Tale of two women

new york | The woman seated to my left at table No. 40 captured my interest immediately. Fortysomething, wearing a long, dark-haired wig and loose, flowing clothes, she sat quietly at the table, nursing an infant while pushing around vegetables with the fork in her free hand.

It was a Monday night, and we were at the wedding of a distant relative of my husband’s. The crowd was largely Israeli-born and Orthodox; in other words, I knew few people in attendance. Having already greeted the cousins, aunts and uncles whom I did know, having danced a set of horas and bestowed best wishes upon the families of the bride and groom, I was frankly starting to feel restless, if not downright bored.

Feeling like a wallflower, I turned my attention fervently to my food. As I was digging into my second helping of hummus and spicy eggplant salad, a woman with a fussy infant appeared to my left.

Perhaps it was my hunger for companionship or my maternal draw to the unhappy child, but the moment the woman settled herself in her seat, curiosity coursed through me. Surreptitiously, I watched her remove the child from its carriage and place it on her lap. The child’s face was mottled, her gaze feverish. Patiently, the woman brushed the hair back from her face, talked to the infant in soothing tones and arranged her careworn leather pocketbook on the back of her seat. The child was beginning to wail searchingly, turning to place two hands on its mother’s face. “So that’s what you want,’ the woman chuckled softly, and swiftly maneuvered the child to nurse at her breast.

Though a nursing mother myself, I instantly recognized that this woman possessed something I seem to have in short supply, as of late — tranquility. Attending social engagements lately with my nursing child, now an adventurous toddler, is anything but a relaxing experience as he repeatedly attempts to dive down the front of whatever I am wearing and emerge with my nipple in his hand.

But even without the presence of my toddler or two older children, I often feel the aura of restlessness clinging to me. I wonder if I am exuding the essence of a madwoman. There was about this woman: an alluring, but by no means boring, sense of calm. Everything about her bespoke reassuring motherhood.

Turning to each other almost telepathically, we made our introductions, realizing with surprised laughter that we possessed the same first name.

Does the baby have older siblings? I asked. Yes, the woman replied. Knowing better than to ask how many, I asked how old her other children were. Discreetly, I counted on my fingers as the woman rattled off eight numbers. Oh my God! I erupted, despite myself. You’ve got three times as many children as I do!

All right, I said, moving my chair closer, leaning toward her in dead earnestness. I want you to explain to me how you manage nine children! How do you keep track of their schedules? Don’t they all clamor for your attention? Don’t you feel torn in 10 different directions?

And how can you possibly make time for each of them, give them your full nurturing, your problem-solving attention? How do you remember their big events, their parent-teacher conferences? How do you remember their birthdays, for heaven’s sake!

Far from challenging her, my words were a plea for instruction, a cry for help.

The business of meeting the needs of my three children, of making sure that each is adequately mothered, consumes me. Between the volatile temperament of my adolescent son, the insatiable physical — and emotional — appetite of my toddler son, I sometimes hurdle over the head of my 9-year-old daughter, who is admittedly well-adjusted but just as needful of my mothering.

In the evenings, I sometimes feel like I roll from bed to bed, reading, singing, nursing, tucking in, saying the Sh’ma, analyzing a hurtful comment from an erstwhile friend, strategizing to gain favor in the eye of a diffident teacher. Though it is delicious, the process often leaves me exhausted.

So, I said, turning to this other Shira. Here I am whining about spreading myself out over three children, whose births are spaced, incidentally, over 11 years, and you’ve got three times the challenge in a much more condensed time period! You look normal, you look high-functioning, even. Please, tell me how you do it.

And so the other Shira spoke, telling me of her long-ago decision to stop working outside the home, of coming to terms with child-rearing as her career. Smiling, she said children sometimes thrive in the absence of so much parental concern, that growing up amid many siblings had its advantages for kids.

But mothering many children is hard work, she agreed; it is often tiring. Organization helps. Having help helps. And the older siblings help.

Our dinner conversation ended with a warm invitation from the other Shira to have our family visit for a Shabbat. Excitedly, I accepted on the spot, eager to learn at the knee of this supermom, this gentle progenitor of nine.

I know that there are basic differences between us, that she, for example, would probably not plunge into a deep depression if deprived of her gym for two consecutive days, that she probably doesn’t consider reading novels in the bathtub essential to her emotional well-being.

But I figure that even if I absorb one-third of the lesson she has to teach, I’ll emerge from the visit a far better mother of three.