I’ve always been fascinated by the Jewish teaching that we should “run away” from the character trait of anger. When the first signs of irritability or rage begin to surface, we’re supposed to refrain from habitually indulging in them.
This is especially true for parents, as anger reduces our clarity of mind when interacting with our kids. In Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe’s book, Planting & Building: Raising a Jewish Child, he teaches that a person who is prone to anger is “exempt” in Jewish law from the responsibility of correcting others’ behaviors. All the more so, he explains, should parents refrain from correcting their children when they’ve lost control of their own anger. First, they must work to assuage their emotions or wait until they pass, so that they can gently and pleasantly guide their kids on the right path forward.
What a powerful message, I think to myself. We must first tend to our own emotional well-being before we can successfully tend to our children’s.
I have been hanging on to this mantra for dear life since last Sukkot.
As I parent my way through this awful time, I keep running into the following paradox over and over again: During times of crisis, your values and priorities as a parent feel clearer than ever, yet your ability to execute them with a steady hand is simultaneously undermined like never before.
I look at my children and I see our family with utmost clarity. I hold them tighter, I read to them longer, I melt into their giggles. And yet, somehow, my fuse is shorter. I’m easily paranoid and my threshold for stress seems to have collapsed to the floor.
What I’ve come to learn is that I am no longer simply parenting my kids right now. I am also knee-deep in parenting myself. Many of us quickly realized in those first harrowing days that we would not be able to function as parents while exposing ourselves to every detail of the atrocities, or every video of a hostage poster being ripped.
With each passing day, it became more obvious that the weight we were carrying was the weight of colossal grief. That we had been drenched in the horror, sadness, and uncertainty of it all, not one piece of us remaining dry. Coming to terms with this reality, we’ve become intensely selective about what’s allowed in and out of our homes— about what our children can know and what they can’t.
Even beyond the question of our children, I have been “running away” from quite a bit on my own. Certain news outlets, certain discussions, certain people’s opinions. Anything that lights the match of anguish or anger too quickly, too spontaneously.
When it comes to parenting, I am still trying to come to terms with the increase in vulnerability. I try to say less on tougher days. To listen without speaking. I let them talk and vent about the day’s events, punctuating their sentences with a sympathetic nod, a little smile, an understanding look. A glass of milk suddenly spills and I seal my lips shut. One foot in front of the other, open the cabinet, now find the towels – there we are – clean the milk.
Then there are the times when my mouth doesn’t stay closed and my feet don’t move. My emotions boil over and, in the end, I am most angry at myself— at how I ever fooled myself into thinking this was a time of “clarity in my values”. I try to forgive myself and begin again. One foot in front of the other. Apologize to my kids. Do they want warm milk with honey? We’ll read a book on the couch? Reset. Text a babysitter tonight, maybe I need a break tomorrow.
I was naïve before about how intertwined sadness and anger are. About how difficult it is to cope with a crisis like this as a parent, eggshells littering the floor wherever you step. The moodiness, the irritability, the loss of control— how does it thrive so well in times of grief? When nothing seems more important than holding your loved ones as close to you as possible?
I plead with myself to remember; you don’t have to understand it. Just make things as easy and comfortable as possible right now, Nurit. No need to run into anger when you don’t need to. For you and for your family’s sake, soften into your grief instead.