This is Growing Faith, a column about parenting and faith coauthored by Saadia Faruqi and Shoshana Kordova.
Saadia: The month of Ramadan is the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, when healthy adults fast from dawn to dusk every day for approximately thirty days. The Islamic fast is a complete fast, which means no food, water, or medication during the fasting hours. This can be tough for mothers, especially those with small children.
I’ve always loved fasting. It’s been a source of comfort during difficult times, a way to become closer to God when I need Him the most. All that changed when I had children. Nobody told me that small humans test your patience like nothing else, and that fasting does the same because you are hungry and thirsty and short of temper.
This is the main conundrum, really. On the one hand, parenting is supposed to be the best job in the world. One tradition of the Prophet Muhammad says, “Paradise lies under the feet of the mother.” On the other hand, the act of being a mother lends itself to being constantly barraged with noise, demands, and tantrums. Now, more than a decade after I first became a parent, there are snippets I remember of each Ramadan: Eating suhoor (the early morning breakfast before the start of the fast) with my baby daughter clutched in one hand. Praying the optional tahajjud prayers in the dark to avoid waking the children up. Anger at my son’s high-energy behavior that makes me shout at him, realizing as I do that the anger is caused by hunger, not my son. The headaches because of their noise level. The impatience with the people I have the most cause to be grateful for.
The Prophet Muhammad also said, “If a person does not avoid false talk and false conduct during the fast, then God does not care if he abstains from food and drink.” Most glaring are the memories of despair that another Ramadan has passed without the patience and peace that it demands.
Shoshana: The best-known of Judaism’s six fast days, Yom Kippur lasts twenty-five hours, from one evening to the next; in Orthodox communities, much of that time is spent in synagogue. Fasting can send different messages depending on the type of fast day. On Yom Kippur, we free ourselves of material needs—leather shoes and bathing and sex are prohibited along with food and drink—and concentrate on the spiritual task of repentance. On Tisha B’Av, Judaism’s other twenty-five-hour doozy of a fast, which comes at the height of summer, the same restrictions are a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
Even if you have never gone a day without eating and drinking, you may have observed that the neediness of children does not take a twenty-five-hour hiatus. If anything, children, whose fasting obligations begin only when they become a bar or bat mitzvah at age twelve (for girls) or thirteen (for boys) can seem not just hungry on Yom Kippur, but as insatiable as the whale that swallows Jonah in the section of the Bible recited at the Yom Kippur afternoon service. Look down the rows of worshipers, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find mothers of small children not armed with snack bags.
On most Jewish holidays, the festive meal tends to receive a disproportionate amount of emphasis, so eliminating food preparation and consumption can help shift our focus to prayer and self-reflection. But fasting doesn’t necessarily mean you stop thinking about food (or coffee). It can mean you imagine what you’d like to consume (I’ll start with the pasta! No, with the ice cream!). It can mean you feel lightheaded and tired, and find it difficult to concentrate. It can make the sound of a whiny “Imaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” even more grating than usual. It can make you impatient with your children and unreasonably annoyed at having to provide them the sustenance they require. When that sustenance comes not from the fridge or the cupboard but from your own body, the mission becomes still more complex. A mother once told me that nursing her baby while she was fasting made her feel like her son was sucking the life out of her.
Saadia: My son is now eleven and has been trying his hand at fasting since last year. Although children are not allowed to fast continuously, it is considered beneficial for them to practice as much as possible. Last year he kept half-fasts on the weekends, which meant eating the suhoor breakfast in the morning at 4:30 a.m., then fasting until lunch time. This was easy. Many kids sleep much of their fast away, but it still allows them to feel part of this important tradition.
This year my son plans to practice half-fasts for several days, perhaps one every other day. He is skinny and not a food lover, so I suspect that skipping breakfast will be no big deal. But I’m noticing the same irritability and lack of patience that comes with my own fasts. It is difficult to be angry at this very human trait, but it can be a lesson that fasting isn’t a joke or an easy task.
My daughter is younger, and she won’t be practicing for a couple of more years. But I’ve decided to make her fast from snacking, which will be great for her. She is a snack addict, and is unable to stay long without peering into the kitchen pantry for yet another yummy delight. If I can wean her away from these unhealthy habits in Ramadan, it will be goal accomplished!
Shoshana: When I was a kid and we went to my grandparents’ house in Queens for Yom Kippur, they’d stock up on the sugary snacks we rarely, if ever, got to have at home. It was too hard to say no to the Devil Dogs and Ring Dings, even when I was old enough to feel kind of iffy about indulging in treats when all the grown-ups around me were abstaining even from water.
There’s a different kind of indulgence you crave after you give birth to a baby: rest, maybe even sleep. Especially if you’ve discovered said baby has no idea that “day” and “night” are two separate things. Oddly enough, it was the first Yom Kippur I experienced as a parent, nearly a decade ago, that made me feel so rested and refreshed (not the usual adjectives one associates with either the Day of Atonement or new parenthood). Even now, I sometimes try to hold on to the echo of that feeling.
Pregnant women and nursing mothers typically don’t fast during the four minor fast days that last from morning to night. But in Orthodox Judaism, if a woman’s fasting is not considered harmful to her own health or that of her fetus or infant, she is generally encouraged to refrain from eating and drinking on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av. Different rabbis reconcile these principles—the religious obligation of fasting and the importance of keeping vulnerable members of society healthy—in different ways.
We asked our rabbi what I should do on the Yom Kippur that took place less than a month after the birth of our oldest child. After clarifying that the doctor had said there was no medical reason not to fast, he suggested I go on what was essentially a shortened form of bed rest, with spousal assistance as needed, and to start drinking in small quantities if I felt my milk lessening. Stay in bed all day, don’t even walk around the house , I was told. The idea was to conserve energy so my body would keep producing what my baby seemed to think was the most addictive victual known to mankind.
And so it was that for the first time I could remember in twenty-nine years, I didn’t go to shul on Yom Kippur. With my husband coming home from services periodically to change or hold the baby, I stayed put and prayed in my bedroom. I nourished without being nourished. After a few weeks of life as a mother, getting a full day’s rest may have been the most spiritual experience I could have asked for.
Saadia: This year, Ramadan has been easier. Last week as my son sat at the table eating suhoor with me, eyes heavy with sleep, I was struck by a wave of emotion. How far we’ve all come from the days that his presence was a challenge to my fulfilling my own religious obligations! Now he is fasting with me, or at least practicing. Both my children stand with me in the mosque for afternoon prayers, serious in their worship for just a few moments. We break the fast together, my daughter helping lay the table, my son bringing in the samosas and kabob.
Now that the early years are passed, I can look back with more perspective. The impatience that comes to mothers who want to do their adult thing while their toddlers are wailing beside them is one real reason for Ramadan: I can use this month to hone my patience, to learn to bite my tongue, to close my eyes and count to ten just like I tell my children to do. If I can learn how to fast while parenting, perhaps I’ll have learned the whole point of Ramadan.