This Jewish sage holds the secret to staying sane as a parent

Leah Kadosh

This story originally appeared on Kveller.

“Yes” is not a word I get to say often. As a stay-at-home mom to my sweet girls, ages 4 and 7, “no” and its numerous variations — including, but not limited to, “Not today (or ever)”; “I don’t think that’s a safe idea”; “Maybe when you’re 18″; and my personal favorite, “Wait, you were serious?” — are phrases I find myself constantly repeating.

I was advised early on and by many not to be afraid to say no to my loves, as saying no was almost always more difficult to say than yes. There is great love in setting boundaries, limits and structure. And although I am not yet a master of no — or a master at anything else, for that matter — I do believe that my girls could tell you that I’m getting better at it.

Don’t get me wrong: I actually love saying yes and welcome the opportunity to say it to my girls as often as I can. Sometimes I’m surprised when they come up with an original idea that I can actually agree to — like when my little one asked for a pet, when all she meant was a fish. At those particular times, I can see on their adorable faces that my enthusiastic, affirmative answer makes them think, “Well, I didn’t want it that much” or, better yet, “I should have asked for something else.”

I regret, however, that my increasing comfort with saying no began to leak into my personal life — I realized recently that I was placing unnecessary boundaries and limitations on myself. A friend would ask if we could get coffee or lunch while our children were at school and, as much as I wanted to say yes, I would almost automatically say no. It was a weekday, I’d reason, and I had piles of laundry to contemplate folding, recipes to ruin, errands to run, appointments to be late for and so on. If I had time to do something fun (for myself), then surely I’d end up slacking in all these other departments.

I know I’m not alone here; we parents are ingrained to feel guilty when doing something solely for ourselves. And while I fully believe that our children should come first, why do we feel the need to come last? Would it not be better for us to find some sort of balance between complete selflessness and the overindulgence we didn’t even realize we had before having children?

All of this focus on balance came to fruition a few months ago when I happened to catch a rerun of “Jeopardy!” The answer to a question was our sage Hillel’s famous quote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Although the second part of our famous scholar’s quote was missing —  “If I am only for myself, who am I?” — Hillel’s wisdom from nearly 2,000 years ago could not be more relevant and poignant for our world today.  

Seeing Hillel’s quote reminded me that finding balance is a challenge and a sacred work in progress.  

I used to believe there was honor in denying myself any semblance of a social life once I became a mom. I trust my story is relatable to many: I went from working full-time to a stay-at-home mother, and I poured myself fully into this important role. But with motherhood as my new employment, when did my “work day” end? Would I be able to take sick days? Vacation days? What about Summer Fridays? 

Since I was no longer working in an office, I became my new — and, honestly, worst — boss. I felt guilty doing my new job solely from home, in comfy clothes, taking frequent yogurt breaks and “just” playing with my newborn. After all, since napping while my baby slept was permitted during the day, how could I justify treating myself to social gatherings? 

And then (finally) it hit me: Although my new position was the most rewarding job I’d ever had, it was also super hard! From being up all night, to nursing, pumping, cleaning, cooking, playing, coordinating playgroups, making doctor’s appointments and so on, motherhood was an actual full-time job that deserved the respect and prestige I had felt in my last profession. And just like I took advantage of my work-free hours as a young professional in the city, I also was entitled to some personal, battery-charging moments in my new career.

I am proud to say that since this realization (thanks, Hillel!), my life has changed. I have put yes back into my vocabulary — and, what’s more, I don’t even feel that guilty about it! 

What’s my secret to these guilt-free “indulgences?”

I realized that when I enjoy interactions with adult family members and friends, I become a better mother. I learn from everyone; I seek advice and shamelessly ask other parents I admire how they “do it.” I walk with friends and enjoy conversation and exercise. I attend parenting classes and networking events. I take advantage of Moms’ Night Out events coordinated by school and synagogue, and I enjoy sharing post-bedtime dinners with friends. And wayyyy too many fancy chopped salads later, I feel that I am finally getting my footing in this incredible balancing act we call life.

So if you want to try the new peppermint mocha latte with a friend before the New Year’s drinks replace it, go ahead! Enjoy it! As Hillel would advise, “If not now, when?”