Mother’s Day gives us a valuable chance to pause and reflect on our goals for our family life. So whether you’re a mother or not, take a few minutes to sit quietly and think about your answers to the following six questions.
1. What do I want the atmosphere to be like in my home?
John Lennon famously said life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Too often, the mood in our homes is a by-product; what naturally happens while we’re busy pursuing other goals.
One of the highest Jewish wishes for a person is that they should have “shalom bayit,” shalom – peace – in their homes. Shalom is an absence of strife, a state of relating to each other with respect and kindness. But in Hebrew, Shalom means even more than that.
“Shalom” has a second meaning as well: it denotes completeness. When we wish for shalom in our homes and our families, we’re asking for more than a mere cessation of arguments; we’re asking for a sense of completeness, a sense of truly knowing one another.
2. Do we have enough unscripted time together?
Getting to know other people takes time, and families are no exception. Yet these days, time seems like the one commodity we’re low on. With pressures from work and from school, not to mention the constant pressure of staying connected electronically, spending time together with no outside distractions can seem like an impossible goal.
One place to start re-thinking our schedules is mealtimes. A host of studies has shown that kids who eat regularly with their parents have significantly lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse, earn higher grades, and have better self-images. The way in which families eat together seems to be important too: families that ate together while watching TV had higher rates of family tension than those who conversed during the meal.
Judaism also gives us a weekly formula for the kind of togetherness associated with healthier families. Shabbat is a time when families traditionally tune out of the pressures of work, school and the like, and turn inward to focus on each other instead. Shabbat dinner and other meals can be a needed break from the thick of the week, giving us a chance to relax, unwind, have a live conversation with loved ones and guests, and even begin to get to know one another again.
3. What are my family’s spiritual goals?
Many of us aren’t used to thinking in terms of spirituality, but each family has a spiritual part of their life (whether we use words like “spiritual” not).
Everybody craves a connection with something larger than themselves. Children, especially, wish to make sense of the world around them. And the ways in which we choose to live help our families come up with their own answers to the big questions in life.
Do our kids see us doing charity? Going out of our way to help others? Acting with honesty and honor? Are we showing them that we value our traditions? That we care for our communities and turn to them in times of trouble? That we seek to connect with God? It can seem daunting to influence the spiritual growth of our families, particularly when many of us haven’t completely worked through our own thoughts and feelings yet. But others are watching our examples just the same.
A famous Jewish story shows the awesome power of a Jewish woman. It’s recorded that in ancient times, there was a righteous Jewish couple. Unfortunately, they were unable to have children with each other, so they decided to divorce and seek better fortune with new spouses. Each of these righteous people in turn married a very wicked spouse – but their fates were very different.
For in time, the virtuous man’s evil wife influenced him to become wicked also. But the righteous woman gradually induced her wicked husband to become good like her.
Like this woman, we each have the power to influence those around us. Mothers, especially, are well placed to display behavior they wish their families to absorb.
4. What am I going to buy today?
The ideal Jewish woman is good at shopping. This isn’t a line out of pop culture, but a deep observation in Jewish tradition.
Each Friday night, Jews around the world recite the “Woman of Valor” prayer praising the supreme Jewish woman. The poem, taken from the end of the biblical Book of Proverbs, describes this supreme woman as a businesswoman, making and trading goods from afar.
Jewish educator and writer Tziporah Heller comments on this image. She points out that each one of us is a merchant, selecting what things – not only goods, but also ideas and values – we wish to bring home from “afar,” from outside our homes.
Each of us thus goes “shopping” every day. It’s our job to be discerning: to identify and embrace those things which will strengthen us and our families, and to have the wisdom to leave the rest.
5. What is my legacy?
Alfred Nobel, a 19th Century Swedish chemist, invented dynamite. In 1888, when he was 55, a French newspaper erroneously published his obituary, and he was horrified by what he read. Death and destruction were his only legacies.
Nobel decided to change and do something positive with the rest of his life. He used is fortune to establish the Nobel Prize, given in perpetuity to honor advances in sciences, literature and peace.
In 50 years, when our grandchildren tell their own grandchildren about us, what do we want them to say? Most of us won’t have the shock that Alfred Nobel did, but we can each heed his example and consider what our legacy will be.
6. What are you grateful for?
It’s easy to get caught up in the work of being part of a family and forget the joy. Many people feel that in order to be happy, it’s easiest to go out: see a movie, have a meal, to somehow be entertained.
Yet researchers find that outside sources of happiness quickly lose their potency. (There’s even a psychological term for it: hedonic adaptation.) Instead, researchers find, the quickest way to increase our happiness is to focus on the good in our lives. Specifically, psychologists have found that writing a list of things we’re grateful for makes people significantly happier.
Try taking a moment to write down what we’re thankful for. Thinking about our families, our health – even the miraculous fact of our very existence – can help us appreciate our families much more, and enjoy them better too.