“In Confidence” Anonymous Series Round Up

January 22- 28 2019

“Do you ever take a look at your kid, and wonder where they came from?

Sometimes I look at my daughter, and I am bewildered by her. I was raised in a home where it was considered a virtue to be like our parents. Being referred to as a “mini” version of either my mom or dad was a compliment of the highest order. I guess that belies a truth about my parents and the concept of their own self-image.

So when my daughter was born, she looked just like me. The same big brown eyes, and curly blonde hair, and eventually when the freckles came, no one could deny that she was mine. I expected her to be tough and assertive, loud and funny. I thought she would be ambitious like me, confrontative and rebellious. I thought that since she was born in this modern age of advanced feminism, that she would have an easy path to being all the things that I was, but that I had to stifle as a young person. I thought she would be unapologetic and bold.

But she is none of those things.

My daughter is a sweetheart. Where I am moody, she is pure sunshine. When I am bold, she is timid. When I am confrontative, she is passive. When I am confident, she is insecure.

Sometimes I scratch my head and wonder- is she truly my child? Why did no one teach me to raise a child who was not a carbon copy of myself?

I was never appreciated for my individuality. My successes were often described by others, as a reflection of my parent’s skills. I just innately thought that this is what it means to mother. You get a do-over. Your child is born with the same skills and aptitudes. You have a grown-up perspective on the ways that those traits can be best developed. You share those pearls of wisdom with your kid, and help guide them through life. Maybe, in that way, you get a second chance to do it right.

But parenting my daughter is nothing like that. I don’t innately know the insides and outs of what she needs. I don’t always know how to help her engage with the problems she faces, internally and externally- that would play specifically to her skills or temperament. Sometimes, I feel like I am giving her advice- and forcing her to wear someone else’s shoes. Was that advice that would have worked for me? Or was that really tailored to her needs? Often, I feel ashamed that I am pushing her too hard, to be different than she is. Because I understand her specific skill set less.

So no, she is not as aggressive as I am. But there is tremendous power in her subtly. She takes it far harder when she struggles, but her resilience blows me away. My attitude is far more susceptible to my mood, and she is buoyed by her positivity, even when life is really hard for her.

I think that Hashem matches parents and children. He knows that my being her mother, will give her additional strength to get through life’s challenges. But He also knew, that having a daughter like her, would teach me things too. She makes me a better person every day. She teaches me the importance of being gentle, of embracing joy in my life, and the power of unconditional love.

It is a humbling privilege to raise this child, and I look forward to helping her blossom into her own image, and not mine. I’m learning how every day. “

“When I was younger and thought about becoming a mother one day, there was one thing I knew for sure: I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes my parents made.

I spent a good portion of my childhood judging my parents and feeling resentment for them not being the parents I wanted them to be. I spent a good portion of therapy as a teen and young adult analyzing and exploring how I believed my parents let me down. I thought I had a pretty objective view of how things were and where I was wronged.

But then I became a parent and my vantage point—all my theories and narratives about my parents—was given a humbling new perspective.

My childhood was great on paper. I grew up with two parents, a bunch of siblings, a large extended family, and my physical needs were always taken care of. I went to good schools, camps, and had lots of friends. My house was a fun hangout; the kind of house where you if you stopped by, there’d be a random mix of friends and relatives popping in and out, with lots of laughter and hanging out.

But behind the surface, I struggled intensely with living in my own skin and channeling my intense emotions. From a young age, I sensed that I was inexplicably different from others; what I observed in the world, what bothered me about life, what I felt in my body—I often felt like there was this “normal” dance that everyone else seemed to know that I was just never taught and couldn’t fake the moves. I felt incredibly lonely and misunderstood, but my foolproof façade made you think I was super confident and that life just came fairly easily to me. I was fun to be around and made things fun for you too, but deep down I was wishing I could feel that fun on the inside.

My parents struggled in parenting me and I often felt like I was letting them down. I was an underachiever in school, was lazy, and was very moody and selfish. I felt like my mother, who was never mischievous, had a hard time relating to me when I acted out. I felt like my father, whose own father displayed minimal emotion, couldn’t give me the affection I needed from him. I sensed the discord in my parents’ relationship as they navigated parenting—not just parenting me, but parenting altogether, and I watched as they faced perpetual differences on how to raise us.

Becoming an independent adult started to pave the way for changes in how I viewed myself and my background. I dated a lot and continued to feel inexplicably different as I watched peers and relatives get married with what seemed like such ease. I met a wonderful, kind man, and after I got married and started having children, struggle with addiction brought me to my knees and into the rooms of a 12-Step recovery fellowship. As I worked my way through the recovery process, I had to write down all the people I felt resentful at. At the top of my list were obviously my parents; after all, my unhappiness in life was all their fault, right?

But as I began going deeper into my feelings and started holding up a mirror towards myself, my well-established victimhood started losing its foundation. I started seeing how my own character traits—many of which I had from the time I was born—made it not easy to be around me, let alone parent. I started seeing a different side of the story; the part where I was constantly demanding, disrespectful, and impossible to please. I started to acknowledge that blaming my parents was doing nothing productive for my life and was keeping me very stuck in moving forward towards better living. Perhaps most convincing was meeting others in recovery who felt like their parents gave them everything they needed—yet they still struggled with addiction.

As I was going through the 12-Step recovery process and learning more and more about myself, I saw how hard it was (and still is) to balance my own “stuff” with being a loving and patient parent. What it means to be a present wife and caregiver when figuring out how to truly take care of myself and face my inner demons. How life continues to throw me new curve balls and how challenging it is to come home and give my full attention to everything that is needed from me at home.

Years have passed and I can now look back at my childhood and my parents and say that I truly believe they did the best they could given the circumstances. Being parents wasn’t the only identity role in their lives. They were navigating their relationship, careers, religiosity, health, and their own family issues with their respective parents. When I take that all into account and look at my own difficulties, the perfectionistic standards I held them to just dissipate. I can feel a sense of gratitude that they gave me and my siblings all that they did, despite all they were dealing with as individuals.

I still hope I don’t make the same mistakes my parents made, but I know I will make my own. When I think about it, the playing field is more leveled. I don’t walk around feeling that same confidence that I will be a better parent than my parents. I can judge them, say what I think they should have done differently, but ultimately, I know there is so much more to their personal stories that as their daughter, I will never fully know. But I can be grateful they gave me whatever they could, and take responsibility today for becoming a happy and healthy adult.”

“Sexual abuse in the Jewish community. This is a topic gaining more and more traction in our regular lives, and even more recently within the world-at-large due to the “Me Too” movement. But yet, it’s still not talked about enough. There are not enough protections in place for our children. For the protections put in place, people scoff at the policies (i.e. in shabbat youth groups in my synagogue there is a policy that youth leaders are not allowed to have children on their laps), saying they are absurd. Not enough people know the true statistics – 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused, and 1 in 6 boys will be abused before they reach adulthood (National Sexual Violence Resource Center).

I was sexually abused when I was 10 years old. At the time I didn’t even know what to call it. It had occurred once, on a shabbat away at my teacher’s house. I was with a few classmates, and on shabbat afternoon, my teacher’s husband, a man who had semicha and held the title of Rabbi, played hide and go seek with us. Somehow, I ended up alone with him. He told me the typical things predators say – “don’t tell anyone”, “it’s our little secret”, etc. So I kept it inside, for months. When I finally did reveal what happened, triggered by a family friend calling on the phone and jokingly declining to tell me who he was since I knew him, I was brought to my therapist’s office (I had been in therapy due to my parents’ divorce years earlier).

My therapist, a Jewish psychologist, knew of rabbinical leaders in the community where the abuse occurred. He reached out to them to address the situation. It was reported to me that my abuser was forced to seek help, and if he didn’t comply, police would get involved. I never got any follow up, any closure about what happened. No police were ever called. I remained in my teacher’s class for the rest of the school year (it was mid-year when this occurred). I watched as her pregnant belly grew and grew. She knew what happened, and I knew what happened. Yet, she continued to teach me. Besides for my therapy sessions, what happened to me was never discussed. And even in therapy, I was too reluctant to talk about it, too resistant, too afraid, and too unsure of what even happened to me. It wasn’t until I was in college, and with a different therapist, that I truly explored what happened to me. How my everyday emotions and struggles were intertwined with what happened all those years ago. How not to carry all the guilt about this man walking around, not registered as a sex offender, potentially harming other children. How it was the adults in this situation who failed me and other potential victims, not me. The guilt, the anger, the unknown, the fear of physical intimacy – it was all eating me up inside.

Maybe if the adults in my life had talked to me. Maybe if they had used the words “sexual abuse”, labeling it, explaining it to me. Maybe if they had taken the appropriate actions to ensure this man, this rabbi, this predator never hurt anyone again. Maybe if I was switched out of this woman’s classroom. Maybe if my Jewish day school had been notified – Maybe then I would have felt safe and protected. Maybe then I would have been able to start on my path to healing earlier. Maybe if all of the adults and caregivers in our communities did this, there would be less abuse.

Recently, I was talking with a woman about her son’s sleepaway camp experience thirty years ago. She explained that her son, who rarely complained, wrote letters home about how he wants to come home if he’s not able to switch out of his bunk. He didn’t like his counselor. Later, this woman learned that this counselor was accused of sexually abusing campers. It didn’t happen to her son, but he at a young age felt that something wasn’t right. Thirty years ago, this was happening. Twenty years ago, when it happened to me, it was swept under the rug. And it is happening still today.

As a Jewish community, we need to do better.”

“‘If you just try to change your picture to something nicer- to a more flattering angle- then guys will say yes. I know it’s wrong but guys are looking for the prettiest girls. Once he says yes, he can get to know you for you, but until then- you need to stand out as even better looking than the other girls he’s getting as suggestions.’

As I listened to the shadchan on the other end of the phone, I thought back to at all the times I had been told that men wouldn’t be interested in me based on my looks.

I had just come back from seminary and started dating. After looking at my resume, the shadchan told me that although I was pretty, my curly hair seemed very “modern” to some guys. Although I loved my natural curls, I straightened my hair for my shidduch resume and all my dates. I didn’t feel like me, but at the same time, assumed that the shadchan must have my best interests at heart.

Six months later, a different shadchan told me that although my make-up looked pretty in my pictures, natural make-up was not ideal. A picture of me with a fully made-up face would be better. I got my make-up done professionally and re-took my picture for my resume. I didn’t feel like me, but I assumed that the shadchan must have my best interest in mind.

A month later, I met a guy at a family friend’s shabbas meal. We talked and laughed most of the meal, and had lots in common. I was interested in dating him. After shabbas, I called the shadchan to find out more about him. She said that although I was a nice girl from a nice family, I was just not what he was looking for looks-wise. Although I dressed tzanua, I was a bit too spunky, too funky. He wanted someone who had a more typical look. Asking him would only make me upset. I felt offended, but assumed that the shadchan had my best interests in mind.

A year later, a shadchan called my mother and told her that I should not wear heels in my resume picture. While standing in heels, I looked too intimidating to guys. Although heels are usually nice, on me they just took away from my attractiveness and cuteness. I thought this was truly ridiculous, but assumed that the shadchan had my best interests in mind.

As I remembered all of these incidents, I was still on the phone with the shadchan. How should I respond? Should I thank her once again for having my best interests in mind?

While suggestions on how to improve a picture, on what to wear, on how to style one’s hair may have come from a “good” place, what had it done for me? Was it good for me? 
Had it honestly ruined my self-esteem?

Shachanim have a hard job of helping girls present their best. Is it their job to decide what’s best? 
Shachanim have to be honest about how guys feel. How do they know how all guys feel? Surely different guys have different opinions.

I took a deep breath and responded: “Honestly, I don’t want to trick a guy into dating me. If someone isn’t okay with the way I look, convincing them to go on a date with me will not help. I need to be okay with who I am, and honestly cannot take any more comments on my looks. Take me out of your database”.

On a rush of adrenaline, I thought back to the guy from the shabbas meal that I really hit it off with. I got his number, and decided to call him and ask him out myself. It was a bold day.

We just celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary. Although I am very happily married, my happy ending is not the point of my sharing this story.

To every girl who feels that she is not good enough. 
To every girl who is told that negative feedback on her photos are for her own good. 
To every girl who is afraid of being who is she and looking like she does.

Please know that you can be the change in our community. Say no to a shadchan who tells you to change your hairstyle if you like it. Tell your daughters that they don’t need to be nitpicked. Encourage your sisters to wear whatever shoes they want to wear.

Have your own best interests in mind.”

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Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism. She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira made aliyah with her family a year ago to Jerusalem.