My favorite child

In a world that fantasizes about perfection, Shmuel did not meet any one’s expectations.

Down syndrome children 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Down syndrome children 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Their instructor, I explain to my class of undergraduates, will not entertain personal questions.
“Do you really have seven children? How do you remember their names?”
Israelis students are mostly unmoved by rules. “I remember your names, and there are 25 of you,” I reply.
True, “only seven” sounds like an oxymoron, and admittedly, to my former upper-middle class Long Island sensibility, seven kids does seem like a lot.
“Who’s your favorite?”
“Every parent has a favorite,” another student chimes in.
Like in the Bible, and the stories that they’ve been reading the past weeks – the favored son of the patriarchs, Abraham favoring Isaac, the latter favoring Esau. Rebecca favoring Esau’s brother Jacob, and Jacob favoring Joseph.
‘They are all my favorites,” I say, a reply which is met by some eye-rolling and audible expressions of dissatisfaction. But I meant it, and still do.
Parents sometimes have favorites: the smartest, the most athletic, the most beautiful. Children who fit parents’ expectations; a doctor like me; a lawyer like me; or, in my case, a scholar like me.
BUT MY thoughts on the subject changed after the birth of my son Shmuel, now nine years old, who has Down Syndrome.
Shmuel did not meet any one’s expectations – especially in a world of fantasies of perfection: our children have to be superlative, the best.
Bringing up Shmuel, I now better realize how easy it is to burden our children with expectations of perfection, our fantasies of what we imagine they should be. There was an even greater irony for me, unappreciated when Shmuel was born. First as a graduate student, reading about literary theory at Columbia University and later as a professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan here in Israel, I had devoted so much time, read so many books and written so many articles about diversity and difference.
But being faced with a really “different” child, not just the theoretical difference espoused enthusiastically around large oak tables by my colleagues and students, was altogether different. For all my academic attempts to understand difference, to celebrate the values of diversity and pluralism, to talk about the virtues of the unexpected, I was not prepared for Shmuel and the genuine challenge that he presented.
But now I can say that Shmuel – even though he will not be writing an article on John Milton’s Paradise Lost any time soon – is my favorite child. He’s my favorite for his joyful innocence, the way he sings and dances with utter abandon, the way he wakes in the morning, puts his arm around my thigh, kisses me and declares loudly, “Abba, I like you!”
I once thought that some of my children make it easier to see that quality about them that makes them my favorite. But since Shmuel’s birth, I understand it is not that children make it easier – why should they have to work hard to be a favorite?
Rather, it’s the willingness of a parent to drop their expectations of who their children should be.
The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott writes of the “good enough parent,” knowing that, as far as parenting goes, enough may not be everything, but enough is enough. When we give up expectations of perfection for ourselves – it is an achievement to be just good enough– we give our children the chance to surprise us, as they become themselves.
So being a good enough parent also means allowing our children to be “good enough”; each – if we only let them – perfect in their own way.
So my youngest son is also my favorite – his entrepreneurial curiosity, expressed in his plans, as he told me while waiting for the bus the other day, to open a store to help people undo their inside out clothing. Or my eldest son, my favorite, who sometimes seems more like a brother, helping recently to navigate the utterly foreign social conventions of his oldest sister’s – my daughter’s – Israeli wedding.
Or any of my girls, all four of them my very favorite – all for different reasons. My youngest daughter, thoughtful and quiet, who navigates the world with quiet elegance, her balletic grace and ease – where did she get that from? – so wonderful to behold. So of course, she’s my favorite.
The Bible shows the dangers of picking favorites. Favoring one child over another often leads to disaster: ask Abraham, Isaac or Jacob. So I try not to play favorites. But each of my children knows, I hope, that they are my favorite child.

The writer is a professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University and the author of books about English poet John Milton (Cambridge 1997) and British protofeminist Mary Astell (Ashgate 2008). His latest book is Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011).