Review by Ivy Rutledge
– Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is a refreshing voice in the realm of parenting books and spiritual autobiography. Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting blends memoir, theology, and humor in a way that will leave you with an enriched outlook on your life with children of any age. As the mother of two young sons, Ruttenberg experiences the full range of chaos and joy that they offer her. She skillfully weaves discussions of theology through her descriptions of daily life, showing readers how her Jewish tradition laid the groundwork for the spiritual practice of parenting.
Nurture the Wow is organized into ten chapters, each looking through a thematic lens at the following questions: “What can religious and spiritual traditions teach parents? What can parents teach religious and spiritual traditions? How is parenting a spiritual practice in its own right?” (13). Ruttenberg describes how “every act has the potential to release holy sparks—aspects of the transcendent—into the universe,” (62) and she goes on to show how our mundane acts of parenting have this potential, provided we approach them with the right mindset. She asks, “Can we even hear the love and longing from the pint-sized voice screaming in our ear for our attention as we try to clean up the food on the floor while also wrangling a squirmy baby? Can we find some tiny specks of light scattered somewhere within ourselves to help us when we respond?” (63). Provocative questions married to authentic experiences fill each chapter, showing us how we can seek the answers in our own lives.
Yet, Ruttenberg doesn’t preach or claim to have all the answers. To the contrary, she expresses humility in the face of harrowing moments. She recounts an experience that all parents of young children have had at least once—staying up all night with a sick, crying baby, cleaning up vomit, changing sheets, just barely hanging on: “All I wanted to do was scream or run away or crawl into the Cone of Silence Where Nobody Needs Anything from Me” (132). She says, “I whispered, almost inaudibly, Help me. Suddenly, everything shifted. I could feel myself relaxing, and finding some compassion for my sick kid. I remembered that I loved him and that I was the grown-up and that we were going to be OK” (132). Her meditation on the power of prayer moves beyond religious traditions, offering a way into those “hard, uncomfortable feelings” by helping you to “name what’s happening, and to pour it out to the great transcendent beyond—to turn your isolated feeling into something that connects you, that binds you to something bigger” (134).
These lessons speak to me as the mother of two teenagers. The spiritual work of parenting keeps going, even after the physical work has lightened. Truly connecting with teens requires a level of empathy that challenges so many of us. Ruttenberg wisely offers the ideas of Dana Jack, saying “You need to be in a solid place in order to let go of yourself to fully encounter someone else. Real empathy, she suggests, involves finding another without looking for yourself there—seeing who they are as themselves, not as a projection of your own stuff” (225). Early in the book Ruttenberg frames the relationship between parent and child as an I-Thou relationship, defined by Martin Buber, a 20th-century Jewish theologian. In Ruttenberg’s words, “I-Thou relationships are ones, in other words, in which we endeavor to see the other, and to accept them for who they are, right now, in this moment, today. Ones in which we ask: ‘Where are you?’ ‘What are you going through?'” (26).
Stopping in our most frustrated, exhausted moments to ask these questions can be a challenge, but they are a necessary challenge if we are to grow spiritually. In a world that wants us to go faster and do more, Ruttenberg offers a contrasting way forward. She shows us how to slow down and be present with our children. For those of us finding our way through the dense jungle of parenting, Nurture the Wow is our compass.
Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting
by Danya Ruttenberg
Flatiron Books, 2016, $24.99 [hardcover] ISBN 9781250064943
Originally from Rhode Island, Ivy Rutledge lives in the Piedmont of North Carolina. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches workshops on commonplace books, creative writing, and nature journaling. Her writing has appeared in The Sun, Home Education, Mom Egg Review, The New Southerner, and Ruminate.