Dear Rebbetzin Feige,
I am having a very difficult time right now. I feel almost as if I have hit some sort of spiritual plateau. I am an observant Jew who didn't grow up in a religious home. I spent a year learning at a seminary in Israel, came home and got married. And now I am the lucky mother of two. While I love my children more than anything, I can't help but wonder about my new role in life. I feel like I just don't know who I am anymore, or what I am supposed to do. I used to enjoy praying; now I struggle every morning just to recite the morning blessings. I feel very discouraged, and I feel like I am failing as a Jew. And I don't feel like I am all that successful at being a mother either. I do not understand how a busy mother can still have a close relationship with God. I know the woman has a special role in Judaism... but right now I am struggling greatly in understanding it. Please help.
One of the occupational hazards of the "seminary experience" or any extensive and intense learning endeavor is that it is often difficult to translate it into day-to-day living. It is wonderful to study and expand the horizons of one's mind, but ultimately it comprises only a small piece of the resources required to cope with life situations effectively. Intellectual pursuits, of the exclusively theoretical kind, can often create the illusion of being an end all and when the opportunity to pursue it further isn't there any longer, disenchantment and low feelings result.
There is a season for everything in life. Your years at school, the privilege of an accelerated education, certainly contributed substance to the person that you have become. The Mishna teaches, "An ignorant person cannot strive for an exalted status." At the same time, the sages warn us that, "It is not the learning that is the main goal; the primary objective is the doing." Learning and studying are valuable only to the extent that they inform our life's experience. Life on this earth is referred to as "the world of deeds." Hence, information which cannot impact on our day-to-day behavior is of limited value.
The transition from the halls of study, from the enchantment of dreams and aspirations, to the reality of never ending mundane tasks and responsibilities is, as you describe it, a very rude awakening. It is a most daunting challenge to find coherence, congruence and cohesiveness between the lofty halls of spiritual learning and the pragmatic, less than inspired existence that a young mother finds herself struggling with daily.
I cannot offer you a panacea, but I can tell you that what has to drive everything we do in life must respond to the simple question, "What does the Almighty want of me?" Much of what we struggle with masquerades as frustrated and lofty aspirations, when in reality they are no more than whisperings from the lesser part of ourselves, our ego.
In our narcissistic society, establishing a happy home is the hardest job.
Transitioning into the nurturing role of wife and mother, creating a home where the focus is on the thriving of others, requires a total paradigm shift - from the focus of "me" to "them." The adjustment can be quite traumatic and might feel as though one is losing themselves and their identity in the process. Compared to the productive pre-family days, our mundane oriented days may feel like a waste of time and, as some women report, like a softening of their brain power. Indeed, the legitimate question is, "What did our glorious education prepare us for? Diapers? Dishes? Vacuuming? Sitting home as our men walk off into their daily spiritual horizons and leave us behind?"
Establishing a happy home is the hardest job. It is a counterculture move in a narcissistic society. A contemporary thinker put it this way, "How do we access the nature of essential obligation in a society that sees only personal freedom?" Focusing on home and family requires a paradigm shift from the ideal to the practical, from the talk to the walk. It requires mobilizing all of the inner strength and resources available to consciously and deliberately, with unflinching determination, make every day a good day. When we succeed (and nobody is successful all of the time), in spite of the resistance of both the culture's alien values and the treachery of our inner ego, we will feel the exhilaration and the true joy that can only come of being in the right place and doing the right thing.
I suggest, my dear reader, that you consider the following:
1) "Grow where you are planted." Recognize that the life you have is not arbitrary, but orchestrated from above and hence is, at this moment, the context to which you must bring your finest efforts. Conversely, we must recognize that there are others who don't find themselves blessed in a similar way, who need to find their own unique contribution in the specific contours of their circumstances.
2) Make a list of the blessings in your life and post them where you can see them. They will help you gain perspective in your low moments.
3) Think in your mind's eye of how you would attend to your given role if you loved it and try to behave that way. Invoke the never failing principle that "internal feelings are shaped by external behavior."
4) Join a study group consisting of women like yourself and continue to learn. It will energize and invigorate you and provide the balance that we all need.
5) Long sessions of prayer may not be in the cards for this season of your life but you can fill your abbreviated encounters with feelings and concentration. Be assured that all the Torah authorities unequivocally state that the mother of young children fulfills her formal prayer obligation with the recitation of the morning blessings. Carrying on your own extemporaneous dialogue with the Almighty throughout the day is a wonderful means of connection. "Know Him in all your ways" has been rendered to mean, "connect every step along the way -- while diapering the baby, baking a cake, vacuuming the living room, shopping for clothes, food marketing, etc." Any and every moment is an opportunity to connect.
6) Take care of your self physically. Eat well and set aside time for some form of exercise, a walk around the block, etc. Breathe fresh air. Align yourself with the beautiful world of nature around you. There is indisputably a mind, body and spirit connection. If the body is tended to and healthy, the mind and spirit function is enhanced as well.
7) Credit yourself for all the victories, big and small. "The task of building eternity in the medium of fluid transience" is a mega-huge challenge. In order to maintain our perseverance, given all the stresses along the way, we must give ourselves credit for the daily victories even if they appear miniscule in our sight. Keep a list of all the times you are able to get a momentary clear glimpse of what will ultimately matter despite all the factors that work overtime to cloud your vision.
8) Take it from someone who's been around the block a few times, enjoy and make the most of these wonderful years. They go by so fast. Before you know it, you'll be revisiting this stage, these young formative years in your family's life in picture albums alone. Your heart will ache with nostalgia for the "good old days," days where you can be everything to your children, the smartest, the best, the most beautiful, etc.-- times when "my mother says so" makes you an authority on everything. As you know, we can never turn the clock or the calendar back. Despite the demanding intensity of your current household, do your best to relish the moment. Keep a notebook handy to record the cute and often insightful remarks of your children. Share them with your husband, and take delight together.
9) I guarantee you that, with God's help, there will be seasons in the future that will allow you to do all that which attending to your first priority now does not allow for. Be careful not to squander the "now" of your life. It can never be replaced.
In conclusion, I'd like to leave your with two thoughts. A noted authority remarked that situational depression is a product of when "time is passing and the journey is not progressing, the soul feels the cold hand of death. Depression is no less than a minor experience of death itself. That's why it is so painful." Recognizing that you are making the right choices and engaging the appropriate journey is the only effective antidote.
Secondly, the Zohar, the classic kabbalistic work, offers the following guiding insight. Commenting on the verse in Genesis, "and He called the light day," he suggests that all of us can choose to transform even darkness to "day" by the light that we infuse it with. The challenge for all of us is to bring the light of joy and positive affect to whatever season of life we find ourselves in. Let us try our utmost not to give darkness any claim to the precious moments of our life.