This is a story about a man who married his childhood sweetheart, and soon after the marriage began, a series of journeys influenced his world view. Soon after marriage, his mother-in–law became very ill, and four years later, at the age of 58, she died. Taking on the responsibility of caring for the surviving parent is called growing up.
When it was time to start a family, God had other plans. For over four years the couple endured one disappointment after another while all of their friends began to create their own families with beautiful babies. The pain of infertility creates an emptiness, but with family and friends to support them, after five years, the couple decided to adopt. A year later, a beautiful boy came into their lives, and four months after that a beautiful girl. Less than two years later a son was born to them, and less than two years after that, the wife gave birth to a girl. The man’s mother would say to the couple that God wanted them to be the parents of their older children before the biological children could come into their lives. This was an active household with four precious children.
As the early years went by, it became clear that their older daughter had significant cognitive and emotional challenges. These challenges caused great disruption in the home – both physical and emotional. Hospitalizations and two stays at residential facilities ensued. Watching the child suffer was exceedingly painful for her parents. Through all of the challenges, the other three children managed to grow and flourish.
As the years went on, the man’s mother became ill and needed care as well. The years were filled with challenges. Their life experiences gave meaning to his mother’s belief that, “As long as you have your health, everything else has a way of working itself out.” Over and over again, life taught that lesson to this couple. Most importantly, through all of the challenges, angst and worry, it was still a happy family, making life-long memories, surrounded by dear, caring and supportive friends and family.
Today, their children are grown, and their daughter who struggled so much has grown into an adult who is resilient, and most wonderfully, independent. With the support of her family, and caring professionals, she has found her way in the world, and her parents could not be prouder of her accomplishments.
This is part of my story. I share it because of the events of last week at school when an eighth grader lost his mother to a terrible illness, leaving him an orphan. This brought me back to the memory of my mother, and her belief in the importance of health, family, supportive friends and community — what really matters in life!
No one goes through life unscathed. We all have our stories and experiences. They influence who we are and how we respond to the world.
Life is not easy, nor is it always fair, and I learned that fairness is not even the point. Rather, the point is how we respond to our challenges and circumstances, and as parents, how we teach and help our children to do the same. I also have learned that life is beautiful, and a blessing. Our time on earth is limited, and we should fully embrace moments of joy, appreciation, happiness, and love with family and friends. And with our blessings come the obligation to help others in need with compassion.
How have these life experiences influenced me as a parent and educator? I have learned that most issues are transitory ,and not all that critical. I have learned that it is okay to be wrong, to be sad, and to be disappointed. In the end, if you have your health, most issues will resolve themselves one way or another. That is called growing up.
We taught our children that health, family, friends, and the Jewish people are all really important. We tried to instill in them gratitude and appreciation. We taught our children that they had the strength of character to work through issues, to face disappointments, and that they possessed the ability to get up again. We gave them lots of love, encouragement, and the tools to navigate the issues they faced. We taught them to own their actions and choices, and that with an inner strength, core beliefs and values, they would be just fine no matter what life threw at them. In other words, we helped them to grow up.
I admit that because of my life experiences, I sometimes get a little impatient with parents who frequently make excuses for their children, and who refuse to allow their children to take responsibility for their actions and choices. It is difficult to grow into a responsible and compassionate adult if you can’t recognize your own strengths and weaknesses and grow and learn from them. If I could instill one major life lesson in all parents, it would be to allow your children to play freely, take risks and fail, to own their mistakes, and to take responsibility for their choices and actions. Children will learn they are capable, resilient, and strong when we allow them to get up and move on without parents hovering and saving them from every discomfort, struggle, pain, failure or disappointment life may have in store for them. Our job is to be there to love them, encourage them, coach them, and guide them as they figure life out. That is called growing up!
For further reading on raising self-reliant children with a Jewish flavor, I recommend The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.