How 1 Mother Cared for 20 Children and Herself as Well as told to C. Saphir
C. Saphir’s weekly Mishpacha Magazine column “Lifelines” is the first thing I read every week when Mishpacha comes to my door, and the following article is so wonderful I have been waiting for my birthday (today!) to give it as a present to my dear JewishMOMs. What I love most about this mother’s story is how she chooses, time and again, to take responsibility for her own happiness.
A MOTHER OF PEARLS as told to C. Saphir
When I was younger, I didn’t imagine myself becoming a mother of 20 children. Even today, I don’t think of myself as “the lady with 20 children.” I was fortunate that Hashem blessed me – not only with 20 beautiful children, but also with the type of husband, the type of nature, and the type of kochos [energy] necessary to raise such a family.
Today, all but the youngest of my children are married, yet I don’t consider myself any sort of expert. Every person is different, every spouse is different, every child is different, and every home is different. I would never assume that what worked for me would work for someone else.
I have to say, it was a lot easier to raise children 30 years ago, when my kids were little, because the needs of that generation were not nearly as many – or as costly – as the needs of today’s generation. It was fine if my kids wore hand-me-downs and took simple snacks to school. My children, who are busy with their own families, are struggling to provide parnassah in a way that my husband and I never had to struggle, even though he worked a rebbi and I was a stay-at-home mother. We just didn’t have the kind of expenses that today’s parents do, and our kids didn’t have the same expectations that today’s kids do.
“Still,” people ask me, “How did you manage?”
Although I don’t feel that my overall experience is instructive for anyone else, I can think of certain attitudes that helped me along the way.
I’m the type of person who likes to be happy. I’m not going to wait for someone else to make me happy – I’m going to do what it takes to make myself happy. For instance, instead of waiting for my husband to buy me something I wanted, I would buy it, wrap it up nicely, write a little poem, and present it to my husband, Shea, to give to me. I wouldn’t spend a lot of money on these little gifts to myself – I couldn’t do that without consulting with my husband – but to me, a present was a present regardless of the price tag.
It was a win-win proposition: I created opportunities for my husband to give to me, and I made myself happy, without putting pressure on my husband or on our bank account.
When one of my daughters was engaged, I bought myself a pair of mother-of-pearl earrings. I gave it to Shea – gift-wrapped, with a note – and asked him to give it to me on the day of our daughter’s wedding.
On the day of the wedding, he forgot all about it. So I wore a different pair of earrings.
Had I really wanted to wear those particular earrings to my daughter’s wedding, I would have reminded Shea about it. I wasn’t trying to test him and see if he remembered that he was supposed to give me something – I just wanted to be happy. As it happened, on the day of the wedding I didn’t care that much which earrings I wore, so I decided not to mention it.
It took a few months until Shea remembered about the earrings. My nephew, Yanky, was getting married then, so my husband asked me, “Does it count if I give it to you before Yanky’s wedding?”
“Why not?” I responded. “It’s always nice to get a present.” And I really enjoyed the note I had written to myself, about being the mother of pearls.
Once, I was at a simcha [event] with my mother-in-law, and she admired the ring I was wearing. It was a $16 ring I had picked up for myself.
“Shea bought it for me for our anniversary,” I told her.
Later, when Shea and I were leaving the simchah, we gave my in-laws a ride home.
“Shea,” my mother-in-law said, “that’s a beautiful ring you bought Goldie for your anniversary.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he said, without missing a beat. He already knew my meshugassen [craziness].
When we got home, he said, “Let me see the ring I bought you.”
He was happy, I was happy, and my mother-in-law was happy. What could be better?
Shea worked a long day, coming home late in the evening. When he walked through the door, the kids knew that for the first 20 minutes or so after he came home, they should play quietly and not disturb him. He and I would sit down in the kitchen to eat supper, and that was our time together. If the children needed something, they would have to wait.
Shea and I didn’t take vacations. I felt that my role in life was to take care of my children, not to send them away.
So I created my own vacations. I was almost always home with my children, so getting out of the house for an hour was a vacation, even if it was just a trip to the grocery. If I couldn’t get out of the house, and I felt I needed a break, I would closet myself in the kitchen for a minute or two, and ask Hashem to give me energy to cope with whatever situation I was dealing with. I tried to preface these requests with a brief expression of thanks – as my aunt used to say, if you ask the Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] for a favor without thanking him first, you’re a shnorrer. These impromptu tefillos [prayers] gave me renewed energy, because they reminded me that Hashem is in charge, and gave me the confidence that He would help me.
Once a year, I went to Florida for a week. I did that without packing a suitcase, making any babysitting arrangements, or even stepping foot out of the house. The week I was in Florida, I didn’t go around the house each morning making the beds and straightening up the rooms. I didn’t do any ironing. I didn’t make suppers that involved much preparation – the kids ate tuna sandwiches or scrambled eggs. At night, I did a jigsaw puzzle.
No one besides Shea knew I was in Florida; it was our little secret. The kids never noticed that I wasn’t putting in a full day’s work. They had no idea that I was vacationing right under their noses!
But for me, the best vacation was when a day just went smoothly – a day when everyone found their socks and shoes in the morning, when no one forgot their lunch at home, when the baby napped at the right time, when the kids came home from school happy.
To give myself as many of these “vacation” days as possible, I set up systems that would make the house run smoothly. School lunches were prepared the night before. Each younger child was paired with an older child who was responsible for dressing them in the morning. There were checklists on the wall for each child reminding them of all the things they had to do before going to bed – prepare knapsack, brush teeth, choose clothing, etc.
These systems didn’t replace my role as a mother, they merely smoothed out the technicalities so that I could focus my attention on the children themselves. I was able to sing the children to sleep, do arts ‘n crafts with them, and write them each little personalized notes.
One invaluable system I implemented was that a week before each family wedding, we had a dress rehearsal. Each child got dressed head to toe, and I made sure that every garment and accessory was ready to go. Once, I noticed that my son’s pants were too short. Another time, I noticed that my daughter’s petticoat was sticking out, and that a different child’s shoes were scuffed. At that point, it was no big deal to buy a new pair of pants, get the petticoat hemmed, and polish the scuffed shoes. But had I noticed these little things on the day of the wedding, I would either have had to deal with them on the spot, which would have caused stress, or I would have had to tell the child, “Tough luck, I can’t deal with this now,” which would have caused agmas nefesh [distress] for both the kid and me.
The night before the wedding, I handed each child a pile of everything they would need the next day, from yarmulke to necktie, from headband to necklace. The morning of the wedding, the kids would go to school until twelve, and then they would come home, shower, take their respective piles, and get themselves ready. Those wedding days were some of my best vacations.
Then there were plenty of days that were not vacations. Days when one child would wake up with high fever, another would miss his bus, a third would be frantically searching through the laundry for a pair of tights, and a fourth would vomit all over the carpet. All at the same time.
On a day like that, I would tell myself, This day is going to pass. It’s only 24 hours, no matter what. At the end of such a day, I would think, Tomorrow will be better. I didn’t dwell on the mishaps and frustrations of the day that passed. Rather, I tried to set things up so that these glitches wouldn’t happen again in the future, and then I put them behind me. What was the use in beating myself up over what gone wrong today, or what I hadn’t managed to do? I was just a human being, and I didn’t have to be perfect.
If there was something I could fix, I did. If not, there was no use thinking about it, because being upset at myself was not going to make things happen. Gam zu l’tovah, everything is for the best. If I didn’t accomplish everything I had hoped to do, there was always tomorrow. My motto was, “Yesterday is chaloimos [dreams], tomorrow is dimyoinos [imagination], and today we have to live.” Not dwelling on the failures of yesterday or the worries of tomorrow freed me to enjoy the present and focus on the many good parts of my life.
In general, I’m not the type of person who analyzes myself too much. If the kids were keeping me up night after night, I wouldn’t think to myself, This is terrible, I can’t sleep normally, I’m not functioning. If I was tired, I would go take a nap. I didn’t label things as “situations”; I took each day as it came. I had the same attitude toward my weight. I wanted to lose weight, but I wasn’t going to make myself sick over it. So at one point, I threw out my scale. If I managed to lose weight, good. If not, so what? It was more important to me that I should be happy.
If I needed something, I’d get it for myself. In the early years, I was able to run the house without any cleaning help. At some point, it became too much for me, so I started taking hired help. I always preferred to take help on Sunday, to clean up after Shabbos; getting ready for Shabbos was a privilege I didn’t want to share with a cleaning lady. But that was my choice. If it would have been too hard for me, I wouldn’t have forced myself to do it.
When my kids would ask me for something, I would ask them, “Do you need it, or do you want it?”
If they said they needed it, I believed them, and I made sure they got it. But if they said they wanted it, I would say, “I’ll discuss it with Tatty.” When the kids would ask Shea for something, he would say, “I’ll discuss it with Mommy.” Sometimes the answer was yes, sometimes it was no, but because the no came from both of us – “Tatty and I decided…” – it usually met with little or no resistance. The kids knew, after all, that if they said they needed it, they would get it. The fact that they had 19 siblings had no bearing on their individual needs. Why should they feel deprived just because they came from a large family?
When people hear that I have 20 children, their automatic reaction is often, “Wow, that’s so hard.” What they don’t realize is that the Ribbono Shel Olam sends, along with every child, the kochos to care for that child. Raising one child can be harder than raising ten.
That’s why, when I look back at my years of childrearing, I don’t feel proud of myself. I feel incredibly blessed and grateful that Hashem entrusted these children to me, and gave me the kochos with which to raise them. Just as a rich person would be foolish to pride himself on the money Hashem gave him, it would be foolish for me to take credit for the beautiful family Hashem granted me, or to think that what worked for me will work for others.
Once, my young daughter came home from school and reported that her classmate’s mother had come in as a guest speaker. “Why don’t you come speak to us, Mommy?” she asked.
“When I’ll be completely successful with my own children, then I’ll lecture others,” I responded.
She looked at me innocently, and chanted, “Try and fail, try and fail, but never fail to try again.”
It was a mantra she had heard from a teacher, no doubt, but how well it summed up my approach to life. I have to use the kochos the Ribbono Shel Olam gave in the right way, and not expect too much of myself. That way, today will be good – and tomorrow will be even better.
This article was reprinted with permission from Mishpacha Magazine.
Available now from Artscroll/Mesorah–The Best of Lifelines, with all new postscript follow-ups to each story.