Mother with her child in her lap


Having Kids Changed How We Observe Yom Kippur And That’s OK

Sep 12, 2018

In 2011 on Kol Nidre, the evening that begins the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, I went to synagogue alone. Nothing felt normal. Although adults don’t eat or drink for 25 hours on Yom Kippur, I couldn’t fast. And I wasn’t with my husband. Even though I’d apologized to my friends and family for my mistakes and tried hard to reflect, it wasn’t the same. I’d rushed to get to synagogue, to hear the haunting melody of Kol Nidre. This is an important prayer that releases us from vows we’d made in the past year that can’t be kept. This part of the service is so quiet, serious and sacred that many congregations don’t let people in or out of the sanctuary until after it’s over.

Even though Judaism, like most religions, offers flexibility for new parents, I’d felt I could do everything as I’d done it before.

My breasts filled up with milk and hurt powerfully. I felt an uncomfortable, primal need to get home. Through a haze of sleep deprivation, I rushed out. I fled down the street, passing latecomers as the services began. My husband was at home with our twin infants. We’d agreed — taking turns was the only way we’d make it to high holiday services.

Everything changes when you have kids. People say this, but until I experienced it deep down, I didn’t believe it. I could manage to do it all. Sure, I could.

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Even though Judaism, like most religions, offers flexibility for new parents, I’d felt I could do everything as I’d done it before. I liked the way I’d observed this holiday before twins. In the weeks before Yom Kippur, there was an opportunity to reflect and evaluate how I’d behaved in the last year, to speak with and apologize to those close to me who I might have failed. It was an essential part of my yearly calendar.

I love the metaphors and the holiday’s communal nature. On Yom Kippur, the community seeks forgiveness for everything anyone could have done. There’s a long list — for instance: adultery, gluttony, and even being "stiff-necked" (stubborn). Why? You can’t wipe the slate clean until you face what you’ve done individually and as a community. Jewish tradition says we’re all written down in a Book of Life. It’s only after this process of reflection and repentance that we get to be inscribed in next year’s book.

In time though? You get something new. Things I took for granted, like sitting still through a service — those things disappeared.

Those first holidays with twins were one of many slap-in-the-face kinds of wake-up calls. We (all three of us) had health struggles. My twins didn’t sleep through the night until they were four-and-a-half-years-old. However, Yom Kippur is about humility and gratitude. I can’t “do it all.” (My life will never be the same as it was before kids.) We have to admit we’re flawed individuals who make mistakes and be grateful for what we do have, and for the opportunities ahead to try again and do better.

Parenthood strips us of a lot of things we take for granted. There were so many basics that I assumed we’d always get. But for us, parenting twins, there is a new normal. There are many times when we ignore hunger, exhaustion or going to the bathroom. Our kids need us. There’s no decent rulebook for it. No matter how many books you read on it (and I read before having twins!), nothing prepares you for what you give up.

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In time though? You get something new. Things I took for granted, like sitting still through a service — those things disappeared. Having babies and young kids meant my husband and I went to synagogue when we could. We both came and left when we had to, and no matter how traditional or liberal the congregation, everyone understood.

But I also get to see my kids learn and interact with a yearly religious ritual which I find deeply meaningful. Even as young preschoolers, my boys turned to each other, hugged and apologized. They found ways to explain something they’d done wrong in the past year, and decided on a plan to try to grow and change. Our family made commitments towards each other, and to being better people in each new year.

Now, I’m in my forties and I end up attending only an hour or two of the family service. However, my kids sing and dance along. They’re often the first to raise their hands when asked why we’re there and how it’s meaningful. 

For me, this is what it’s all about. I do miss the intellectual immersion, but I hear that someday, my kids will be old enough to sit through an adult service and maybe discuss it later. In the meanwhile, I’ve learned so much about accepting where I am — warts, faults and all.

It’s traditional to wish everyone a happy, healthy new year. So happy 5779! May the new year be a good year for you, no matter where you are on your parenting journey. (And yes, we all make mistakes. Good thing there’s a holiday for that!)

Article Author Joanne Seiff
Joanne Seiff

Joanne Seiff is a freelance writer, knitwear designer and the author of three books, including Knit Green: 20 Projects & Ideas for Sustainability. She lives with twin boys, two bird dogs and an absent-minded biology professor in an old house in Winnipeg. When she’s not writing, herding children or walking dogs, she’s designing kids’ sweaters with sheep on them.

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