How including my children in Shabbat preparations changed our relationship.
Thank God, our lives are busy with good things. But raising four young children, I sometimes used to feel like a conveyor belt operator, rather than a mother. I would shuffle my children from getting dressed to school to homework to baths to bed, barely connecting with them because of our busy and varied schedules. Then I stumbled upon an idea to change all that, thanks to a healthy dose of sleep deprivation. Let me explain.
My 3-year-old, Meir, was playing happily with his Legos when suddenly he was gripped by a paralyzing terror. He dropped the Legos and ran to me, screaming, “Mommy, mommy!” He clutched my skirt so tightly that his little knuckles turned white.
“What’s wrong, Meir? What’s bothering you?” I asked in as calm a voice as I could muster.
I knew that’s what he would say. It’s the same thing he had been saying for the past year, as these dizzy spells had become more frequent and increasingly mystifying. I looked into Meir’s eyes as the doctor had instructed me. I listened to his breathing and felt his pulse. I checked this and that. But, no, it didn’t look like a seizure, a migraine, or even motion sickness. What was bothering him?
Helplessly, I held my sweet little boy in the security of my arms for a minute or so until the dizziness left him. I silently prayed that my little boy should be freed from these unexplained terrors. Then he pushed my arms away, slid off my lap, and happily returned to his game.
These episodes had become our new normal in the past year. Meir would be gripped with a sudden, paralyzing dizziness that he would always describe as “turning.” Either the room was turning, the car was turning, or his bed was turning. The episodes initially struck him about once a month, but as they became more frequent, so did our visits to the pediatrician, and eventually a neurologist, in search of answers. Meir now insisted on sleeping on the floor for fear his bed would “turn” during the night.
The initial tests came back normal, thank God. It wasn’t a terrible illness, but it wasn’t a simple ear infection or blood pressure problem either.
I needed to keep a 3-year-old awake until at least 3 a.m., 8 hours past his bedtime.
The neurologist scheduled Meir for a sleep-deprived EEG to rule out seizures and migraines. He was allowed a maximum of four hours of sleep the night before the test. Translation: I would have to keep a 3-year-old (and myself) awake until at least 3 a.m. That’s 8 hours past his bedtime!
The test was scheduled for a Friday morning, so Thursday night would be our near all-nighter. Thursday night also happens to be the night I cook for Shabbat. I usually avoided including my children in my cooking because they slowed me down. I had limited prep time and needed to maximize my efficiency in the kitchen. But that night we had many hours stretched out in front of us, so I could “afford” to include Meir in all the little tasks I saved for when the children were asleep, like cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
We spent the first few hours cooking. I let him sprinkle the spices on the chicken and roll the challah dough into snakes for braiding. Meir peeled the vegetables for the soup, mixed the batter for the apple kugel, and formed balls of dough for the chocolate chip cookies. I even let him lick the bowls afterwards (a forbidden pleasure). One by one his older siblings (and then his father) had marched off to bed and still Meir was awake by my side. He reveled in the news that tonight there would be no bedtime.
After Shabbat was all prepared, we moved on to other chores. We folded a few loads of laundry and washed the dishes together. We packed the other kids’ school lunches and set out their uniforms for the next day. I even let my little guy clumsily use the mop on the living room floor.
And in the midst of all this unpleasant work, something changed. Somewhere between midnight and 3 a.m., in the middle of our laundry folding, Meir took my face in his pudgy little hands and gave me a slobbery kiss on the cheek. “I love you,” he said. “You’re the best mommy in the whole wide world.”
He said it over and over again for the next few days. “I love you, Mommy,” “Can I give you another kiss, Mommy?”
He said it again a half-hour later as we washed the dishes, and again when we were preparing lunches. He said it over and over again for the next few days, sounding like a broken record. “I love you, Mommy,” “You’re the best, Mommy,” “Can I give you another kiss, Mommy?”
I loved hearing it, of course, and I knew exactly where it came from. It came from the quality time we spent together that late night. It came from having Mommy all to himself, from the good feelings that came with helping me, from the sense of accomplishment he had when I served the soup and kugel he himself had prepared.
And so a new family tradition was born. I call it “Mommy Thursdays.” Each Thursday night, one of my children gets to stay up an hour (or even two, sometimes) past his bedtime. He has me all to himself as we cook together for Shabbat, do the laundry, and clean up the house. I use the one-on-one time to talk to my kids about school, friendships, and their lives. We bond over vegetable peels. It’s also a great opportunity to teach my children how to do chores like washing dishes and folding laundry because they actually look forward to the privilege of Mommy Thursdays and there’s nobody else around to make them feel self-conscious about how neat a job they’re doing. We have a chart posted near our calendar that keeps track of whose Mommy Thursday it is each week, and I find my children counting down the days until it’s their turn to help me with the chores. They look forward to doing chores!
Oh, and in case you’re wondering what happened with Meir’s EEG, I’m happy to report that the results were normal. I’m even happier to report that Meir’s dizzy spells have completely and suddenly disappeared. I assume that they were either his way of getting the undivided attention of his conveyor belt mommy (which he now has, thanks to Mommy Thursdays) or they were God’s way to teach me the importance of special time with my children. Either way, I’m paying attention now.
A version of this article was originally published in Binah Magazine