I grew up listening to Marlo Thomas’s “Free to be You and Me,” a compilation of songs and stories geared towards children that immerses the listener in the progressive values of the early 70’s: gender equity, individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity. In the world of “Free to Be,” Atalanta outruns her suitors to become friends with, and not to marry, the winner. It is “all right to cry,” and “mommies can be almost anything they wanna be.”
Ah, the choices. I lament and celebrate this upbringing now that I am a woman, a momma, and a wife raising two children. Women before me cleared a path for the choices that I am now enjoying and benefiting from. I did not have to marry. I did not have to have children. I could have sex, though I did not have to marry or have sex to have children. I could study English literature and go on to be a boss at work, accomplishing both, and acquiring a gracious husband who makes dinner nightly and shares parenting duties while trying to launch his own career.
They are a bit of a fallacy, the choices. I wonder at every turn how much control I actually have, and approximately what percent of my fate is G-d’s doing. A former mentor of mine once commented to me, upon viewing my 6-month pregnant belly: “enjoy it now—this is the last stage of child-rearing where you’ll never worry about where your child is.” In other words, once you release your child out into the world, control is a mere illusion.
The words of Unetanah Tokef, said on Rosh Hashana, live with me and have haunted me into this new year:
Who will live and who will die?
Who in his time, and who not in his time?
Who by the storm, who by plague?
Who by fire and who by water?
Is the objective of this poetry really to strike fear in us, that if we do not do right, these horrific things will happen? Or does it just serve to underscore that the choice we feel, the agency we think we have, is a mere illusion?
I burrow further into myself with every thought. In this life, I am overwhelmed by choice. Is it mine to make, or am I merely powerless? Is G-d is in control of the future or not? In these moments I seek meaning, peace, calm, and the possibility that every choice is not mine to make. That perhaps G-d is there, whispering that I am going to be okay. That I do not need to know and understand everything, that every choice does not need to be measured and weighed and optimized. That it is okay to just breathe, and be. In these moments, there is the mikveh. I am stripped to my core. No choices. Nowhere to go. Nothing to strategize. Just me, and the water, and maybe G-d. I am not sure.
There is a small boy that I love. He wears princess costumes and fairy wings and loves rainbows and talks about super powers. He whispers, “I love you mommy,” early in the mornings, and gobbles up the “cookie kisses” I give him before he goes to sleep at night. He is quirky, sensitive, and creative, and his actions and words surprise me every day.
There is a tiny girl that I love. She is toothy, and willful and can’t talk but can shriek really well. She will look a person right in the eye and smile until she gets them to smile too. She is fearless and loving and takes less than five minutes to get to sleep every night, without fail.
This small boy and this tiny girl. My two children. As my husband and I go through this journey of life with our children, I understand that the more we think we can curate every experience, make every good choice, provide every best option, the less control we have.
Recently, a headline showed up in my Facebook feed: “25 Words Your Kindergartener Must Know Before First Grade.” As I scanned the list, wondering whether my child would be adequately prepared for 1st grade, I noticed that the “list” was actually each word of the following sentences: Your parents are taking this way too seriously. Their aggressive and goal-focused parenting style will isolate and minimize their ability to parent you effectively. (If you were wondering, word #25 is “puppy.”)
The choices. Which ones matter? Which ones are yours to make? Come to the mikveh. Experience silence. Just you, the water, and maybe G-d.
Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg is a long-time member of the Cambridge-Somerville Jewish community. She works as a literacy specialist at an educational non-profit focused on organizational change. She spends most of her time working and rearing her 3-year-old son, Hallel, and infant daughter, Ya’ara, in partnership with her husband, Ari.