Why motherhood is a constant atonement

How motherhood made one writer understand at last why Yom Kippur’s solemnity comes after and not before Rosh Hashanah’s celebrations

November 24, 2016 23:12

Never in my life have I asked for forgiveness more often. Perhaps there were times as a child when my sister and I were flinging ourselves between being inseparable and infuriated, but those were begrudging apologies, and we were always just as sinned against as sinning. Now, snuggling down with my daughters at the end of another of those frenetic days of 5am starts and school runs, splattered food, Lego, Play-Doh, laughter, snatched hours of work, rushing, rushing, mediating fights (between daughters who are taking their own turn to be inseparable and infuriated), then dinner, just sit for two minutes for dinner, bath, get in the blooming bath, and finally, pyjamas, books, and this, snuggling, reflecting - I take a deep breath and tell them each, again, I am sorry.

And I mean it. Sorry to one for losing my patience, for forgetting she is barely five. Sorry to the other for those hours spent at my desk when her giggles were reverberating in the next room, a room that in a few months she will have abandoned for nursery. Sorry for not being able to be the model mother I want to be at every moment I want to be it.

Usually, anxious not to burden them with parenting guilt, I say these things only inside my own head. Sometimes, if I have shouted, I will apologise out loud. But life as a parent is a constant atonement, and rebooting. And it is the first time I feel I have understood why Yom Kippur comes after Rosh Hashanah.

It used to strike me as intrinsically illogical - why start a hopeful, honey-dipped new year, then, 10 days later, hark back to all the things we did wrong during the previous 12 months? Why not atone first? Start the year with a clean slate?

But, of course, striving to be better is not a moment, it's a process. Goals and resolutions take commitment, action. And there is an important duality to atoning and forgiving, to failure and success. It makes sense that first we judge, or are judged, and only then begin a true introspection, only then attempt good deeds. In essence, the High-Holy days are Parenting 101.

Because children are the ultimate clean slate. Unwritten upon. Untainted by bad decisions and bad consequences and bad tempers. Unspoiled by prejudice and privilege. Fresh. Pure. Perfect. (Unless you count the toxins you may already have visited upon them during pregnancy by eating too much salmon, or the anxious disposition you may have caused through your own prenatal stress. Which I do count- why wait until birth for Jewish guilt?)

But there is a vast responsibility attached to writing upon blankness, to knowing that, with every word you utter, every action you take, you are making an indelible mark.

At first, many of us are bold with our scribblings. In our teens and twenties we're full of answers - all the things we know better than, and would do differently from, our own parents. All the ways in which they screwed us up.

We have read enough psychology and watched enough talk-shows to understand this acutely. To know that those high expectations placed upon us as children are the reason we are dissatisfied now. Or that allowing us to watch scary movies has bestowed us with a dark sense of foreboding. Or that telling us we can achieve any dream we aim for was a lie. Like the tooth fairy, who, by the way, is detrimental to children developing a healthy rationale.

Alternatively, we see ourselves as testament to our parents' great wisdom, and regularly trot out the phrases: "Didn't hurt me," or "I turned out all right." To which, if you watch closely, people often nod, with scepticism.

But then, at the very height of our certainty, we have a baby. And, in the nine months leading up to its arrival, we discover that, actually, we know nothing. Cue the baby industry. Now, we read and listen and join parenting forums, and are told by one that if we respond to a baby's cries we will make it forever dependent, and by another that, if we don't, we'll make it insecure.

We listen to mothers who laid their babies on their fronts, and grandmothers who laid them on their backs. We read one book that preaches the importance of boundaries, and another that tells us to follow the child's lead. We are urged to breastfeed, but not for too long, and not without a cover-up. Or to give praise, but not flippantly and only if it's descriptive. And, in the end, nothing we do is right, or enough.

Until, one day, that becomes too tiring and we decide that, actually, we do know what is best for our children. With that epiphany comes a liberating new confidence. I remember it well. Casting out books, except for ones I agreed with. Casting off the cover-up - letting boobs do what they're there for. Casting away doubt.

But as I became increasingly comfortable in my parenting style - as I began to articulate to myself what that was - so, too, I set standards for myself, ideas of what I'm aiming for, models of what kind of parent I'm trying to be. Which is wonderful when I manage to be it. And less wonderful when I fail.

When two children are simultaneously demanding the all of me I want to give, but can only have part. When work is both something I want, and something that takes me away from them. When their hearts are mine to protect and nurture and fill with wonder, but also in my hands to crush.

And when I want to sing with them and have secrets with them, and run in the rain but actually there is homework to do and bed to get to, and it's not funny to crawl like a snail to bed when already it's half-past bedtime and you've been up since five and there's a pile of work on my desk.

But then they do get into bed. And snuggle close. And I wish that I'd had just five more minutes of patience. Five more minutes of appreciation for the miracle of their innocence. Five more minutes of not failing.

And so I apologise.

And I mean it.

And, gloriously, just as on Yom Kippur, they forgive me. They wrap their arms around me, and tell me they love me, and slowly slip off to sleep. Until tomorrow, when (at 5am) we start again. 

Jemma Wayne's latest book is 'Chains of Sand', published by

Legend Press

November 24, 2016 23:12

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