ENCINO, Calif., April 29 (JTA) The photographs from my son Gabe’s Bar Mitzvah sit on my dining room table, waiting to be ordered.
His Bar Mitzvah took place more than a year ago.
The handpainted needlepoint canvass that I am stitching for my husband’s 50th birthday remains unfinished. Never mind that he’s now 51.
I am fundamentally a responsible and organized human being.
I am also the mother of four sons ages 10, 12, 14 and 17.
“How do you mange?” my cousin Lexy asks. She is overwhelmed with one daughter.
“Some days not very well,” I answer.
Particularly days in which I try to write about being a mother. This column, for example, represents my umpteenth attempt.
I have tried to write about what we owe our children, what they owe us and what makes mothers happy. I have tried to write about how I am the oldest and meanest of all the mothers in the neighborhood to how I want to come back in my next life as an octopus, with enough hands for each child. Or, on some days, a hermit.
I have tried to weave the many disparate and conflicting strands of my life into something wise and humorous and coherent.
But then, knowing that art imitates life, I realize that these attempts, these bursts of enthusiasm and creativity and confidence that end in abject frustration, are indicative of motherhood itself, which defies both focus and definition.
I have obediently followed God’s commandment (Genesis 1:28) to “be fruitful and multiply.” And I have learned firsthand the truth of God’s warning (Genesis 3:16), “In pain shall you bear children.”
But post-partum, the rules for raising children are less useful. Mostly, the Torah commands children to honor their mother and their father (Exodus 20:12 and Leviticus 19:3). And for those who strike their mother or their father (Exodus 21:15) or insult them (Exodus 21:17), the Torah recommends death, a child-rearing technique not currently in vogue.
And so, for the past 17-plus years, in the face of ignorance, anxiety and exhaustion, I have worked in partnership with my husband, my good intentions and my gut reactions. I have worked to raise my sons to be punctual, polite and politic; to be good Jews, good students and solid citizens.
But like my unfinished columns, I am a mass of contradictions and ambivalence.
I can tell you that I want to work full time, devoting more hours to a challenging and fulfilling career. I can also tell you that I want to be ever available to drive car pool, volunteer at the Purim carnival, soothe hurt feelings and teach my sons how to eat spaghetti without using their fingers.
I can tell you that I can’t wait until my youngest leaves for college in eight years and three months so that I can laugh in the face of “empty nest syndrome.” I can also tell you that my oldest leaves for college in only one year and three months and the thought makes me misty-eyed.
Like my unfinished columns, my life is fragmented and frenzied.
I go from a child who needs help with an English essay to a child who needs new soccer shoes by the next day to a packet of school forms that must be completed in triplicate by yesterday. My days seem broken into time slots too small for anything but a quick dash into Starbucks.
I have a fantasy that one day I will definitively organize all the closets, drawers and file cabinets in my house. That I will pay every bill on time. That I will feed my sons only healthy foods, take them to more museums and always remember to buy milk. That I will have hours of uninterrupted time to write.
But the reality is that I don’t consistently do anything except get semimonthly manicures. My French-tipped nails, along with my ironed blue jeans and an occasional car wash, give me the appearance and the illusion that my life is in order.
Sometimes, when I look at couples overwhelmed with infants and toddlers, coping with high chairs, spilled juice, dirty diapers and tantrums, I see developmental progress. I rejoice that I no longer have to feed, dress or lift a child. Even better, that I no longer have to carry in groceries, wheel out trash cans or hire a babysitter.
And even less frequently, in those rare transcendent moments when time briefly stops, when I watch a son chant his Torah portion, receive an award for community service or put his arm comfortingly around a brother’s shoulder, I see spiritual progress. I realize that this patchwork job of mothering this hodgepodge of intuition, trial and error and outside and often unsolicited advice is somehow working.
And I find myself agreeing with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who once said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.