Dear Dr T.,
I’ve never seen this question anywhere, so I hope you will take the time to respond.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approaching, I feel increasingly anxious and tense. It’s not the regular stuff – you know, the cooking, cleaning, shopping; it’s something else entirely. You see, in my family, we took davening very seriously: going to shul for the beginning of shacharis until after maariv was standard. But, today, I am a mom with two children under the age of three: not only is shul not an option, but even davening is difficult.
Though I understand logically that I do need to be home with my children, I can’t seem to get rid of the feeling that I am doing something “wrong.” I feel guilty about not going to shul, and even worse at the thought of leaving my kids with a random babysitter.
How can I resolve this dilemma?
The uncomfortable feeling you are experiencing here is the tension of holding two conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time. On the one hand, you know how important davening is, and you have all those childhood messages in your mind. On the other hand, you understand that your children are your primary responsibility, even on the holiest of days. This kind of conflict where two opposing views exist simultaneously in your mind is called cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person perceives a logical inconsistency in his beliefs, when one idea implies the opposite of the other. In this situation, you feel that being a good person requires you to do two polar opposites – go to shul and stay home/care for your children. However, the reality is that you can only do one of the two, so, inevitably, you end up feeling guilty and frustrated.
Cognitive dissonace is uncomfortable, and until we have resolved the issue somehow in our heads, we feel unsettled and confused.
A good part of your dissonance is that either choice threatens your self-concept. You feel like you must choose – be a good mother or go to shul. Whichever decision you make, you will inevitably feel some disappointment because of the choice you failed to take. In short, it feels like a lose-lose situation.
Sometimes the tension can be dissolved by changing our thoughts, our cognitions. For example, a couple finding the perfect home – but in the wrong neighborhood – may relieve the dissonance by telling one another that the home is too small for their family.
Another way to resolve the tension is by altering our behavior, thereby reducing the dissonance.
So, let’s begin by looking at your yom tov possibilities and see if there is any wiggle room.
- Can you find an appropriate child care person – a sibling, relative, neighbor, or friend – who can watch your children for even an hour or two?
- Is there a shul in your area that provides responsible child care? Though this may not be your regular shul, you might find that you are comfortable with the set-up for this yom tov.
- Can you take turns with another young mom with similar age children? This arrangement means harder work in a shorter time period – but leaves time for davening.
You will find that once you have a bit of both worlds, the conflict of the two opposing viewpoints vanishes, and your tension dissipates. There is no need to be anxious when both thoughts fit into your lifestyle and world view.
Sometimes, however, it may be impossible to reduce the tension by modifying our behavior; there simply is no “fix.” Instead, we have to examine our cognitions and determine our best option. In this particular situation, if you cannot accomplish both your goals, you want to consider prioritizing your choices by deciding which is more important than the other.
You can best achieve this by stepping back a bit and developing some perspective. The famous story of Rav Yisroel Salanter, a Torah giant of the nineteenth century, provides the context for resolving your question.
On the night of Kol Nidrei, Rav Salanter did not appear in shul.This was highly unusual and all the congrgants were worried and upset. People went out to search for him and they found him in a small home, feeding an infant and taking care of a small child.
He explained that on his way to shul he heard the baby crying. The adults had all gone to shul and left a small child to care for the baby. Knowing that a child was more important than prayer even on the holiest day of the year, he made a choice to take care of the children rather than go to shul.
We all know that caring for our children trumps even davening on the holiest of days. Children are our responsibility, and for as long as they are dependent on us – our life’s work. Though it may not feel very holy, we need to take stregnth in the knowledge that we are doing the right thing by meeting our obligation as parents. So, though the image of us in shul – siddur in hand – resonates with our long-time view of ourselves, it is far, far preferable to deal with the responsibility right in front of our eyes – our children.
We women need to look no further than the haftorah of Rosh Hashanah that tells the story of Chana, who was childless for many years. When her son, later to become Shmuel Hanavi, was born after her many, many tefillos, she did not go up to Shiloh, to the Mishkan, for three years – until she finished weaning her son. Chana of all people knew the value of tefillah – but understood even more the responsibility of being a mother.
So, if at all reasonably possible, see if you can accommodate both ideas – davening and parenting. But, if forced to make a choice, take pride in your ability to “see straight” and do the less glamourous thing. Not only will you fulfill your resonsibility, but you will also provide a wonderful role model for your children.
Shana tovah to you and yours!
The Book Nook: The Boy Who Loved Windows by Patricia Stacey is about a mother’s quest to help her young son overcome his challenges. This memoir illustrates the legnths a parent will go to meet her child’s needs. This book also introduces the reader to Dr. Stanley Greenspan and his Floortime method – and its value in the development of the emotional life of the child.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com