We all want a way out of this third lockdown, which is now in its third week. I can’t seem to concentrate on much, but last Shabbat I tried to get lost in a short novel that had been on my shelf for a while. I’m not sure what inspired me to pick me up, but I always think there is a divinity that shapes what we read when. One of the longest scenes in the book takes place on Tu Bishvat, which we celebrated this week, and the novel was on the cover of the Haaretz Magazine. The time was ripe for me to read that novel, I realized when I was more than halfway in.
It is so hard to read at home. No matter where and when I try to sit down, it is only a matter of moments before someone wants “mayim with bubbles” or an argument breaks out about the Playstix pyramid the kids are constructing in honor of the parsha, or someone accidentally enters the bedroom where the baby is sleeping and wakes him up. This time it was the mid-nap wake-up, which always infuriates me. I tried not to lose my cool. I put him in the stroller and announced that I was going out for a walk – alone.
Alone with the baby, of course, but he doesn’t count. Like most strollers, ours faces forwards, so that I don’t look into my child’s face when we’re strolling. I’ve convinced myself that this gives me license to completely ignore him for the entire duration of the ride, so long as he doesn’t express discontent. He generally seems happy looking around at the changing scenery, and while we walk, I read. The stroller acts like a walker, stabilizing me, and I make sure to look up at the end of every paragraph to make sure there are no stumbling blocks in our way. On that particular Shabbat afternoon, following the rude awakening, I prepared to leave the house with the new novel I’d just started, eager to push the baby for as long as possible and to make headway in the book. But Tagel had other ideas.
“Ima, I’m coming,” she announced, already Velcro-ing her sneakers (because who buys Shabbat shoes in a pandemic) while I was still strapping the baby in. “No Tagel,” I told her firmly and I suppose a bit rudely. “It’s not that kind of walk. I’m reading,” I confessed, hoping that Daniel couldn’t hear. I didn’t want this time to count against me – we try to give each other a little bit of alone time on Shabbat, and there was no way was going to use up my precious minutes on this walk. (I am notorious for stealing minutes. “I’m just running to the bathroom,” I’ll announce, before disappearing with a book until I hear someone screaming.) But Tagel loves to get outside, and will take advantage of any opportunity, just as her twin will seize any opportunity for alone time with a parent. “Ima, it’s OK, you can read,” Tagel assured me. “But I’m still coming.”
I was skeptical. How would I push the stroller and read my book with Tagel walking alongside me? Surely she would want to chat with me about her latest friendship woes –her new best friend was acting cool and aloof, and she was not sure how to respond. This was not going to be the walk I had envisioned, and I was feeling sour about it already.
“Tagel, how will I read if you’re walking with me?” I asked, trying to discourage her with my own aloofness. It wasn’t really fair, and I knew it. A better mother than I would have seized the opportunity for alone time with my daughter. A better mother would have invited her to come along, offering her the opportunity to share whatever was on her mind. The Talmud teaches in tractate Eruvin (22a) that a person cannot learn Torah unless they act cruelly to the members of their household, citing the example of Rabbi Ada bar Matana who went off to study and left his wife with no food to feed their children; when she protested, he told her to feed them reeds from the marshes. I know that cruelty all too well. It’s the only way I manage to read or learn with the kids around.
My cruelty notwithstanding, Tagel surprised me. True to her word, she walked by my side and did not say a word. Her one request, which was only fair, was that I read aloud to her. I had barely started the novel I’d brought along, and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for a seven-year-old. At this point, I told myself, there was only one way to find out.
The novel begins with a temper tantrum in the middle of a street. The narrator—a young single mother—tries to console her five-year-old son, who is sprawled out on the crosswalk wailing. He wants a lollipop; she doesn’t have one. The cars in front and behind start honking impatiently. Desperate, she leans over and promises her son, “If you behave nicely, we’ll go to Luna Park tomorrow.” His older sister knows it will never happen, and tells her brother, “She’s just saying that.” And indeed, the next day, the mother tells her kids that the amusement park is under construction, even though they see right through her lie. Their mother cannot even afford her rent, and they are facing a very real threat of eviction. She is too depressed to work; it takes all her energy to get herself out of bed so as to send the kids off to school and receive them when they return. All she can give them, she feels, are her promises, even if they are vain.
Tagel is listening; she doesn’t say a word. But the next day she will tell me proudly that when Shalvi fell apart between waking up and eating breakfast—as she does all too often, you’d think by now we’d have learned that we need to drop everything else and feed her right away in the mornings—she knew what to say to get her sister off the bathroom floor, where she was lying with her feet kicking up against the closed door, her hair glued to her face with tears. “Ima, I told her that if she got dressed and ate breakfast, you would take her to Luna Park,” Tagel will boast, as if I had been reading her a parenting manual rather than a work of literary fiction. A shadow crosses my face; I am wondering if that book was appropriate for Tagel. “Don’t worry, Ima,” she assures me, noticing my wrinkled brow. “I”ll just tell her it’s under construction.”
When I think about the pages I read to Tagel, it seems the false promise of Luna Park is the least of it. The mother in the book believes that she is not a good parent. She avows that she was too young to have children, and never really wanted to become a mother at all. She knows that it is not acceptable to voice such sentiments—to rail against the holy grail of motherhood—and yet she shares it with us, her readers. Except that now her readers include Tagel, who is trying to wrap her mind around what it means to be a bad mother. I find myself starting to worry. Has the phrase “bad mother” ever occurred to Tagel before? Why am I introducing her to this notion?
I imagine what is going through Tagel’s mind. Perhaps a bad mother is one who sneaks out of the house in the early morning to try to go for a run before her kids wake up? Or maybe a bad mother is one who says there is no more chocolate left, and then consumes it stealthily after the children are asleep? Maybe, I imagine Tagel thinking, a bad mother is one who comes to pick up her kids at school five minutes late every single day – not because she has any good reason, but simply because she finds it agonizing to tear herself away from her computer? Or perhaps a bad mother is one who keeps typing, pretending she can’t hear the voice crying out, “Ima, please check my hair for soap, Ima, I’m waiting, did I get all the soap out?”
I hope she isn’t thinking anything of the sort. I don’t think the Luna Park narrator thinks that being a bad mother is all that bad. True, she makes all sorts of promises she can’t keep. She can barely get dressed in the morning, let alone see her children off to school. She has to resort to petty theft in order to afford glasses for her daughter. And yet even so, as she tells us, “Children love even a bad mother. What matters is that they have a mother.” Natalia Ginzburg wrote similarly in Serena Cruz or The Meaning of True Justice, an attack on the Italian magistrates who tried to separate a girl from her adopted family: “Families can be awful, repressive, obsessive, or cool and uncaring and distracted, or toxic, tainted and maggoty. Very often they are like that. But a child needs one all the same… Maybe he grows up unhappy in his family, he’s ashamed of it, hates it, but it’s an unhappiness memory can feed on. In the future he will go back in his mind to that thick and woody forest.” Children grow up to define themselves in relation to their mothers and their families. If they don’t have mothers, and they don’t have families, then they have no way to figure out who they are, and who they want to become.”
“Tomorrow we’ll take a walk and I won’t bring a book,” I promised Tagel when the baby started fidgeting – always the signal to turn around and head home. I felt like I was telling her I’d take her to Luna Park, but she just shrugged it off. “It’s fine,” she told me, “I like when you read to me while we walk. It’s interesting for me to hear grown-up books.” Perhaps someday she’ll be the kind of mother who reads aloud to her children all the time, or who makes a point of never letting herself get lost in a book when her children need her attention. Either way, the person she will become will be shaped by the person I am. I look forward to reading her next chapter.