Archives for 2005

Sex and the single baby

About two weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times about upscale mothers’ toilet training their babies by about six months of age. The concept seemed a bit odd to me, but they explained that this is done in other countries and that this is very enlightened. Well, I thought, I am by nature rather conservative, so I probably should just owe my negative reaction to my personality rather than the merit of the case.

Last week, I read in the New York Times about upscale mothers teaching their children about sex at age three, reasoning that it is a natural and normal thing and there’s no reason their children shouldn’t be savvy. This one was a bit harder to swallow.

Because toilet training is largely physical, one could argue that it might not change the child’s cognitions or concepts of the world. However, when a child is educated about sexual reproduction at an early age, it is possible that his cognitive universe may be different from one who is not.

Suddenly I had a picture pop into my mind. In college, when I studied the history of music and art, one of the most amusing parts was when our professor showed us slides of paintings that included children. Many of those slides portrayed children as small adults. Their entire bodies were painted in adult proportions, small heads, long arms and legs—they looked like little adults. My professor explained that the art of the time reflected the assumption at the time that children were exactly that: small adults. Children worked long hours just like adults. They were not protected and sheltered from the world; they were part of the world from the time they could stand up and walk.

And then I thought of my own children and their childhoods. Diaper-changing time wasn’t only a physical thing. It was a time for me to interact with the child—to get him or her all clean and fresh and feeling comfortable. I was giving my children the message, “Your needs are important and I am here to provide you with support and love.” My children didn’t learn about human sexuality at three. They learned their bodies were pleasurable by taking baths and being hugged and cuddled. They had their questions answered in an honest and respectful manner. They had a childhood.

Little children are not just small adults. They have fewer cognitive structures and do not assimilate information in the same way as adults. They do not have the ability to think abstractly just as a one month old, no matter how intelligent, cannot walk or talk.

One of the best things about raising children is to watch their natural development—to watch them discover the world, each in their own unique way. Just as they are patient, waving that hand over their face time and again before they finally comprehend that the hand is under their control, we need to have patience to allow them to develop at their own pace.

There are no awards for the first parent on the block who gets their child toilet trained and no awards for having the most-informed-about-sex three year old. Children grow and develop when given love and support and encouragement. There will be plenty of time for achievement and stress when they grow older. For now, let’s let them be children.

Somebody has to be the grownup

Once, many years ago, on another continent, I was working with a couple that was having serious marital difficulties. The wife was certain that her husband was not being honest with her as to where he was in the evenings. He was a military officer and it certainly was possible that he would have to work through dinner and not return home until late, but she didn’t believe him.

She had a couple of friends, wives of other officers, and just as patients in a waiting room end up trading symptoms, well, one after the other decided that her husband also was lying about where he was and what he was doing if he didn’t get home on time.

The women, though, decided to check out their husbands, and so one evening, they followed one of the husbands as he left work. He went to a bar. They got out of their car and peeked into the bar, hiding behind doors and window curtains. They saw him talking to another man, having a couple of beers, talking to another man or two, and then get into his car. The women raced to the car they had come in so that the wife would be home when he got there. However, she had to drop off the other two wives before she could get home and so when she arrived home, her husband was waiting for her and asking where she had been.

I don’t know what she said, but some people never learn, because the next night the three women again followed one of the husbands. This time the man stopped in front of a home in the town near the Army base. They watched as he entered the house. They hid in the bushes with binoculars and one was able to see him sitting on a sofa watching a football game with another man. Finally, they left.

The three women continued their expeditions, trying in vain to trip up their husbands, not realizing that there was a basic lack of trust on both parts that was driving a wedge into all three of the marriages. These evening outings turned into fodder for lies and misrepresentations thus increasing the distrust and distance that were instrumental in bringing these men to go out without telling their wives in the first place. But, in my opinion, the women were making matters worse by carrying on in a rather infantile manner.

After all, the world isn’t like television. This isn’t “I Love Lucy” and it isn’t a soap opera. In the real world, following people and hiding in the bushes and making up stories to cover one’s tracks just doesn’t work. The “First Wives Club” is FICTION. Relationships are built on love and respect and honesty and integrity. Even if we think our spouse is being less than truthful, we need to maintain our own moral standards. We cannot allow someone else’s behavior serve as a justification for ours.

Often when couples are in conflict, one or the other will revert to infantile behavior such as lying, blaming, and sneaking around. I try to encourage the other person to be “the grownup.” As a matter of fact, I have frequently told wronged spouses, “Somebody has to be the grownup.” When one person is out of control, the other has to stay sane. If a calm discussion is impossible, then a third party might be needed to provide a safe atmosphere. Some people have a clergyperson or lay religious leader who can help. Some people see a marital therapist, but in some way, both spouses have to be able to speak honestly about their differences and misunderstandings instead of acting like sitcom or soap opera characters. And somebody has to be the grownup.

I know what you’re thinking

Human relationships are built on trust. Think about it. Can you really have a relationship with someone you don’t trust? After all, it is possible to meet someone and make small talk and get to know the person, but most people don’t share their innermost thoughts, feelings, plans, and dreams with strangers. Most people share them only with the people who they are the closest to. They share them with parents, siblings, spouses, and best friends.

Sometimes people cannot even share important thoughts with the people they are the closest to because it doesn’t feel safe. By safe, I mean that they don’t feel as if the other person will really listen and take them seriously. They don’t believe the other person will really understand.

One thing that gets in the way of close human relationships is the other person’s assertion that he or she “knows” what the other person is thinking. Now think about it: if someone already thinks that they know what you are thinking, doesn’t it make your telling them kind of trivial? Or worse, maybe what they “know” is not at all what you are thinking. Maybe they are attributing motives, thoughts, beliefs, and ideas to you that are far from what you are actually thinking. In fact, once someone “knows” what you are thinking, they often will tell you that you are wrong. You must be lying to them. They know what you “really” are thinking and what you “really” mean. How close can you get to someone who believes they know your innermost thoughts? I’m not sure that you can ever get very close at all because their “knowledge” stops them from listening.

In fact, the rather than feeling understood, a person whose thoughts are able to be “read” feels uncertain and confused about the relationship.

Normally, in a relationship we worry about our thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of the other person. In a relationship where someone’s mind is being read, he needs to worry about his thoughts and feelings, the thoughts and feelings of the other person, and the thoughts and feelings that the other person ascribes to him. Often he must defend himself against alleged hostility, anger, lasciviousness, and ulterior motives, none of which may reflect his true thoughts and feelings.

Many people believe that if they are very close to another person, they should be able to know what the other feels and thinks. However, there is a difference between the relationship of two human beings, each of them a complete person and a fusion of two incomplete human beings into a whole. That fusion may feel very good and comfortable for a while, but sooner or later, people begin to feel as if they have lost the essence of themselves.

When people tell me that they can’t understand their spouse, I sometimes ask them if they truly understand themselves. Usually the answer is “no.”

The benefit of allowing the other person his/her own thoughts and feelings without being second-guessed is that in the sharing of these thoughts and feelings in a relationship, there is the opportunity to really listen and to pay attention and to empathize and show caring. A real relationship involves relating as a whole person to another whole person with distinct thoughts and feelings. It involves listening to understand what that person is thinking and feeling and how he or she is experiencing life. In fact, not “knowing” what the other is thinking is the key to really finding out.


One of the most amazing things about fulfilling a dream is that once fulfilled, one is again and again reminded of how it looked from far off and once again one can feel the joy of its having been accomplished.

One way in which I experience this is in my feelings for living in Israel. My first consciousness of Eretz Yisrael came when as a child I heard my maternal grandmother at the end of the seder tell the family that it was her intention to take the whole family to Israel next Pesach. I believed then and still believe today that that is what she truly wanted to do and probably would have, had she lived long enough.

In Sunday School and Hebrew School, we talked about Israel, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie Exodus that my longing to visit Israel began. It was only after a broken engagement that I got to see the land for the first time in 1965, and only after twelve years of marriage and five children that I returned in 1978. The real longing to live in Israel started then and intensified when our oldest son left the US to study at Hebrew University in 1984 and finally, after each child had come to live in Israel on his or her own, I joined them. My father-in-law and husband were the last of the family to arrive.

And you would think that after ten years in Israel, seven of them living in our own home, I would just take living here for granted. But you would be wrong.

Every morning waking up to the sweet smells of our garden, I am reminded of the beautiful place that I live. Each trip to Jerusalem makes me love her ancient stones more intensely. Our trip to Sde Boker and Ein Avdat brought me the awe of desert landscapes with colored sands and rich wadis and waterfalls. And last weekend, our shabbat at Karei Deshe allowed me to hear the gentle lapping of the waters of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) at night and to watch the sun shimmering in its waters in the day.

These places are not just places. They are spiritual landmarks, places where I meet God’s works face to face and experience a closeness to Him and a feeling of serenity and completeness.

And I think about what I hoped I would find when I got here, and I am awed that I have found so infinitely more.

The Transformers

It is a truism that artists tend to be people who have pain that drives them to express themselves. Each day when I read “The Writer’s Almanac” I see that literary and political figures invariably have suffered painful childhoods with the loss of a parent or physical or emotional abuse from parents or peers or from debilitating illnesses. Some have lived lives of poverty. Some are the product of homes that didn’t feel safe.

Those people who are able to turn to writing literature or essays or compose great musical works are people who are able to transform the negative into something positive not just for themselves, but for others as well.

But famous people are not the only ones who have this gift for positive transformation. One of the things that moved me when I was working with families of adults with developmental disabilities and mental retardation was what happened to the rest of the family. In general, I found both parents and siblings of these very challenged and challenging people to be exceptional in a number of ways. Most of the parents were devoted to their children, patient and understanding. They were able to give and give and they were also able to derive pleasure from the smallest accomplishment of their disabled child. The siblings were even more impressive because they have not raised this person from childhood and therefore invested nurturing and love in them. They were children whose lives were altered because of their disabled sibling. I am certain they missed parties and events because parents were in the hospital with their sibling who was having seizures or self-abusing or getting over a choking episode. They lived with friends who may have questioned them about their siblings and perhaps made fun of the sibling or of the child him/herself. What did I observe? A very large percentage of these siblings went on to become doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists. They turned their experience into something that would help others. They learned to be caregivers and they extended that caregiving to others.

Most of us are not challenged in such dramatic ways. Most of us have painful experiences that are transient. We can choose to allow them to immobilize ourselves in sadness or anger or grief or, after a reasonable time, we can transform them into directions that enrich ourselves and the people around us.

When people search for the meaning of God’s role in the world, I am often mindful of that specific type of transformation, for in reaching into the chaos of our lives and pulling out something positive and healing, we are joining with God in the work of Creation.

Photographs and Memories (with thanks to Jim Croce)

What does a modern grandmother do in honor of her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah? Well, of course there’s the gift which must be special and meaningful, but beyond that, what can she do to symbolize the significance of this day in her granddaughter’s life.

While her grandfather will have words of torah to share with her, and in his gentle and eloquent way, he will welcome her to the congregation of Israel, her grandmother, will be just as proud, but in a more private way.

I will be there beaming with joy because I will be seeing her join the chain of women who carried on the traditions of our people. And because I want her to understand just how momentous her role is and how she fits into this grand chain, I am working on a PowerPoint presentation for her.

I have been combing through literally hundreds of pictures and finding those which tell the story I want her to hear. I see once again my mother and my father who would have loved to see this day. Through their pictures, they are invited to be a part of this celebration. I include pictures of my grandparents on both sides whose joy would be unbounded. I include pictures of my husband’s parents as adults and as children and I know how proud they would have been. I include people I have never met—my husband’s sister who passed away at age sixteen and his grandparents and great grandparents. I include pictures of my paternal great-grandmothers. I am overwhelmed with the sense of connectedness I feel with these people and with my realization that I have not let them down.

I look through the pictures seeing smiles and laughter and love. I remember the warmth of my father’s smile, the wit of my mother’s humor, the softness of my grandmothers’ arms, the brightness of my grandfathers’ eyes. I see my own daughter growing from infant to toddler to child, pre-teen, teen, young woman, wife, and mother.

And I am grateful.

Will Hadas appreciate this? I think she will. She is caring and sensitive. But if not now, she will later, and perhaps she will add these pictures to the gift she will give her granddaughter someday as she becomes yet another link in the chain.

Building a healthy family

For many people, the words “home” and “family” have two meanings—one, the home and family that they have and the other, the home and family that they see as ideal. Frequently it is the discrepancy between those two concepts that causes people to feel dissatisfied. Parents and children may feel that something is missing from their family life that would make it better.

We know that love is basic to the happiness of families, but there are other elements that are necessary for people to feel safe, secure, and valued. These are: respect, trust, graciousness, generosity, tolerance, and forgiveness. These are not the only aspects of family life that are desirable, but together they make for safety and security in the family.

Respect must exist between spouses and among all family members. It is important to remember that each individual is precious even when we are angry with him or her. Anything that degrades or debases another family member must be avoided. That includes shaming children in front of others and name-calling or making fun of family members.

Trust is important not only between spouses who must share the tasks of family life and be able to trust that the other will fulfill his or her responsibilities, but it is also important that parents and children be able to trust each other. That means that lies and threats cannot be used to control children. Consequences of a child’s dangerous or unacceptable action should be clear and the child should be warned. If the child persists, then the consequences must follow. Children must be able to trust the people who care for them and that includes their being able to count on clear limits. In turn, children should be trusted by their parents. Children who are trusted from an early age become trustworthy adults.

Graciousness is a concept not often mentioned when discussing family life, but in fact, it is a very important one. There are many tasks family members must perform. It is possible to moan and groan about them, but if they are tasks which must be performed, then doing them with grace and a pleasant manner makes them not just tasks, but gifts which one gives to other family members. A change in attitudes toward tasks can make them seem more pleasant and can change the atmosphere of the home. Children too should be taught that it takes less energy to do a task with a smile that to fuss and complain about it.

Generosity has to do with not keeping a tally of who has done more for whom. If one expects to give only 50%, then one is always keeping a tally and since we each see the world only from our own eyes, it always seems as if we are doing more. Marriage is a 100-100 proposition. Each partner must believe that all of the responsibility for the happiness of the couple is on him or her. Then there will be only giving and not counting up and feeling used. The more family members give to each other, the more they will receive from others. This is because we all have an ingrained sense of fairness and we enjoy reciprocating love.

Tolerance for one’s spouse and children is a difficult thing to cultivate. We all like to think that everyone is like us– that we all work the same way. This simply is not so. It is clear that different people have different talents and interests, but the differences also extend to how we see and experience the world. Some people like to be with others. They enjoy going out and doing things with groups of people. Other people are more comfortable at home reading a book or listening to music. Some people like to plan and decide things well in advance. Others like to leave decisions to the last minute of to collect a lot of information before deciding. In a family, there are always such differences. In order for people to live together happily, they must appreciate their differences and learn that they bring strength to the family. Each child also has a unique way of seeing and living in the world. Parents must learn to treat each child as an individual in order to help the child develop in his or her own way.

Forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult of the elements to cultivate. There is a hard-wired need for fairness. If someone wrongs us, we feel it’s only fair to get something from that person to make up for what he or she has done. Maybe we feel that we should be able to hurt the person. Maybe we think we should embarrass him or her, or give the silent treatment, punishing him or her. All of those tactics are counter-productive in family life. In a family, the aim is to make sure that everyone is working together to achieve a healthy, normal, happy, productive, meaningful life. “Getting back” at someone sabotages that effort. It hurts both people and divides families. Forgiveness lets the relationship continue to develop and allows people to get closer and feel more loving and supportive of each other. People who are punished in retribution are able to justify their behavior. Most people, when forgiven, feel fortunate and are more likely to avoid making the same mistake.

Creating a family that is loving and kind is hard work. Sometimes it requires acting in ways that feel unnatural, but like an athlete, we need to keep our minds on the goal and not lose sight of it.


Let me tell you about Hadas.

Hadas is my oldest grandchild.

Hadas was born on a sunny Friday morning, 12 years ago, at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, Israel. As her mother, my daughter, gazed into the eyes of her firstborn, I began to experience the world in a totally new way. I saw in my daughter’s eyes a deep, encompassing maternal love. I heard in the way she spoke to her little baby, warmth and kindness. I saw in the way she held Hadas, her gentle touch. I knew Hadas was in good hands. I could trust this young mother who, it seemed, had only recently been my baby.

As the years have gone by, Hadas has given her family great deal of pleasure. We appreciate the fact that she is quick witted, intelligent, clever, and has a great sense of humor. When we spoke recently, I told her that I remembered her having devised a PowerPoint presentation when she was very young. She told me that at one point she was hired to teach her older cousin to use PowerPoint. I asked her how old she was then. She said that it was the year she was in kindergarten!

Only a few years ago did we recognize her talent at dancing as she danced both folk and jazz with a local troupe. Then, we were wowed by her singing—listening to her sing solos at school commemorations with a voice as clear as a bell and a poise that was impressive.

In less than two weeks, Hadas will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah. She has lived a Jewish life from the day of her birth. She has come to love the land of Israel and the study of Torah. She takes on her responsibility as a Jewish woman with devotion.

Yesterday Hadas and I went to Jerusalem. The streets and parks were filled with people as families spent chol hamoed together. In the Ben Yehuda walking area, sidewalk stands were selling tablecloths and Simchat Torah flags. Street musicians played keyboards and trumpets and violins and balalaikas. Off to the side of the walking area, there was a tent with a puppet show. Stores were crammed with merchandise and there was a festive atmosphere all around. We walked together and talked and ran some errands and had lunch and finally, late in the afternoon, after a very gentle, sweet day, we returned home.

I spoke to Hadas about the fact that she was about to become the next link in a chain of Jewish women through the ages. I referred to her great grandmothers and great-greats, and all of the women in the family who had come before her and spoke to her about how the gift I was giving her also was meant to be passed through the generations. And just as I had felt secure that she was in good hands with her young mother, I feel secure that our tradition is in good hands with this lovely child as she becomes a Jewish woman.

Ode to an Iron

This is a piece I wrote in 1995, just after I moved to Israel. It is written in loving memory of Mamie T. Lindsay.

I have just moved into my new house and I am ironing. It is not the first time I have ironed. Permanent press is not always permanent, and my daughters’ hair ribbons crease where they tie. But this time there is no TV to watch and no radio to listen to, and the items I am ironing are linen placemats and napkins.

They are ecru with blue edges. The placemats each have an appliquéd flower attached to them about two inches from the left side. They are sewn to the placemat on two sides so that a properly folded napkin will fit between the sewn areas and be held to the placemat by the flower. They are of a bygone era when women stood at ironing boards and spent time ironing such dainty items.

But today, as I iron the first napkin I begin to think about my childhood and how I watched with fascination as Mamie ironed. I would watch her strong yet graceful hands take a wrinkled pillowcase and make it lie flat and perfect. The steam would rise from the iron and the fresh scent coupled with the straightness and smoothness of the fabric touched my senses in a way that seemed to symbolize purity. I envied the power that lay in her hands which tamed the wild cloth and made it do as she bid. I wondered how it would feel when I would finally be able to iron.

Then I grew up and got married. The first week after our honeymoon I ironed my new husband’s shirts. Actually, I ironed only one shirt because I feared I would also burn the second and all subsequent shirts. His gentle comment was, “I’ll just take my shirts to the laundry.” The age of polyester dawned and women were liberated from ironing except for “touch-ups.”

As the years passed and I raised my children, moved around the country with my husband, and pursued my own study and career, I began to notice that I do my best thinking under two circumstances: when I am washing dishes and when I am in the shower. I thought water had something to do with it- a return to the womb or something, but today I know that is not true. In both cases I was fully involved in doing something which was automatic. Since the activity in which I was engaged required no higher thinking processes and my body was able to move without conscious thought, I was freed from external stimuli and able to think in a meditative way.

As I stand this evening, iron in hand, I think about all of the time for meditation and thinking I have missed by not ironing. I also think about all of the time that I was fortunate to have because I was for so many years, raising babies. I think of sitting and softly rocking my babies, holding them and being fully aware of their softness and their vulnerability and their potential and the amount of love it is possible to have for another person. It was at those times that the world became understandable. And now, as I iron, I meditate again.

Rona Michelson 1995

It’s painful to be a good parent

Helping families to solve their problems sometimes involves doing detective work. How did the problem arise? Why this problem? Why are they handling it the way they are?

One way of answering some of these questions is by taking a complete family history. One aspect of that history involves becoming acquainted, through my clients’ memories and stories, with the people in their families. This helps me to see patterns of behavior that tend to recur from generation to generation. It helps me to understand what my clients consider normal and functional behavior and what they see as problematic.

Once, a very long time ago in a place very far from here I had a family come to me with a problem. As they began to tell me about the people in their family, each description was the same: “s/he’s a wonderful person; s/he’ll do anything for you.” I began to wonder about their grasp on reality, but that’s a story for another time…

What did strike me was that they equated “wonderful person” with “will do anything for you.” Indeed, when we have friends, we know that we can count on them to help us out if we are in trouble. But is that true of a wonderful parent?

Well, many people will tell you that it is true also of a wonderful parent. This is the parents who meets all of the child’s needs, cleans the child’s messy room, brushes the child’s hair, helps the child with homework, picks up the child from school if it is raining, and puts the child’s needs before his/her needs.

Hmmm… I’m not so sure. What happens when the child is building with blocks and the tower gets wobbly? If mom or dad intervene, does the child ever figure out how to balance things better? Oh, the mother and father can teach him, but is that the same as his learning it by trial and error and strengthening his neural pathways and achieving a feeling of mastery? OK, I have clearly loaded the answer, because to me, a mother or father who does everything for their child is a mother or father who allows the child to miss the thrill of discovery and the sense of accomplishment that solving a problem can bring.

It is hard to see one’s child struggle with a problem. It is so much easier to go and solve it for him or help him to solve it, but the mother and father are not always going to be present. The child needs to have the confidence and the experience to solve problems in his life. He cannot carry mom and dad with him, but he can carry his ingenuity and creativity wherever he goes.

This is not to say that parents shouldn’t teach their child. Of course they should. They can teach problem solving by talking through how they themselves solve problems and to give the child examples of situations and help the child generate ideas about what could be done. However when a child is confronted with a challenge , often the best thing to do is to encourage him or her to think of solutions, to talk them out, perhaps to try them out. Trial and error at young ages are so much less painful and embarrassing than later in life when the child becomes aware of peers. Sending a child into the world with the ability to solve his/her problems and to think for him/herself is a gift that only a parent who learns to sit by and do nothing can give.