This year, as usual, when my children asked me, "What do you want for Mother's Day?" I was stumped. How could anything - a pair of earrings, even a flowering plant - compare with the best gift I ever got?
When my first child was born, I had been studying religion in academic settings for 12 years. I had a rabbinical degree and the better part of a doctorate in religion. I had read many theologians - Jewish and Christian, Muslim and Buddhist.
Yet as I nursed my daughter through long, gray nights, I would gaze into her big, expectant eyes and panic. What did I have to teach her about what really mattered?
During those 4 a.m. feedings, I gradually figured out one thing: All the theology I'd studied would not tell me how to raise my children. But it might work in reverse. The best theologians, I noticed, had done some fieldwork in living. I would do mine at play groups.
For years, I sat at kitchen counters, on living room sofas, on playroom floors. I questioned mothers about what they did all day - at special times and at ordinary ones. And I asked what they learned about their spiritual lives from being parents.
"A spiritual life?" the first mother shrieked. "I'm up to my elbows in peanut butter sandwiches. Get back to me in 10 years." Another advised me to interview ministers and rabbis, because "they actually have spiritual journeys."
But I soon found that after some initial protest, it turns out that living with small children is a crash course in all the great religious themes - grace, creation, forgiveness, mystery.
But how does a weary mom find the wonder amid the whining, worry, and work?
Rituals and traditions - inherited, discovered, or invented - seem to help. One morning, Janet watched the sun rise with her four-year-old daughter and sensed, in a way she never had before, that the world was being reborn before her eyes. Her daughter chimed in, "Mom, when the world was first created, it probably looked just like this morning."
Janet chose to make that event part of her daily routine, at times adding a song or a poem. Along with her child, she had found a language beyond words to say that the world is as pregnant with meaning as the sunrise with the day.
Our traditions tell us that when we eat, we should say thanks. Lois wanted her children to sit at the table at dinner time and taught them to say a short blessing before they ate.
One night, her eight-year-old was furious after a difficult violin lesson. She was screaming, crying, fuming. She was also hungry. So she went to the table, angrily grabbed a piece of bread, and stuffed it in her mouth - but not before grumbling, through clenched teeth, "Thank you, God, for giving us bread."
Lois couldn't help but burst out laughing. Soon her daughter was laughing, too. How bad could life really be if they were blessed with bread? Their thanksgiving routine was so strong, it triumphed against the grain of the angry moment - and uplifted it. Both mother and daughter learned their gratitude is not about perfection - that giving their thanks is not always about feeling thankful. Sometimes, it is a way to create an inner shift.
Parents constantly find ways to transform the drudgery of the daily care of children into opportunities for spiritual experiences. Spirituality is not something huge, distant, and illusive. Rather, it is tucked into the ordinary moments of waking, eating, giving a bath, or tucking a child into bed.
Raising children, of course, is different from other spiritual practices. Once we embark, we cannot turn back, decide some other option might be more fulfilling, give back the baby and sign up for a yoga class. For better or worse, this is our path for years to come. If you and your child can reach into your past to give new meaning together to a song, a ritual, or a prayer to grace your journey, it may turn out to be the Mother's Day gift of a lifetime.