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Choose your Parenting Guru

March 9, 2011 – 9:49 pm11 Comments

By Lior Misrachi

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, masechet avot, chapter 1, teaching 6) we find the following saying:

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר: עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר, והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Joshua ben Perachyah said: Choose a rabbi and acquire a friend; and judge every person towards merit.

It’s a pretty clever little saying that hits upon some difficult truths. The first being that you should choose a rabbi. Why? Because no one is objective when it comes to their own issues. Even the ‘smartest of the smartest’ might choose to justify being lenient with themselves. The second principle our sages teach us is that we should choose ONE rabbi, and one rabbi only, to answer our questions. Why? So we don’t go around asking a variety of rabbis until we find the answer we want to hear and undermine halacha in the process.

Choosing a rabbi isn’t necessarily easy. It wasn’t meant to be, I suppose. But the principle is a sound one. And so, observant Jews generally choose a rabbi with whom they have some connection; so that he is able to take their context into account. They choose a rabbi who is learned in their eyes; this is pretty self evident. But most importantly, in my opinion, they choose a rabbi who shares their hashkafa – that is, their religious (and/or general) outlook on life.

Recently, I’ve come to understand how wise this particular saying is, not in terms of my Jewish observance, but in my new role as a mother. My son, Eitan, was born almost three months ago. He has brought my husband and I much joy and I am amazed every day at my capacity to love and care for him. Of course, Eitan has also brought certain challenges that we daily, sometimes hourly, have to navigate.

So let’s start with my parenting hashkafa. I believe for the most part that chilled parents equal chilled babies. I didn’t want to do too much reading while I was pregnant as I was confident in my intuition. It helps that I don’t need and don’t want to rush back to work so there was no imperative for routines.

On the recommendation of a good friend of mine I did buy and read the ‘Baby Whisperer’ book by Tracy Hogg. Here I was introduced to E.A.S.Y. According to the baby whisperer it’s important for the baby to Eat, then have Activity time, then Sleep, which leaves time for You.  Sounded easy enough …

But then the reality set in. Eitan was born and I didn’t find feeding easy at all. I developed mastitis TWICE in those early weeks, which now seem like a blur.  And so we consulted an expert. A wonderful lactation consultant, without whom I would not have been able to keep feeding. She didn’t support E.A.S.Y. and believed that forcing babies to have activity time after feeding leads to overstimulation and difficulty sleeping. She suggested instead that we let Eitan fall asleep while feeding and lie on one of us for ten minutes to make sure he was properly asleep before we put him to bed.

This is what we did and it was wonderful. We both really loved the snuggle time that we had with our little man. The consequence, however, was that Eitan got used to sleeping on us.  Another trick that worked really well for us in the early weeks was to use our exercise ball.  One of us would hold him and bounce on the ball. The rhythm of the bouncing put him to sleep almost instantaneously.

Now I didn’t realise any of this was a ‘problem’ until two separate relatives exclaimed that he would never learn to sleep on his own.  I asked my cousin, who I love and respect and who has been a confidant and advice-giver to me since I can remember, when I can start teaching him to sleep independently. She responded that it was too late. I had these horrible images of Eitan after his Bar Mitzvah, still bouncing on an exercise ball in order to fall asleep. PANIC!

Later that same week I went to Shalom Baby (a Jewish mothers group run by The Shalom Institute) and lamented that I had taught my son what I was told were irreversible bad habits. But my friend calmed me down. She told me it was never too late. Just hard work. Ok. Hard work I can do … but how do I do it??

My GP gave me some excellent advice (as she always does) while I was still pregnant. She advised me to try different strategies with Eitan but to give each strategy two weeks before sticking with it or chucking it.

My husband and I decided that it was time to teach Eitan to fall asleep independently. Why? Because I needed breaks. Feeding was still painful, ten weeks after he was born, and I was putting him to bed on my own since no one else could do it. It was exhausting and demanding.

And so, I decided to make my GP my rav (rabbi). Why her? Well, she fit into all three of the criteria I apply to a halachic rav. She knows me. She’s learned and experienced. But most importantly, she shares my baby hashkafa. According to her, I am the expert on Eitan and should trust my instincts. Two weeks it was to be then!

So now that I had my rav, I needed to consult a couple of ‘sfarim’ (books). I chose Robin Barker, the author of the (Baby) Bible: ‘Baby Love’ and the website RaisingChildren.net.au (in this analogy, probably equivalent to the Talmud).  All three of these resources share the same fundamental principle: as long as your baby is healthy and reaching developmental milestones – there’s no need to panic!

We took a deep breath and began the mammoth task of changing Eitan’s sleep/eat pattern. It hasn’t been easy and I am not deluding myself into believing that we’re there yet. It has indeed been hard work, but at the same time, incredibly liberating. From feeding up to twenty times in a day, we’re down to about eight. My husband has been able to help with the sleep because it isn’t related to the feeds, which means I have time to rest, shower and have some ‘me’ time.

So where does all of this leave us? Well – one thing’s for sure – I’m not about to give anyone any advice, which is why I’m not saying what we actually did to change Eitan’s pattern. There’s enough contradictory and confusing advice out there as it is. The truth is that everyone is probably right to some degree and I know that all those advice-givers out there are very well meaning. But if you try everything at once, I don’t believe you’ll get anywhere.

My brother-in-law asked us the other night how we knew what we were doing. We both laughed and answered that we didn’t. But the one thing I have learnt from the past few weeks is that just like in the observance of halacha, getting advice from everyone is tantamount to getting advice from no one. And so I’ve chosen my rav and I’m sticking to her, to help me filter all noise and be the best possible mother to my son.

Lior Misrachi is a Jewish educator and mother living in Sydney.

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