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Jewish Journal

Mother of Invention

by Jane Ulman

May 10, 2001 | 8:00 pm

The photographs from my son Gabe's bar mitzvah sit on my dining room table, waiting to be ordered.

His bar mitzvah took place more than a year ago.

The handpainted needlepoint canvas that I am stitching for my husband's 50th birthday remains unfinished. Never mind that he's now 51.

I am fundamentally a responsible and organized human being.

I am also the mother of four sons -- ages 10, 12, 14 and 17.

"How do you manage?" my cousin Lexy asks. She is overwhelmed with one daughter.

"Some days not very well," I answer.

Particularly days in which I try to write about being a mother. This column, for example, represents my umpteenth attempt.

I have tried to write about what we owe our children, what they owe us and what makes mothers happy. I have tried to write about how I am the oldest and meanest of all the mothers in the neighborhood, about how I want to come back in my next life as an octopus, with enough hands for each child. Or, on some days, a hermit.

I have tried to weave the many disparate and conflicting strands of my life into something wise and humorous and coherent.

But then, knowing that art imitates life, I realize that these attempts, these bursts of enthusiasm and creativity and confidence that end in abject frustration, are indicative of motherhood itself, which defies both focus and definition.

I have obediently followed God's commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). And I have learned firsthand the truth of God's warning "In pain shall you bear children" (Genesis 3:16).

But postpartum, the rules for raising children are less useful. Mostly, the Torah commands children to honor their mother and their father (Exodus 20:12 and Leviticus 19:3). And for those who strike their mother or their father (Exodus 21:15) or insult them (Exodus 21:17), the Torah recommends death, a child-rearing technique not currently in vogue.

And so, for the past 17-plus years, in the face of ignorance, anxiety and exhaustion, I have worked in partnership with my husband, my good intentions and my gut reactions. I have worked to raise my sons to be punctual, polite and politic; to be good Jews, good students and solid citizens.

But like my unfinished columns, I am a mass of contradictions and ambivalence.

I can tell you that I want to work full time, devoting more hours to a challenging and fulfilling career. I can also tell you that I want to be ever available to drive car pool, volunteer at the Purim carnival, soothe hurt feelings and teach my sons how to eat spaghetti without using their fingers.

I can tell you that I can't wait until my youngest leaves for college in eight years and three months so that I can laugh in the face of "empty nest syndrome." I can also tell you that my oldest leaves for college in only one year and three months -- and the thought makes me misty-eyed.

Like my unfinished columns, my life is fragmented and frenzied.

I go from a child who needs help with an English essay to a child who needs new soccer shoes by the next day to a packet of school forms that must be completed in triplicate -- by yesterday. My days seem broken into time slots too small for anything but a quick dash into Starbucks.

I have a fantasy that one day I will definitively organize all the closets, drawers and file cabinets in my house. That I will pay every bill on time. That I will feed my sons only healthy foods, take them to more museums and always remember to buy milk. That I will have hours of uninterrupted time to write.

But the reality is that I don't consistently do anything except get semimonthly manicures. My French-tipped nails, along with my ironed blue jeans and an occasional car wash, give me the appearance and the illusion that my life is in order.

Sometimes, when I look at couples overwhelmed with infants and toddlers, coping with high chairs, spilled juice, dirty diapers and tantrums, I see developmental progress. I rejoice that I no longer have to feed, dress or lift a child. Even better, that I no longer have to carry in groceries, wheel out trash cans or hire a babysitter.

And even less frequently, in those rare transcendent moments when time briefly stops, when I watch a son chant his Torah portion, receive an award for community service or put his arm comfortingly around a brother's shoulder, I see spiritual progress. I realize that this patchwork job of mothering -- this hodgepodge of intuition, trial and error and outside and often unsolicited advice -- is somehow working.

And I find myself agreeing with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who once said, "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."

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