Nurture the Wow: A Conversation With Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
The title of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book caught my attention right away: Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting.
I mean, come on.
As a person who writes about parenting and spirituality, it was the perfect book to stumble upon. And in many ways this is a perfect book in general: it’s fun to read, relatable, informative, and has the ability to transform the way you think.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is full of wisdom, and she shares her wisdom with clarity and an implicit call to action. I’m thankful to her for taking the time to answer these questions, and I hope you find her answers as inspiring as I do.
In one of the first chapters of Nurture the Wow, you describe your son as “a mysterious world unto himself.” I love this. To what extent do you think we can comprehend the inner world of a child? To what extent does a child expect us to comprehend that inner world?
It's not clear to me that we can ever fully comprehend the inner world of any other person. But we can, with children and adults, reach out in empathy and connection, in openness and listening, to try to receive what the other is willing to share. Even babies are capable of communicating when they're afraid and when they're curious, when they're overstimulated and when they're in need of reassurance—and children even more so.
Of course, children do often assume that we are able to access their entire inner world, even when they don't or can't tell us exactly what's going on. Which means that we need to be all the more attentive to the myriad of things that they try to tell us every day. Even if we don't know what the need is behind the tantrum, when we look with loving compassion at the tantruming child, we can see that there is a desperate need, or fear, or struggle being expressed there, and we can try to reach out in care and curiosity to understand, to meet them where they are asking us to find them.
You discuss how transformational it can be when we begin to see the small stuff we do each day with and for our kids—you call it the “routine work”—as holy. And I really appreciate how you say this kind of transformation requires a ton of intentional effort. Where do we begin? With mindfulness? With prayer? Or does it not matter as long as we try?
I think the transformation begins in the work. Sure, we can sit and meditate before we sweep up the peas or go looking for the shoe that's gone missing, we can integrate prayer in the giving of the bath or sitting with homework, but I think so much of it is about trying to bring ourselves fully into each act as it’s happening.
Can we put all of ourselves into the hunt for the shoe—rather than holding our feelings of annoyance that this is taking so long, worry about being late? The shoe will take the same amount of time to get found if we're worrying as if we're not (and we'll probably be more effective looking if we're not?) Can we drop everything else going on and just focus on the tiny person whose teeth need to be brushed, and leave aside everything else swirling in our heads? That can be the thing that opens up that exchange to be delightful, not a battle—because we're encountering the situation in front of us, not bringing our agenda into it. Can we be here with the worried child struggling to focus on the math problem? Rather than focusing on results, be with them in the trenches of the process? That's when we open up. That's when things start to shift.
Meditation and prayer can be tools to help us drop some of the stuff we're bringing into the exchanges, but ultimately the project is about entering what Kathleen Norris calls the "quotidian mysteries" on their own terms.
And the 20th century theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes often about “radical amazement,” that sense of “wow” about the world, as the root of spirituality. It’s the kind of thing that people often experience in nature, for example, on the proverbial mountaintop. But not only that–a lot of it is about bringing that sense of awe into the little things we often take for granted, or consider part of the background of our lives. This includes not only flowers on the side of the road, the taste of ice cream in our mouths, or how groovy it is to use a straw, but also things we generally don’t even think of as pleasures, like the warm soapy water on our hands as we wash dishes.
Obviously, radical amazement isn’t only for kids (though they do it really, really well). It’s about bringing that wonder, that wow-ness, to as much of the mundane as possible–to the dishwashing, to the gorgeousness of the tomato we’re about to slice, and, of course, to the tushies and toes of the cuddly, sticky, demanding children we so love.
Ever seen a 4 year-old agog with joy seeing a bunch of ants crawling on the sidewalk? That’s radical amazement. The great thing is that our kids can be our teachers–and remind us to see those ants with the same kind of wonder and awe. Ants are pretty cool. When was the last time you stopped to really look at them?
You point out how our children, intentionally and/or unintentionally, show us the parts of ourselves that still need work. How can we face these parts of ourselves without becoming overly frustrated or sinking into self-loathing?
The same way we encounter our children. We wouldn't be mad at our kid for struggling with something, or for feeling scared or worried, right? We wouldn't be mad at them if they haven't learned a skill that they're still learning, even if it's taking longer than we thought it might, right? They're still growing, they're still learning, sometimes it's hard. So too with us.
We can regard ourselves with the same amount of compassion—just as we tell our kids that everybody makes mistakes sometimes, so must we tell ourselves. And just as we would hope our kid would learn how to responsibly own it when they screw up, to apologize, to figure out how to do it a different way—so too with us, we need to ask that of ourselves. Not angrily, but with the soft eye of someone who sees that we're still growing, too.
And yes, there are things about the process of parenting that might reveal that we might need some extra help and support—therapy, for example, can be a really important thing to do while parenting, depending on what we're starting to face and how we're handling it. Investing in ourselves in this way is an important gift that we can give to ourselves, and our children.
Could you talk a little about the ways in which trying to be more present with our children might ultimately enable us to better love the world? You touch on this throughout the book, but I’m wondering if you could share a little bit of wisdom about this for folks who haven’t read it yet.
When we raise small children—particularly when we do so with the intentional, interconnected framework that Nurture the Wow describes—it can have a real impact on how we regard every aspect of our lives, and the world as a whole. Our engagement with the work of parenting gradually (and, at times, not so gradually) shapes the way we think about our own work, about creativity, about our ethics and our interactions with other people. The demands, and sometimes the isolation, of parenthood can make us feel our own world has shrunk, and that our connection with the wider world is more tenuous than before.
But as we subtly shift our focus to understand how we, as parents, are being transformed by the act of parenting—and by remaining alert and attuned to these internal changes—we can start to develop a wider vision of the impact of this thinking in our whole lives. We can realize that everyone is as precious and as essential as our own kid—that our sense of obligation for them can help us see the larger network of responsibility and care in which we are embedded. We can extend the love and compassion we feel towards our children into every interaction we have, into how we understand current events, into how we understand our work in the world.
You point out how parenting requires “creating a new kind of selfhood.” In a nutshell, what is this new selfhood? And it’s a huge question, but how can parents balance the pursuit of their own interests or passions with the interests or passions of their kids?
A lot of things get thrown into a blender when we have kids—our logistics, our finances, our priorities, probably our sanity a little bit. And for most of us, our identity—our very sense of selfhood—also gets taken for a spin. Suddenly what you want and what you need gets put on the back burner, and who you are and have been in the world shifts dramatically. The baby’s hunger at 2am takes priority over your exhaustion. Her 7:30pm bedtime means that you’re probably going to say no to that night out with friends (at least most of the time, given what hiring a babysitter costs these days). Your love of travel, if you have the privilege to enjoy things like that, is at odds with the fact that your vacation days now cover the times when daycare is closed. Simply put, when you become a parent, so often, it’s not all about you anymore. Or hardly at all.
It’s very disorienting, and we need both conceptual tools and a great, supportive community in order to re-ground. And even so–who we are on the other side, when things stop spinning, winds up being very different than who we were before.
In the book I talk about the fact that we can re-ground our selfhood by walking into and through the intimate relationships in our lives—with our kids, and with others. That while certainly there's a way that caring for others can lead to a sort of abandonment of the self (the myth of the self-sacrificing mother doesn't come from nowhere), it can also help us re-encounter ourselves anew. Martin Buber talks about empathetic connection as an I-Thou relationship. Well, you can't really meet someone else as Thou unless the I is there as well. So when we make the choice to reach out in love, it can help us see even better who we are, who we are becoming.
RABBI Danya Ruttenberg
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting (Flatiron Books), which was a finalist for the 2016 National Jewish Book Award. She is also author of Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon Press), nominated for the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature and a 2009 Hadassah Book Club selection. She is editor of The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism (NYU Press) and Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal Press).