After touring colleges with my second and final child this spring break, I am suddenly aware that I am approaching the end of an era. Parenting has felt like an endless and all-consuming way of being for me, a role I took on with great joy in my thirties, after years as a journalist. In motherhood, I became a PTA President, a leader in our interfaith families community, the schools columnist for the town paper, and ultimately the author of a book on religion and parenting. I was the mom that other parents called for tips on negotiating the school system, or organizing an interfaith bar mitzvah, or finding the best music teachers.
Somehow, I am only just now realizing that this excellent 20-year adventure in mothering may turn out to be, if I am lucky, only a small fraction of a long life. My grandmother lived until 98, my father is working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations at 90, my mother plays the ukulele at 83. So my own period of day-to-day mothering may only fill a quarter, or a fifth, of my lifetime.
At 20 and 17, my children are moving quickly out of the orbit of my influence. I now realize a long list of things I did wrong as a parent: helicoptering, nagging, losing my temper, not reading enough books to them, and keeping them too close with padding and helmets and extra rules when faced by the threats of the hard physical world. It was over so quickly, and yes, I am sometimes filled with regrets.
But I do not regret the interfaith religious education we gave our children. As someone who is otherwise overly cautious, choosing to educate our children in both family religions was clearly my most rebellious parenting move. And that daring liberated and inspired me, and in turn, I think it liberated and inspired our children. The idea of interfaith education for interfaith children remains my passion project. Six months after the publication of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I have a long list of places around the country and the world where I want to continue the interfaith families conversation. In a sense, my work on Being Both means extending my role as mother beyond my own family.
On this Mother’s Day, as on every other Mother’s Day, my own mother remains my inspiration. This year, Beacon Press is focusing on the activist roots and more inclusive spirit of what some now call Mamas Day. As a young child, I witnessed my mother volunteering in classrooms, helping to organize school events, and stomping into the Principal's office to demand change. I was an introvert, and her presence at school was sometimes embarrassing, but I now realize that she was modeling for me what I think of as an essential form of parent activism: helping to create a better education for all children.
Then, in midlife, my mother transformed herself into an artist who went on to have shows and win prizes. Her story now pushes me to go deeper and higher in my second half-century. And as someone who has mastered the iPad and the art of the pithy Facebook comment in her eighties, she models for me an old age connected by love to our extended family, and by curiosity to the wide, wide world. And finally, as a Comparative Religion major who applied to a Protestant seminary, married a Jewish man, and now dotes on her Jewish, Catholic, and interfaith grandchildren, she has inspired me to claim my whole interfaith heritage, and to pass those teachings on to my own children, and someday, I hope, my own grandchildren.
Susan Katz Miller's book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family was published last fall. Her New York Times Op-Ed on the subject received over 600 comments, and she has been speaking across the country on interfaith children and complex religious identities.