by Sam Glaser
Everybody knows about the famous ones: bris, baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage and funerals. This month’s column is a segue from last month’s report on the miraculous nature of the bris and is dedicated to certain overlooked milestones that are equally a part of life. All cultures celebrate rites of passage. In the US we have graduations, sweet 16’s, getting a driver’s license, and the holy grail, reaching drinking age. As a parent I’ve noticed that once you have kids there are a few other significant transitions that are rarely discussed.
The first is when your kids start nursery school. For some parents this is a tremendous relief…you have a few hours of the day to go back to sleep or get some errands done. For me it was traumatic. I run a recording studio behind our house and I loved having young Max co-engineer with me. He would man his own mixing console, paint, draw and scribble and crawl around looking for bugs to eat. I loved being the sole source of his nutrition, education and influence. That is – other than the times when his nosy mother or grandparents would butt in. Then that terrible day arrived. I grabbed my camera and shot pictures as he confidently strode down the street with his oversized yarmulkah and new backpack. His mom then drove him to the beginning of the first of his 17 years of education and I laid down on the couch and wept.
Now Max would be subjected to the reign of terror of underpaid, overworked teachers, brutal peer pressure, teasing and bullies. He was so happy when he came home that day, bubbling over with an enthusiastic report of all the new experiences. I fished for information regarding any mistreatment or how badly he might have missed hanging out with me. Nope. I remember his sharing a new work of art he created and then my wife telling me to get over it.
The next underreported milestone is becoming
“reproductively irrelevant.” I always envisioned having four kids. Four is a nice, round number, I grew up in a family with four boys and I felt like four meant you were a real parent. Also, one of our favorite rebbetzins used to lecture us on the importance of Jews having large families to undo the damage of Hitler’s taking 1.5 Million of our kinderlach. I love the sweet adventure and mystery of pregnancy and birth. Of course that’s easy for me to say. I tried to participate in everything, from birth coaching to feeding and the changing diapers. I even got to dispense the milk my wife would laboriously pump.
After Sarah, our third child was born, my wife kept breastfeeding for years. I suspected she was trying to delay the onset of her period and thereby avoiding getting pregnant yet again. Perhaps she was trying to hold on to that feeling of closeness with her daughter. By the time we got back to business it became clear that God had other plans. After the third miscarriage we were resigned to accept the gift of our three children and the completion of our family. The problem is that try as I might, I could not move on. To this day I find myself going straight for whichever baby is within arms reach at our synagogue and singing baby songs in spite of the pronounced distress of my adolescent children. I am secretly envious of the stroller set, hungry for the days of portable children that don’t say no.
I knew I needed some help to let this inner ache go away and made an appointment to speak to my rabbi. I don’t remember his exact advice but it was something like, “man up, move on and count your blessings” or something like that. I bear him no malice; he is a righteous man that has better things to do, like counseling childless couples. I eventually got used to the idea that sex no longer had anything to do with reproduction. I also had to get used to the return of my wife’s cycle and the joy of separating half of each month. Arrrgh!
The next lifecycle event came on the heels of our last child becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Sarah turning 12 means that Max is a senior in high school. Yes, my friends, the empty nest phase is approaching. We are now in the midst of SAT’s, college applications and researching yeshivot in Israel. Last month he went on his senior trip in which the class goes to Israel to see firsthand the top fifteen academies that are recommended for their gap year of study. This is all very exciting for Max. But it’s a bit heartbreaking for me. Our official annual vacation this last January was our last as a whole family, at least for the foreseeable future. Next year he won’t be with us for Pesach. Or High Holidays or Chanukah for that matter. We won’t enjoy his brief appearance at dinner every night. And Jesse, who is only a year-and-a-half younger soon will be following in his footsteps. I’m getting weepy writing this. I know I should be stoic and matter of fact. But I will leave that for my wife, who wears the pants in the family. (Actually I wear the pants, but she tells me which pair.)
The bottom line is that there are plenty of micro-milestones that are under reported but highly impactful in any parent’s life. More are on the way: a completely empty nest, menopause, college graduations, weddings (God willing!), grandparenthood and avoiding senility. No one prepares you for this life when you are a teen and think you are going to live forever. The only constant in life is change. And riding this roller coaster with your sanity intact requires a good spouse and good spiritual guidance, or at worst, self medicating or becoming a hermit. Or there’s another way: live the life of a rock star and never grow up.
Just know that if I ever beeline for your babies, I mean no harm. I’m a perpetual kid and a loving dad trying to get a fix of the dreamy feeling of having an infant falling asleep on my shoulder. Last week a friend’s kid was on my lap playing with my tzitzit and drooling on my suit, laughing as I sang “Swinging,” “Pony Boy” and “Run Away.” I know my wife shares my desire that our kids do the “be fruitful and multiply” mitzvah sooner than later so that we can enjoy what my parents consider the ultimate pleasure: being a grandparent. May we enter our golden years with health and love for each other, filled with the wisdom that only comes from surviving these bittersweet bumps along the road.