July 24, 2010

The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Jewish Guilt

When my husband and I decided to have a baby, we knew we couldn't just take a bottle of wine and some Barry White and make a night of it.  With M's cancer treatment, it was unsure if he would ever be able to go about things in the standard way, but we had a back-up plan banked at the hospital.  IVF it was, the least fun method of conception known to man.

During the build up to the IVF, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the process.  Not just because I was being stabbed repeatedly with needles on a daily basis, not because I was losing pints of blood a week to the endless tests at the clinic, and not because there was the mounting pressure associated with TRYING to get pregnant- an alien experience for certain.  It was all based on esoteric philosophy.

As a teenager, I was more than passively obsessed with the metaphysical.  I read extensively, wrote a great deal, and generally devoted my mental energy towards such pursuits as reconciling quantum physics and the Tao.  Of course, I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

If you'll excuse the extreme brevity of this explanation, according to Tibetan Buddhists, when you die your spirit/soul goes on a journey through the other world.  At the end of the journey you come to an area filled with coupling couples.  At this point, you choose your parents.  At the point of your conception.

Now, I don't know if I believe this.  I don't generally know what I believe on any given subject at any given time, but this idea resonates with me.  You chose your parents as an objective, other-wordly observer; at the moment when their love for each other should be most obvious and intense.

So why would a bodiless soul choose to be the child of somebody absent?  Who sees the petri dish and says, "I want THAT to be my parent!"  Nowhere in the Book of the Dead is the issue of in-vitro tackled, and I had to wonder... what kind of child could come of such a sterile conception?

Would the bodiless soul know that, in order to go through the arduous process of being conceived in a petri dish, the parents must be so full with love to give, so willing to welcome a new life into their home, that the petri dish becomes the ideal parent situation?  I didn't think so.  I somehow doubt that the bodiless soul has that much reason.  After all, there's really only a moment to choose.

Would I choose the petri dish?  I think not.  I think I would choose the couple in a loving embrace, holding each other close and obviously enamored of each other.  I would choose the couple whispering, "I love you," amid a tangle of limbs and bathed in each others sweat.  I would worry that a couple engaging in such clinical child production would be too rigid, too demanding for me.

Obviously, my concerns about who my child would be didn't stop me from going through the in-vitro.  but I still worried...  What child will want me if they can't see me to choose?

So I found myself the other night, rocking each of my daughters to sleep, one at a time, with their beautiful heads resting on my arm and their perfect little arms laying gently on my chest, and all of this came rushing back.  If these children, these perfect children, chose me to mother them there MUST have been a reason.  I can't imagine what it could be.  Right now, they are perfect.  I know, every mother thinks their child is perfect, but a baby is different from a child or an adult.  A baby IS perfect potential, a baby is untainted and unlimited.  I, as a mother and as a human being, am NOT perfect.  I looked at my daughters' faces, and I had to hold back tears.  At that moment the truth was painfully clear, I am going to fail them.

I am incapable of maintaining their perfection.  I am going to hurt their feelings, to force them to do things they don't want to do, to give them excuses to lie and to fight.  I am going to try harder than I have ever tried at anything in my life to teach these children to be better than me, but it's impossible.  Someday I will argue with them, and punish them, and every time I do their ability to be these perfect little people will lessen and lessen... because people cannot BE perfect.  We can only feel the nagging, endless guilt that we aren't.

And thus my life as a Jewish mother begins in earnest.  I know in my deepest soul that I will never be good enough for these children.  That for a person to decide that they want to be the child of faceless, potentially loveless strangers is an act of goodness beyond any act I have ever known.  For a child, no less two, to choose me and M as their parents was selfless and generous- the act of angels.

So, as all Jewish mothers before me, I believe that my children are no less than ethereal beings, sent to this earth for me to protect.  I'm going to screw it up.  I screw it up every day.  And thus my guilt.  Everything that they ever do wrong will be my fault, my failure.  Every tear they ever cry will be my responsibility.  Every injustice of life that ever occurs to them is my doing, because I am a mere mortal, and I am not as good as them.

Perhaps they can teach me, and in another life I will be so kind and so good as to believe in the potential of faceless strangers, and to put every bit of my trust and my faith in them.  Perhaps it is not so much my job to keep them good as to learn from them how to be good myself.

I will try, but the damage is done.  Every few weeks, or months, or years, I will weep my bitter tears for having failed to make myself the perfect mother that they deserve, in this world that will never be good enough.


  1. Perfection is more than we can ever expect of ourselves. What's more, perfection is more than any being, perfect or no, can expect of us.

    Your perfect little girls knew that when they chose you as their mother. They knew that you could never be perfect, and that as a result their perfection would falter.

    They chose you because you can learn from your mistakes. That you'll do your best. That your love for them would be perfect, which is more than most parents are capable of. Although there will be frustrations and arguments and tears, through it all your love for them will never falter, and neither will their love for you.

    You and M will be parents like my father is. Imperfect, yes, but still better than anyone could ever think to ask for.

  2. Abandon perfectionism. Love yourself and your children for who you are. Don't teach them to worry over past mistakes.

    Nobody I admire is perfect or even pretends to be perfect. I admire people for how they respond to their own problems and mistakes. Mistakes are gifts; that's how you learn.

    Not even superheroes are perfect beings, who can sing and paint and build and do quantum physics and decode genomes and fix your car and sew your dress and every other skill known to man. We each choose what's important enough to us to focus on.

  3. You've made me very curious ---- what is the Buddhist response to children who "choose" to be born from acts of rape or incest? While I can appreciate the belief that children choose their parents when their choices result in a happy family life, it sounds repulsive when you consider how many children are abused by their parents or were not planned by their mothers.

  4. Verity- something I've wondered myself. I think I may need to reread the Bardo Thodol and see if I can pick up some clues!

  5. What a beautiful and thoughtful way of envisioning how life begins! I love it, and I love you.

  6. verity, I was just going to ask the same thing.

    Also, for the record-- thinking that your children are perfect, ethereal beings? That's not just a Jewish thing, at all :-) Like all Jewish mothers, like all aethiest mothers, like all Christian mothers-- you know you're not perfect and that you will fail your daughters some day, and that's tough. But you're an amazing mother, and they are so, so lucky to have you.

  7. This whole guilt over not being perfect is really emotionally toxic in my experience.

    If they really did chose you in according to Tibetan lore, I'd have a hard time believing they wouldn't have any kind of glimpse of who you two were. That being said I don't think anyone who knows you wouldn't choose you as a mom. :)

  8. Your daughters are adorable. I'd never heard of that theory of rebirth, but it's kinda cool. We aren't ever perfect moms... but striving to be is a good thing. :)

  9. Wow - I love that you found your "you" - your "voice" in this post and I can hear it (and I like it!) You are one metaphysically curious, philosophical mama all rolled up into one guilty Jewish mama aren't you?
    You are at the start of your parenting journey. I have found that over the years as your children grow that voice inside you that tells you how much you will fail them dims as you see for yourself how they will blossom. I agree w. the other commenters - let go of the perfectionism. I believe like you that their souls chose us, they found us for a reason - but I also believe we are all of us (including the mommies!) spiritual beings sent to earth to have a temporary physical experience in which we learn things. This learning doesn't take place in a perfect world - it all takes place in an imperfect one. So give yourself some slack, mama! (-:

    PS: Thank you so much for linking up to our Blog Bash to help us celebrate our blogoversary. Looking forward to reading more of your posts. (-:



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