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Being a Good Mother Means Getting it Wrong

What is “right” or correct is not always clear; sometimes it’s subjective, and more often it’s complicated. 
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May 11, 2023
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On an afternoon last week, in between waving away at a few newly arrived mosquitos and listening to my 10-year-old son play the piano in the next room, I stood in my kitchen thinking about all the ways in which I had failed to plan a proper dinner. We would no doubt be relegated to a basic risotto or a quick pesto pasta if I could find some basil that was only half spoiled. I know, of course, that a homemade risotto is in no way tantamount to opening a bag of Doritos and pouring them into a bowl and calling it dinner, but there are rules we set out for ourselves, and I was dangerously close to breaking one of mine. No fresh vegetables, no protein, no forethought: a broken rule. Things must always be done the right way.

The piano notes drifting in from the other room provided the perfect melancholy soundtrack for my self-indulgent reflections on my poor mothering. My son was working on mastering a new song: “Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi, an Italian pianist and composer whose father, a publisher, worked with literary greats such as Primo Levi and Italo Calvino. Let’s be honest: It’s hard to feel like I’m a parenting failure when I hear those haunting notes blending perfectly together, when I see the back of his head, with his big mop of hair, swaying slightly with the music, his bare foot keeping time on the sustain pedal. I did something right, I tell myself. I’m a good mother. 

How erratic are the emotions of those who create small beings. One moment we have convinced ourselves that we are ultimate failures, and the next we bask in our own glory.

But then I heard it.

“Something wasn’t right about that,” I called out softly. He paused, and I continued. “It’s wrong.” Before you judge me for being too harsh or overly critical of my child, you should know that just the day before he had asked for my help with the song because he wanted to get it right before his next piano lesson, and he, too, worried that something was off. I watched as the fingers of the hand I could see became still, hovering over the keys. He took an exasperated breath and said, “Mama, I know. I chose to play that part in a different octave because it sounds better to me. I decided I don’t care if it’s right.”

My face became instantly warm as my own idiosyncrasies and predilections surfaced in an attempt to control everything around me. But it’s not right, I said to myself, that’s not how it’s written. That the way he played it actually sounded good was beside the point. It was maddening, in that moment, to imagine him playing such a beautiful song over and over without the perfection that he so desires. But I realized just as quickly that maybe I’m the one who was searching for that perfection, guiding him to it as if somehow a piece played precisely as it’s written is a testament to my own abilities and excellence, or to his.

“Okay,” I said to him. “I really like it.” And he kept playing, with more heart than he had before receiving permission to be creative and to think for himself.

I was stunned. Maybe I even felt a bit of awe. Especially at that age, it never would have occurred to me that playing it differently from how it was written, hearing the music and making an executive decision regarding how it should be played, was allowed. How sad, I thought. How many beautiful sounds do we miss out on because we are afraid of playing the wrong notes or, worse, being wrong?

There’s a lesson for all of us in the audacity of his choice, in his willingness to step beyond his own need to get it right or to follow the script or music written for him. Parenting books abound, and while parenting certainly isn’t the brain science many of the experts lead us to believe it is, it’s also true that the little things add up. If I tell my son over and over that certain behaviors or decisions aren’t correct—whether it’s the way he chooses to play a song, how he holds a fork and knife, or how he interprets a story—that’s going to be the dominant concern for him in everything he does. He’s going to worry more about making sure the people around him will affirm his choices rather than think carefully about the meaning behind what he does. What is “right” or correct is not always clear; sometimes it’s subjective, and more often it’s complicated. 

It’s not that there aren’t objective truths. We know there are. We know that a red stop light means only one thing. It’s not really open to interpretation. We also know that it isn’t okay to hurt people. But the irony is that many of the things we formerly believed to be objective truths are now up for debate in some circles. Some say violence against innocent people is admissible if they are part of a certain class or race. Others say it’s acceptable, even admirable, to steal from stores or smash up buildings because the people who do so are making a point about systemic discrimination and inequalities.

In a culture that is increasingly divided when it comes to what is right and wrong, I want my son to be able to think for himself when people around him tell him what is fashionably “right.” 

In a culture that is increasingly divided when it comes to what is right and wrong, I want my son to be able to think for himself when people around him tell him what is fashionably “right.” I want him to know that the most important thing is not to be right when what is right has become subjective. I want him to know when being “wrong” or doing something differently is right. I want him to be free to be creative and innovative, to read between lines and see all of the meaning that glimmers there. And most of all, I want him to know that it’s okay to go against the grain, and that it’s okay to see things differently than his peers do. Playing a few notes of a well-known song in a different octave may not seem like a big deal—it’s not so wrong, after all—but as a mother, the way I respond to it makes all the difference. 

The freedom to question and to pursue alternate answers and possibilities is inherently Jewish. And while both parents play a crucial role in developing a child’s understanding of this, the mother carries an especially important burden in this regard. Proverbs 1:8 reads: “Hear, my son the instruction of your father and do not forsake the Torah [or the law] of your mother, for they are a chaplet of grace to your head and a necklace to your throat.” There are different ways to read this verse—Rashi, for example, interprets “mother” as the nation of Israel—but let’s read literally for a moment. For Jews, the law (the Torah) is about understanding the ethical responsibility to which we are called. Responsibility is at the heart of Judaism, and we find here that it is the mother who communicates this to the child.

The freedom to question and to pursue alternate answers and possibilities is inherently Jewish.

But what is responsibility? Among other things, it’s our obligation to think carefully about the issues around us and to respond with grace, insight, and dignity. It’s about making sure we don’t simply fall into step with the most popular opinions and viewpoints without examining them. And it’s about being a light and having a voice. 

Every Mother’s Day, I think about what I want for my son, and then I think about what that means for me. This year, I know that what is required of me is to loosen the grip that some of my own rules have on me. I want to give space for difference and doubt, to allow for the brazenness of choosing the wrong choice because, sometimes, it’s okay to go a little rogue and to do something the “wrong” way in order to get it right in the end.


Monica Osborne is a former professor of literature, critical theory, and Jewish studies. She is Editor at Large at The Jewish Journal and is author of “The Midrashic Impulse.” Twitter @DrMonicaOsborne

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