” Who would have guessed, now that I’m one of those people, that the dilemmas my own working mother struggled with would become mine? In middle school, when I’d call home sick my mom would try to talk me into returning to class, so that she wouldn’t have to leave work or find a sitter. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d do, too.
These days, the lack of affordable quality childcare options, combined with the continual calculation of income-to-babysitter-hours ratio, continues to make working parenthood — let’s face it, working motherhood primarily — a challenge, even for those of us who’ve got it good.
Is there a statute of limitations for how long a grown man should hold a grudge against his father?
I have asked myself that over and over ever since I read the Talk of the Town in the Jan. 23 issue of the New Yorker — the one entitled “Moving Day,” about the actor and comedian David Cross and his move from the passé (in his eyes) East Village to a spacious apartment in Brooklyn with a “ridiculously big” walk-in closet and a dead-on view of Ellis Island.
“My dad went there with his family when he came over from England, shortly after World War Two, I think,” he’s quoted as saying.
All true. His father was a young boy when he left England with his mother to join his older brothers and his sister in New York. I know this because that sister was my mother.
My husband never babysits — and it doesn’t bother me one bit.
Allow me to explain: Following an extended maternity leave, I’m about to return to graduate school to complete my master’s degree in English literature. Naturally, people have been asking me about what I’m going to do for childcare. But since I was able to schedule all of my classes in the evening, my husband will be home by the time I leave for school.
“Great, so hubby is babysitting!” comes the usual reply. No he isn’t. He’s parenting. And calling him a “babysitter” insults this hard and important work that he does.
It is true that the vast majority of our baby’s care and other household duties fall to me, and I think that’s perfectly fair — given that I am home while my husband is working. Though he may not have the privilege of spending as much time with our son as I do, when he is home, he does everything that I do with the baby (minus the nursing).
Jewish law and tradition support an active role for fathers.