When I was four, I participated in my nursery school’s “rising up” ceremony. It was our adorable send off to kindergarten. These ceremonies are supposed to act as a transition tool to help the little ones make a break from the coddled world of pre-K to the grown-up world of elementary school, but let’s be honest, it’s really for the parents. To increase the “aww-factor,” we were given mortarboards – little graduation caps – to wear as we sang our end-of-year-song on stage. We were little mini graduates, bringing smiles and tears to our conflicted parents’ faces as they imagined the graduations to come.
It would have been such a moment for the Judd family, had I not been their daughter. Little Mara hated hats. Hated them. A few bars into the song, I took my hat defiantly and threw it off the stage. It landed sadly on the gym floor. The photographic evidence exists – a whole row of adorable little graduates and little Mara, hatless.
I share this story because it highlights, for me, that despite the many transformations we go through in our lifetimes, some parts of us never change. I still hate hats and still want to do things my way.
But it isn’t that easy. We graduate from lifestage to lifestage. And because we don’t magically or perfectly adjust every time our life circumstances change, we will often find ourselves in situations where the disconnect between our inner sense and outer circumstances causes us anxiety or grief. That is why we must learn how to care for ourselves and why our society must do a better job of encouraging it.
I thought about this significantly as I enjoyed, thoroughly enjoyed, my second maternity leave. I did NOT enjoy my first maternity leave. I had a really hard time adjusting to my new role as a mother. Being responsible for another human being was terrifying and weighed heavily on me. Couple that with the pressure to breastfeed and social isolation in the suburbs and you need not wonder why so many women suffer even more deeply than I did after delivery. Luckily, I had coping mechanisms close enough to me that I was able to catch myself falling. I also had a job that I loved to go back to, and by the time leave ended, I was more content with my new stage in life and I was falling madly in love with my daughter.
This time was different. With lessons learned and a great deal more confidence, I was able to relish in my boy from the beginning. I knew my pitfalls and steered around them successfully – particularly with help from the right people, including my all-in, hands-on husband.
Being a mother has changed me in some significant ways, but it did not erase the anxieties and quirks that have always been a part of who I am. Our life circumstances change, but we don’t always change immediately with them. This is why I am so fortunate to work in a community that supported both my major life transitions with paid parental leave. Only 12 percent of U.S. private sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer. The government guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave through FMLA, but this is only if the individual has been employed for at least a year, (practically full-time) and works at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees.
This means millions of working women in the US can not afford to take the time to physically heal from labor (a process that takes at least six weeks), adjust to parenthood, and care for their mental well-being. On top of that, we place leave for the woman’s partner in a second-tier, seeing it merely as bonding leave – and a real big perk of you can get it. But it really would behoove us to view it as caregiving leave. The partner is not only caring for the newborn or adopted child but to the healing mother as well.
This failure on the part of American society to provide adequate leave is just one symptom of where we fall short on helping eachother to manage life’s milestones, pitfalls and transitions properly. There’s a laundry list: lack of support to returning military veterans, meager re-entry programs for individuals coming out of prison, limited access to birth control and affordable childcare, and a steadily climbing retirement age.
Our Jewish sacred texts warn us against this go-it-alone, work ‘til you drop, culture we’ve created. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides stresses: One cannot understand or have any knowledge of God if he or she is ill. Therefore, we have an obligation to ensure our health and strength (Hilchot Dei’ot 4:1). Time and resources are essential to helping us rebuild or maintain our well-being and our ability to lead decent, holy lives.
The Torah parshah this week also intuits our human limitations and the power of communal support in helping shepherd us through life’s trials and changes. The Levites are called to holy work in the Tent of Meeting. They’re called to work as leaders in the community – a sacred and important task. Yet Torah specifies that their service should only begin at age 30 and it ends at age 50. Commentators speculate on these age restrictions. Is it simply to keep the Levites from accruing too much societal power? Is it that God is concerned with the mental and physical well-being of God’s holy work force, trying to prevent burnout?
I also wonder if there is something to the ages themselves. By 30, a Levite would have married and had his first kids, making him a present father. Retirement at 50 would give him time to relish in all he’s accomplished personally and professionally. And it would leave him time to even help with his grandchildren.
This highlights the value of certain restrictions and of society mandating that we take time to watch over ourselves and our loved ones. It’s no coincidence, then, that this part of the Torah culminates with our most ancient and poignant blessings - one just bestowed on me and my family – that God, watch over us and protect us. We ask that God look graciously
upon us, blessing us, strengthening us, and, finally, giving us a sense of peace. These are the greatest gifts we can be given…if only we would help God in granting them.
Every Friday night, I whisper this blessing, the Priestly Benediction, individually into my childrens’ ears. Last week, our Friday evening schedule was a little off. We went to dinner with family and then straight to services. Mark left early with the kids to put them to bed.
When I got home late from the 8pm service, I was surprised to find a very awake Noah Sadie, way past her bedtime, who’s exhausted daddy had finally gotten her to settle down in bed. I went upstairs to say goodnight. Just before I left the room, she said, “Mommy, I want my blessing.” My heart melted. We had been running so fast, I forgot to do it. I stopped, turned back into her room, sat on her bed, and whispered her blessing in her ear. It was intimate and profound. She needed that moment, and so did I.
Our circumstances change, but our deepest needs don’t. We need to be cared for. If the Levites were excused from their work in service to God in order to ensure this, certainly it must be the case for regular men and women. May we seek these blessings with Godly grace and place peace as our reigning goal.