On Diapers and the Divine: Book Explores Parenting as Spiritual Practice

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Culture & Conversation Family

On Diapers and the Divine: Book Explores Parenting as Spiritual Practice

Eleanor J. Bader

Mothering made Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg feel more connected to God, but her book Nurture the Wow doesn't always acknowledge that feeling is not universal.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a proud feminist mother of three, calls her book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting, a parenthood text rather than a parenting guide. It’s an important distinction since her focus is not on techniques to soothe a screaming infant or toddler, but rather on helping parents—particularly mothers, whether biological, stepparent, adoptive or foster—find spiritual sustenance in the everyday moments of childrearing.

It’s an ambitious mission, and its execution relies on sacred texts drawn from diverse religious and spiritual traditions. At the same time, since Ruttenberg is a devout Jew, many of her musings are grounded in scholarship found in the Torah, Talmud, and other Judaic sources that were presumably written by men for men centuries ago.

“Obviously, traditional Jewish law,” she writes, “wasn’t written for or by those who are in the trenches of intimate care of small children. There is a not-very-implicit assumption that someone else, somewhere, is in charge of the sticky, huggy, needy, emotional little humans that, evidently, impede a person’s ability to live a life of spiritual service. Spirituality and children are placed in opposing, incompatible spheres, and women are relegated, along with the children, away from wherever it is that they’re keeping the spirituality.”

Of course, this is not unique to Judaism. This notion is a core idea, central to most religions—and Ruttenberg wants to change this, ensuring that spirituality addresses the realities of childrearing and includes rituals and practices that are relevant, elevating, and inspiring.

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In fact, Nurture the Wow (now out in paperback) opens with several important questions: “What if parenting were considered a spiritual practice in its own right? … What if engaging in the intimate care of our children was understood as a legitimate path to understanding the universe, the transcendent, and our place in it?”

Much of the book, and many of the anecdotes and stories Ruttenberg tells, come from personal encounters with her two oldest children, Yonatan and Shir—and as the subtitle indicates, not every parenting moment has been uplifting or pleasant. Nonetheless, while she recognizes how motherhood has long been mythologized and romanticized, she is so awed by her experiences that she, too, teeters toward lionizing moms as selfless and self-sacrificing.

It’s a forgivable misstep, but it’s not the only one she makes. Perhaps more significant, Ruttenberg writes from the perspective of someone who is psychologically healthy and barely mentions the anxiety-filled, depressed, narcissistic, personality-disordered, or psychotic adults that raised many of us. Neither does she spend much time on the impact of poverty, racism, homelessness, or immigration status on raising a family. Lastly, she sidesteps those women who have children only to later realize that they are ill-suited for motherhood, the subject of Orna Donath’s recent Regretting Motherhood.

Ruttenberg is certainly not oblivious to these obstacles—she is the rabbi in residence at Avodah, a program that trains Jewish youth to be anti-poverty activists—but she instead uses Nurture the Wow to explore two distinct means of social interaction, I-Thou and I-It, and what these approaches can mean when applied to familial relations. This schema was originally conceived by Jewish theologian Martin Buber, who, she writes, noted that in an I-It relationship, “the other person is little more than an object at your disposal—the waitress is the object who brings you your food, the cab driver is the object who brings you from one location to another. Your relationship to the object is a pretty limited one.” Of course, when the “it” is a child, the parent may only see him or her only in terms of the heightened status she’ll be granted by her community or family once she produces heirs.

Better, Ruttenberg argues, is an I-Thou relationship in which the child is seen as a person, separate and apart from the parent, and subsequently “regarded as a whole being, full of hopes and dreams and selfhood, and if this language makes sense to you, created in a divine image.”

Ruttenberg sees I-Thou as having no preordained boundaries and describes reaching this state as a road map to intimacy. “For Buber,” she explains, “I-Thou is the model of the relationship that we have with the divine. Through the work of doing love, through the act of loving, we raise the possibility of connection with all life, with all that is, with love itself. Giving love changes us and our children. Love is as necessary as air.”

Dispensing affection is also a spiritual practice in Ruttenberg’s mind. In fact, she calls it “our work and task down here on this mortal coil.” She further believes that because parents have power over their children, they have a deep responsibility to not just clothe, feed, and protect them, but also to give them the emotional wherewithal—the love—to feel that their toehold on the planet is secure.

Ruttenberg puts God—no, not an old bearded dude sitting atop a cloud, but “the great encompassing everythingness, the vast stillness”—at the center of her life and sees this as deeply tied to the Torah commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. “We’re not islands,” she writes. “Our survival often depends, quite concretely, on our capacities for empathy and generosity.” Some parents, of course, become social justice activists, fighting racism, classism, homophobia, heterosexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, transphobia, environmental contamination, and income inequities, among other concerns. But many don’t.

Ruttenberg is not so starry-eyed as to discount this reality. After all, Trump is president and we’ve seen a host of female conservatives argue in favor of reactionary policies on reproductive health and education, among other issues. Similarly, she avoids putting women on an essentialist pedestal. Nonetheless, she sees I-Thou motherhood as setting the stage for human empathy and the teaching of nonviolent conflict resolution.

I hope she is right, but I’m not completely convinced by her exultant prose or the implied significance of every parenting gesture. In her estimation, “Every bumped head that we kiss, every lullaby we sing, every late night and early morning and sticky, messy ‘craft’ project and tantrum navigated and every little moment of quiet, when we can actually take in the fullness of our child, however briefly—every ounce of our parenting is an offering that, like the ancient sacrifices in the Temple, sizzles on the altar of love. Its smoke rises high, to the heavens, and each time, we are palpably changed, created anew.”

Ruttenberg emphasizes that having children pulled her into closer connection with the divine and made her feel less alone, more grounded in faith. She prays often and stresses that our prayers need not be formal. Indeed, she writes that a prayer can be something as simple as muttering “this sucks” when cleaning vomit from a rug or doing the umpteenth load of laundry after a sleepless night. “It’s less about begging God not to ground us for breaking the proverbial window with our baseball bat and a little more about asking to be seen for who we are right now,” she writes. “Maybe it’s OK to just be where we are. There are days when that possibility offers me a great deal of solace.” It’s parenthood as prayer, writ large.

That said, Ruttenberg confides that she has days when her mind is flooded with questions and doubts. She wonders, for example, if “thinking of God in human terms as a ‘someone’ who has experiences that are like my own profound experiences of parenting can be useful when I’m looking for a means of experiencing the sacred from my little reference point down here.”

I have no clue. But since Ruttenberg’s God dwells within her, in the “excruciatingly mundane” moments she spends with her kids, and in the empathy she feels when having an I-Thou encounter with them, it is certainly possible.

Ruttenberg repeatedly writes that having or raising children is life-altering. “We remain embedded in [parenthood] as long as we live,” she concludes. “Long after our kids grow up, sprout wings, do whatever happens after this chapter of our lives together. We are permanently marked by it. And this work, this transformation, is Torah. It’s real Torah—truth-teaching, wisdom, a path to the sacred.” While these words discount the possibility that this is not a universal sentiment, it’s said so matter-of-factly that it may resonate.