One of the earliest rituals I established with my son is saying bedtime prayers. I’m not sure when we started, exactly. I know we didn’t do it when he was a nursing infant, waking every couple of hours. But, by the time he was a toddler, it was already a nightly routine.
We begin by thanking God for everything that was special about the day now ending. We ask God to bless everyone in his family, by name, always in the same order. We sing the shema and the angel song. And then I sing the lullaby that we adapted from an old James Taylor song, and kiss him goodnight, and that’s that.
In recent days he’s shifted the language of his prayers. Not the shema or the angel song, but the “God bless…” section of the evening ritual. That litany used to begin with “Mommy and Daddy.” Then came both of his sets of grandparents, followed by “and all of my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, and everybody else, amen.”
Most of the litany is the same as it ever was. But recently he chose to add his father’s new partner to the prayer list. Then he decided he wanted to add our cat and his father’s new cat. The new litany begins with “Mom,” on a line by itself, followed by “Daddy and [Girlfriend].” Then come the two cats, then come the grandparents, then everybody else.
The change is subtle, but significant.
For my son, I think it bespeaks a sense of groundedness and comfort with his new family paradigm. He lives in two households now. He spends two weekends a month with his father and his father’s new partner, whom he likes a great deal. She’s part of his family now, and he wants God to bless her along with his father, and me, and the grandparents, and let’s not forget the cats. I’m grateful that he is comfortable with her and with the new shape of his family constellation.
For me, it’s a nightly reminder that I stand alone. Everyone else in the litany is paired — even the two cats, whom he has linked by virtue of their shared felinity. Every time he recites the names of his family, I confront, again, the reality that his father has re-partnered and I am alone.
There’s no value judgment in his nightly recitation. I don’t think it would occur to him that I might experience loneliness, and I’m grateful that he’s oblivious to that! It’s not his job to take care of me, or to manage (or even notice) my reaction. But I notice my reaction, night after night. And sometimes, after I’ve tucked him into bed, I ache.
Truthfully, it’s good for me to stand alone, for now. I began dating my ex-husband when I was seventeen; our first kiss was twenty-five years ago this week. It’s good for me to find out who I am when I’m not partnered, and when I’m not putting someone else first. It’s good for me to learn that I can stand on my own two feet. For a year and a half now I’ve lived on my own, paid my own bills, cooked my own food, chosen my own furniture, navigated life’s ups and downs without a partner. That’s good for me — I know that in my bones.
But I miss the comfort of knowing that there was someone for whom I came first, at least in theory. I miss the comfort of knowing that there was someone who had promised to care for me. I miss the comfort of my name being linked with another name, like all of the others in my son’s bedtime recitation.
For now, my work is to notice the feelings that come up when I hear my son’s eight-year-old voice intoning the list that begins with my singleton name. I notice the feelings, and I honor them, and then I do my best to open my hands and let them go. Feelings are real, and most of them are also transient. Loneliness comes and goes. The yearning to be cherished comes and goes.
But the love I feel for my son and my friends isn’t transient. It lasts, even when I feel most alone.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).