One of the scariest aspects of parenthood is the realization that we can never be sure what messages we’re sending our kids. We might make sure to have Conversations, we might consider what want to impart to them. But however much thought we put into it – communication is a two-way street, and it isn’t limited to what we say. Whatever we want to say and even think we are saying, they might be hearing something very different.
I once read a comment on social media that lodged itself permanently in my parental angst. A woman who had grown up in an observant family but left the community described her mother being so busy with chores to care for their large family that she always had her back to her daughter. It seems that the girl whose mother never looked her in the eye came to associate Jewish life with being too busy for positive relationships.
It could well be that the portrayal was accurate, but as a busy mother myself, I immediately put myself in the mother’s shoes. I imagined that she did all those chores to care for the family she loved; she hoped, I assume, to imbue her daughter with a love for Yiddishkeit; perhaps she never realized the disconnect between her values and how things appeared to her daughter.
That account has haunted me ever since, reminding me of the importance of simply being aware of how body language and other modes of communication might send my children messages I don’t want them to receive.
Pesach is all about transmitting messages to our children: “And you shall tell your son on that day” (Shemot 13:8). But what messages do we want to transmit, and what messages might we inadvertently transmit?
What messages do we transmit when we joke about not saying “the P word”? When we snap at each other out of the tension of having so much to do in what never seems like enough time? When we talk about our dread of Pesach and all the work it entails, or show up at the seder too exhausted to do anything but hurry everyone along so we can go to bed?
One obvious solution is to reduce the workload: start earlier, organize better, don’t do extra cleaning beyond what’s necessary.
Good ideas, but not the approach I want to discuss. I can’t, you see, because I know I won’t follow that excellent advice myself. It’s too late to start earlier, and I haven’t yet found a “system” I can sustain. And what better time could there be to get my carpets cleaned or sort through coats that haven’t fit anyone here for years?
It’s highly likely, in fact, that before the holiday is done, I will have snapped at somebody in my house, expressed how overwhelmed I feel with so much to do, and begged everyone to stop talking about Yetzias Mitzrayim so I can go to sleep. I’m not proud, but I’m honest.
So, what else can one do to avoid sending those negative messages about Pesach? How can one create a positive feeling around this gift from Hashem that just happens to involve a lot of potential for stress?
One strategy might be to simply raise our awareness of the unintended messages and counter them with intended ones.
Ever since I heard about that mother who didn’t look up when her daughter wanted to talk to her, I’ve been conscious of my own physical position when washing dishes or preparing dinner – or, in our day and age, checking email or responding to a text. There are lots of ways to be mindful in these situations, such as deliberately asking a child to come over and chat while I’m engaged in a mindless chore, deliberately and noticeably looking up every few moments to look the child in the eye, or verbalizing that I just need to finish this one task because I want to fully listen to what he or she has to say. It’s impossible to anticipate every unwitting message we might send. But hearing that story and how that daughter was affected put me on the lookout, watching for potential pitfalls and making a point of countering them whenever possible, verbally or not.
Similarly, perhaps simply recognizing the risk of sending negative messages about Pesach preparation can help stop us in our tracks, reminding us to think more carefully about what we say, and how, and to whom. And we can make sure to say the good, even if we also say – or otherwise convey – the challenging.
I remember the surprise I felt, years ago, to hear my mother comment that she loved Pesach. I was young enough to have my own positive feelings about the holiday, but old enough to have formed deep associations between “Pesach” and “stress.” I couldn’t have imagined that my mother actually loved the thing that created all that stress, and if asked, I probably would have said I expected to dread Pesach as an adult. Hearing my mother vocalize her love for Pesach required that I reorder everything I thought I knew about her relationship with the holiday – and gave me the space to rethink everything I could expect about my own. Pesach preparation wasn’t just an overwhelming burden, but an exciting adventure. True, the adventure requires work, and true, it can be stressful and maybe even create tension. Some of us are better at avoiding that than others. But framing Pesach as something to love meant I could love the preparation too, even if it does feel stressful. It was a means to an end, butdidn’t have to color my entire experience of the end.
So we can think about what we might say about the good, even alongside any negativity we might share directly or indirectly. We can think about how to spin the negative itself; as the words start to come out, “I have so much to do…” we can catch ourselves and finish the thought, “…because I really want to enjoy Pesach!” Or even “I love X about Pesach; I just wish I could figure out how to maximize my time to get it all done!” We can avoid “blaming” Pesach for stress, and instead make it practical: the reality is that there is a certain amount of work to do; the challenge is time, not the work itself.
And perhaps another piece of that balance and sense of adventure is teamwork. We can bring our children into our own experience, to lighten the load and share the joy – and demonstrate that even when there’s a lot to do, the list is not insurmountable; in fact, even a kid can help. It’s tricky when they’re babies, but as they get older, we can talk to them and we can also recruit them.
The teamwork thing works with everyday challenges too. (I hope; we’ll see what my kids are saying about me in twenty years!) “If you help me get these jobs done sooner, I’ll have time to do something with you before bedtime!”
For the past few years, my family has posted a detailed list of jobs on the wall during the weeks or days leading up to Pesach, so everyone can pick something to get done and cross off. (They love crossing things off!) Some tasks are assigned to specific people; some are for anyone, or “for a kid, to be checked by Ima or Abba.” Somehow, bringing the kids into the team energizes the “to-do” list for everyone, and it also helps them feel invested in the outcome.
Because as scary and challenging as it is, it’s our job to help them build that energy and excitement and sense of being invested in the outcome – and to offer that outcome as something to love.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.