Mother’s Day: The gift of responsibility

On Mother’s Day last year, I was already a couple of months into my pregnancy. Still, there could not have been a concept more foreign to me than the idea of being a mother. I was slow to comprehend the impending reality of motherhood, which I knew rendered me different from many women in my position — a realization that left me feeling alienated. Barely able to contain their excitement at having successfully begun the process of fruitful multiplication, many women by this point have already chosen names for their unborn babies and stenciled them on nursery walls, or purchased maternity clothing for a body whose changes are visible only to the woman herself, if at all. Some people even begin parenting classes immediately, frantically stocking their homes with baby gear about which they will one day say they can’t imagine living without. 

It would be an understatement to suggest I found neither joy nor comfort in such impulses. While it’s true that the pleasure I experienced upon learning I was pregnant remains one of the most deeply happy and moving moments of my life, my pleasure was intensely private. I experienced it quietly and intimately. And yet truly it never seemed quite real to me. Over the course of my pregnancy, no matter how large my body grew and no matter how searing its physical difficulties, I felt disconnected from the biological fact that I was going to be a mother. My husband and I spent hours talking about the incomprehensibility of what people call the miracle of childbirth — a miracle so mundane that it happens thousands of times a day to people all over the world.

Given its immutable pervasiveness, one would expect that pregnancy would be the most natural and comforting scenario in which a woman can find herself. Yet hovering alongside my joy was an unshakable feeling of horror that seemed to come from the realization that I knew virtually nothing about the next phase of my life. Certainly I was only enriching my life, adding to it rather than substituting one identity for another. Still, I imagined a precipice on which I was perched. Perhaps the fact that I was pregnant became most real to me when I learned that I was going to have a son — learning the sex of the fetus put flesh on the bones of any baby dreams I had dreamed.

But as the initial excitement mellowed, I was suddenly crushed under the realization, again, of how little I knew. It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea how to comb a little boy’s hair, for example, and that I was already poised to disappoint him in so many ways. To complicate matters, no amount of perusing the Web for guidance on what kinds of bottles or baby carriers to use would reveal the secret for discovering the perfect one. It became apparent to me that despite my breadth of scholarly knowledge in my professional life, I was lacking some crucial real-world insights, and I feared this lack would most certainly contribute to my son’s inevitable future delinquency.

As it turned out, the basic things come simply, proving the madness of our worrying. My son’s hair, for example — he was born with an abundance of it — fashioned itself into a dark, jutting faux hawk within hours of his escape from my womb. Five months later, I have little need for a comb. Still, the first couple of months as a new mother comprised the most difficult period of my life. Women are forced to learn quickly in these first weeks despite the emotional and physical residue of labor and childbirth, which is much more violent than anyone ever admits. But how can we be surprised? The world itself, wild and waste, came into being violently, through an ordering of chaos. But one day I woke up and realized that much of the turmoil had become more memory and less physical reality. And a new realization set in.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at the University of Alaska Southeast as part of an honors symposium focusing on transgenerational trauma and memory. The symposium, organized by my friend and colleague Dr. Sol Neely, was built around a book by Gabriele Schwab called “Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma.” Schwab, a German woman, explores the trauma of both victims and perpetrators of collective tragedies, focusing specifically on the ways in which we — both individually and collectively — pass on violent histories for our children to inherit. I begin to question what kinds of violent histories and traumatic memories I am in a position to pass down to my own son. The nature of traumatic memories suggests that they are buried deep within the psychic archive, but given that we unknowingly transmit these histories to our children, every day I feel compelled to keep thinking through the question of my responsibility to my son. 

My own academic research on the writing of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas reminds me that I am not just infinitely responsible in an abstract kind of way. I am responsible not only for my son, but also for his responsibility. Strangely, I feel delighted underneath a burden so immense. The relationship of the parent and the child is the ethical relationship par excellence. As others have found, becoming a mother teaches me more about the nature of responsibility than any textbook or philosophical conference. And this is what I have always, insatiably, set out to do: to learn. I realize now that my concerns about whether I could comb my little boy’s hair or select the right cup holder for our stroller were masking more somber issues. What, exactly, is the nature of my responsibility to my son? What kinds of violent histories will I pass on to him? How do I teach him to respond ethically to these histories?

The Torah is full of advice for children in terms of how and how not to treat their parents. We are told to honor our parents, to refrain from disrespecting them, to fear them. The talmudists elaborate on this idea and tell us not to smite our parents, curse them, or rebel against their authority. The punishments for rebelling against these admonitions are often excruciating, sometimes calling even for death, though the talmudic rabbis seem to have found such pronouncements to be a bit harsh. Still, the biblical regard for how children should treat their parents is unflinchingly clear, even if honoring one’s parents is referred to as the most difficult mitzvah.

The teachings become murkier with regard to parents’ responsibilities to their children. In fact a cursory reading of Jewish texts might lead one to believe that the Torah has little interest in delineating the responsibilities of parents in relation to their children. Certainly (and thankfully!) there is even less interest in mapping out various forms of capital punishment in response to parents who fall short in their responsibilities. Yes, of course, we’re told (by way of both Torah and talmudic texts) to teach them the ways of Torah and mitzvot, to impart to them the story of Sinai, to marry them off to other Jews, to circumcise our sons. But sometimes I wonder if the immensity of the parental responsibility to children isn’t somewhat downplayed. In fact, I’m not convinced that honoring one’s parents is the most difficult mitzvah in light of what it means to teach our children the way of Torah, a far greater challenge given that it cannot, in one lifetime, ever be fully taught.

The big question, of course, has to do with what it means to begin to teach Torah — because all we can do is begin to teach Torah. The talmudic story of the convert addressing the great Hillel (who admonishes the man, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others”) has long been the lens through which I understand Torah. If we learn nothing else in Torah, we learn the value of responsibility, of the value in treating others with kindness, and dignity, and respect. But responsibility also means taking account of the histories that we inherit and the legacies of suffering and violence of which we are a part, regardless of our proximity to them. Responsibility means beginning to acknowledge them.

I may not have participated directly in slavery or in the Native-American genocide, but as an American I inherit the culpability for these violent moments in our shared history. They are part of my national legacy, and if teaching Torah means teaching my son to be responsible and to respond ethically, then it means teaching him how to take ownership of these kinds of events. It means teaching him to be the kind of person who insists that such violence does not become part of a future legacy.  The American novelist William Faulkner famously said the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s important to me that my son understand this idea so that he cannot but respond to the call to responsibility to which, in Levinas’ words, we are all summoned.

The transmission of personal histories of violence and trauma can be more complex. It’s strangely easy to acknowledge my responsibility for events to which I am only indirectly connected. And it becomes even more complicated when a history of violence contains moments where one is both perpetrator and victim. As I sift through the remnants of my own childhood, a couple of key moments are difficult to forget.

When I was little, my sleep difficulties were no less pronounced than they are today in my 30s. I have vivid memories of being alone in the dark of my room, waiting for the house to quiet so that I could walk the halls and experience being in my home as if I were the only one. On one such night, I walked quietly down a carpeted hallway and heard my father’s voice call out from my parents’ bedroom. “Stop. Don’t move or I’ll kill you.” I couldn’t have been more than 7 years old, but I knew that this was the voice of trauma, a trauma that took the shape of both victim and perpetrator. My father, a veteran, incurred serious PTSD from his time in the Vietnam War, particularly his time on Ap Bia Mountain, in what would notoriously be named the Battle of Hamburger Hill. There are very few honors that he didn’t receive — medals for honor, valor, bravery. But he was also wounded physically on this hill. He lost friends and fellow soldiers. He lost the young man he once was. In some ways, I don’t think he ever fully came home. And though he has shared stories with us throughout our lives, we, his family, can never truly be there with him. And this is part of what I have inherited — sadness, because I will never be able to connect with my father on this fundamental level, because I will never really know him since I will never understand the trauma that has shaped him. His memories are violent, and they both are and are not ours. Such is the nature of inherited histories. He shared them with his five children often, but as is the case with testimony, what remains unspoken — what is impossible to say — becomes the dominant mode of narrative, the mode that says the most. And so I knew, that night in the dark hallway, to be still and to wait until I heard the deep breaths of sleep resume before I crept along.

Wartime scenarios are particularly complex, as soldiers can become ensnared in the role of both victim and perpetrator. I grew up under the shadow of this tension, and because of that I’m conscious of the ways I’ve inherited the violence. Schwab’s book talks briefly about how children of people coming from one violent or traumatic event often focus their energies on other traumatic events. It’s as if trauma or violence becomes embedded in a child’s identity, and knowing that the trauma of their parents is inaccessible, they reach for an understanding of one to which they are less directed. Here my very early fixation on the Holocaust makes even more sense. My parents were wildly successful in creating a fun and happy home for their children, but as we grow older my siblings and I cannot help but identify the ways in which we also have been shaped by my father’s complex history.

As I marvel how the multiple facets of my life and identity have been molded by the histories that precede me, I begin to take even more seriously the burden of responsibility that accompanies motherhood. I think lately of a passage by Alicia Suskin Ostriker in “The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions”: “I vowed that my son would not, if I could help it, be a soldier or a violent man. I hoped he would be a gentle person and good lover. I wanted to love him in a way which would increase and multiply, a ripple effect, when he undertook his life in the world. This too I suppose was a form of control, a mother trying to influence the course of history through her son.” I cannot help but find resonance in her words, but I would also add to them.

I want my son to say, “Here I am.” But I know that I have to show him how to do that, how to say that. I have to model what it looks like to be responsible not just for my own actions, but for the history that I have inherited as a human being, an American and a Jew. 

Monica Osborne is a writer and professor of Jewish studies with the Glazer Institute at Pepperdine University.