Connecting With My Child and My Jewish Identity in the Midst of Trauma

October 23, 2023Crystal Hill

On Saturday, October 7, on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, I received a text from my mom. My two-year-old had settled down for his nap at long last and I was getting ready to do the same thing. However, when I saw the notification, I opened the message, thinking that I might as well respond before going to sleep. "Did you know that this morning Hamas invaded Israel and Israel has declared war?" I immediately opened WhatsApp to ask my friend who lives in Jerusalem how she and her family were doing. After she confirmed that they were safe, I called my mom and thanked her for her text, assuring her that there hadn't been any antisemitic attacks near me, as she had already heard that congregations in North America stepping up their security out of caution.

The week that followed was a whirlwind. I was writing posts and communications for the URJ about what was happening in Israel, editing previously scheduled pieces to make sure they were updated and addressed the war in Israel, checking news sites and the local time in Israel, and doing what I could to spread information about those who were taken hostage or were among the missing.

I eventually realized that I was exhibiting trauma responses and wasn't handling things nearly as well as I had thought (or hoped) I was. My brain felt as though it had completely disconnected. My usual way of waking up my brain, doing something creative, felt as far beyond my current capabilities as building a rocket to the moon. I also noticed that if I felt that there was the slightest chance of conflict, I would immediately go into "fawn" mode. In hindsight, I was trying to preemptively smooth things over so that I didn't end up damaging relationships by accidentally saying something that I didn't mean or that was overly harsh. I also noticed that because I was living with a constant mental fog, I was losing my ability to perceive how much time had passed. On Tuesday evening, I looked up from the news site I was scrolling to see that it was 2:00 in the morning...and I was wired. I ended up staying up until around 2:00 in the morning every day for the rest of that week.

I found myself feeling grateful that I didn't have to explain the attacks or the war in Israel to my young child while I was dealing with the effects of brain fog and insomnia. As long as snacks are on the table and he has his favorite teddy bear nearby, all is well in his world. After reading about babies and toddlers who had been murdered or taken hostage, I began looking up from my work more often to reassure myself that my own son was happily and safely playing with his blocks or looking through one of his books. As I watched him play, my mind would drift to mothers in Israel whose toddlers were no longer able to do so. My heart broke for the parents and young children who were caught in the crossfire of the war for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the week wore on, I began to notice my son showing more empathy than I would have thought was reasonable to expect. He began climbing up next to me for snuggles, asking me to read to him, and generally (though he didn't realize it) helping me distract myself from my reflections on the tragedies that were unfolding on the other side of the world. Thankfully, he wasn't curious as to why I suddenly needed more cuddles. He was just content that it meant watching fun movies and getting lots of kisses on the top of his head.

As I held him, I realized that even though I don't need to have answers right now, I know there are lots of questions he'll have that I'll need to be prepared to answer in a couple short years. Thankfully, I've also learned that saying "I don't know" is perfectly valid when questions arise that I'm not immediately able to answer.

Even though my toddler doesn't realize it, he wound up playing a big part in helping get my brain back "online." For me, cuddling and finding things to do that centered on him helped ground me in the present moment and gave me an outlet to feel productive. I also found Jewish parenting groups on Facebook to be incredibly helpful. Reading about how other parents were addressing their kids' questions helped me realize that the most important thing is to make sure that my son always feels safe, secure, and proud of his Jewish identity. When I noticed that I was already laying the foundation for those things by cuddling, giving him affection, and watching/reading kid-friendly Jewish media together, I felt much better about my ability to help him navigate his feelings as he grows.

I also found ways to cope with my own stress. Not checking social media or news sites on Shabbat gave my brain the break it needed to reset, as did unplugging from technology at a set time every night so that I had time to just unwind and connect with what was going on around me. Finally, I realized that exerting control over my own environment goes a long way toward helping me feel less powerless (even if that means deep cleaning my home). Finding ways to take care of myself and connect with others has helped me reconnect with myself so that I can better connect with my family, my Jewish identity, and Israel.

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