For 10 (!) years, JewishBoston.com has been checking in on one mom’s journey as a single parent. Formerly a Boston resident and CJP colleague, Sarah Feinberg lives with her 9-year-old daughter, Gali, in Washington, D.C. For this unique decade in review, Sarah looks back at her parenting highs and lows and shares what’s most meaningful to her now.
Sarah, we’ve been doing this interview series for an entire decade! Looking back at your journey with your now 9-year-old (we started this when she was just 3 months old!), what stands out to you? What comes to mind as your most joyful and most challenging single parenting moments over the years?
Holy moly! I know that Gali is 9 and, of course, the math tells us that this is our tenth year. Every year, I am grateful that our former colleague, Laura Shulman Brochstein, interviewed me when I was on maternity leave and started this tradition. I love that Kali has kept this going all these years. I didn’t understand then what a gift Laura, and now Kali, was giving me to take time once a year to reflect on parenting, on solo parenting, on childhood and to appreciate my child for all that she is.
It’s so hard to pick the most of any kind of moment. Depending on the time of day, I’m sure I’ll choose something different. Generally, my most joyful moments are watching Gali learn and grow. I love watching her figure something out for the first time or succeed at something that she’s been struggling with. I love seeing her being proud of herself for something that she has worked hard at.
Two big accomplishments come to mind: athletic growth and academic growth. Athletically, Gali continued playing baseball on the team she joined last year. I could see her strengthening her batting and fielding skills. She decided that she wanted to try her hand at pitching and discovered that she enjoys it and is good at it. For a kid who doesn’t like being in the spotlight, I’m amazed that this is the position she likes the best. She also took up ice skating over the winter. It’s been a delight to see her push herself.
Academically, in third grade at her school, each kid is assigned a state to spend the year learning about. Gali got Florida and dove deep into learning all about its flora and fauna, its tourism, city life and natural life. She challenged herself to learn as much about the state as she could, often going above and beyond the requirements of the assignment. She even made a Purim costume of Florida to wear to the school celebration.
The most challenging moments are navigating her many feelings and emotions often on my own. While she’s not quite as mercurial as she was when she was younger, her moods still shift and swing. The whiplash can throw me for a loop. Even with my strong support network, I’m the one deep in the trenches navigating her very big feelings.
Let’s talk specifically about the past year: Gali returned to in-person schooling five days a week and became even more independent, and you bought a house! What has your year been like overall?
This has been a real roller coaster of a year! It turns out that going back to school “the way it used to be” was not actually a return to how it used to be. The kids quickly got used to weekly COVID testing. They had to mask off and on throughout the year depending on exposures, returns from school vacations, etc. When Gali got vaccinated our world started to open up again, but then we got COVID which ruined our winter vacation.
As soon as that calmed down, I bought a house, which happened much more quickly than I expected and we love it. It’s a really huge thing that I did. It has changed everything about our lives to not live in a small apartment, to be able to do what we want to the space, and for Gali to finally have a play space that’s not in the middle of everything else. We’re closer to some of her friends so she can go to their houses on her own and they can come to us. I have my own garden again, I’m loving having a creative outlet in doing home improvement projects, and my new neighbors have been so warm and welcoming. It’s a wonderful feeling to be settling into and building a permanent home after all these years.
For me and Gali, this summer was great. She went to the day camp at the JCC where I work—the easiest drop-off and pick-up I’ve ever had. I loved being able to drive to one location in the morning and not stress about leaving work early to pick her up. And the most wonderful thing happened: she went to Capital Camps, a sleepaway camp, for three weeks. I believe that sleepaway camp is an most important experience in childhood for teaching independence and building strong relationships. I’m so thrilled that she was excited to go and had a great time. More importantly, I had the first real parenting break in 10 years. I reveled in my freedom to come and go as I pleased. We’re both looking forward to next summer!
We’re still in a pandemic—how has the past year been from an emotional standpoint? What were your biggest parenting challenges?
This year, in many ways, has been better than the previous year. Getting back into our routine of school and full-time work was stabilizing, but emotionally, it was a really hard year for Gali. She struggled socially as the kids in her class began hanging out in more gendered groupings. She has always marched to the beat of her own drummer and often kids followed her lead; when she was younger, it didn’t matter as much. As she’s getting older and the kids are starting to differentiate in their interests more, she’s noticing her differences and focusing on them more than the similarities she may share. Becoming more aware of all of this has been rough for her and has probably created my greatest parenting challenge this year. It can be overwhelming, especially because her biggest feelings all come tumbling out at bedtime.
What does your community and support system look like 10 years into this journey? You’ve always mentioned the importance of maintaining a strong support system as a single mom—both for your own mental health and Gali’s development.
My support system is, thankfully, still strong. We’ve been in D.C. for over six years and the relationships that I’ve made during this time are deep. Most important is that my support system is dynamic—it shifts and changes as she grows and makes new friends, as new people move in and others move out. Last summer and early fall I had some Crohn’s related-health issues that flared up a couple of times. One of them happened just in time for Yom Kippur, making it impossible for me to go to services, which was devastating for both of us. My friends jumped right in with one of them picking Gali up to bring her to services and another bringing her home. A new friend who had just moved to town took her home with her after services on Yom Kippur day for an afternoon playdate with her kids. I didn’t have to work hard to arrange everything, they just stepped in.
Figuring out babysitters so I can go out is one of the few things that truly challenges me. I continue to be grateful to my friends who come over on Saturday nights after our kids are in bed and hang out with me, helping me be at least a little social. Or those that help me clean up after we’ve had dinner together. And those that reach out when they’re coming to D.C. to visit so we can connect in person. I’m thrilled that I finally have a guest room and space to host people again! I’m lucky and grateful that my support system—my community, my friends near and far, my family—only feels stronger year over year. I’ve got my people and Gali has her people and fortunately they continue to overlap.
What “big” or important conversations have you and Gali engaged in this year? We know that over the years you’ve addressed things like big feelings, politics, social change and navigating the pandemic.
All of these topics! As I mentioned, Gali has big feelings and we do spend a lot of time processing them. For someone that lives much more in the rational space and less in the emotional space, this personality difference between the two of us can be tough. As she gets older, we continue talking about the society we live in and the national politics that are all around us at deeper levels than the previous years.
Her reaction to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision from the Supreme Court has been really interesting to watch. She does not understand the logic of this ruling (and she’s not alone), but what’s been really interesting is to hear her feel the impact on her and her life already. The ruling came out shortly before the Fourth of July and we were listening to various patriotic songs in the car including, “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. She started changing the lyrics to the negative: “I’m not proud to be an American where at least I know I’m not free.” This was all her and painful to watch her process what the ramifications could be on her personally. I know that these issues will continue to be topics of conversation as we’re only scratching the surface in her understanding.
What role do Gali’s donor siblings (“diblings”) play in both of your lives at the moment? Have her questions or curiosity changed over the years?
We got to meet another dibling family this summer! The Florida family was driving through D.C. on their summer vacation and stopped here for a couple of days. I’ve gotten to know them a bit from their Facebook posts over the years, so it was wonderful to meet them in real life. We got together with them and one of the other D.C. families, with whom we’ve met several times. It was a fantastic evening. The kids (five in total from three families) got along and all night we heard only squeals of joy and laughter. All of us mothers enjoyed each other’s company, and we were sorry when the evening had to end. We’re continuing to notice physical traits that the kids share, causing us to constantly be amazed at the wonders of genetics.
For the first time, Gali has started asking questions about finding out who the donor is, will she get to meet him, etc. Overall, she still doesn’t seem particularly curious or interested in knowing the information that I do have, though.
One of the things I love asking you about is your annual “Day of Yes.” Let’s ask Gali: What was on the agenda this year, and what do you most enjoy about this special day with your mom?
On my agenda this year was starting the day with a donut from Dunkin Donuts and shopping for Legos. We watched two movies at home and chilled and ate lots of candy. I especially enjoy being in control for the day!
Gali, what do you love most about your mom? What are your favorite things to do together? And what was the hardest part about the past year?
I like that she is adventurous. I love going to baseball games, going on trips and doing Shabbat together. The hardest part of the past year was not being able to go up to Boston over winter break because we both had COVID.
How has Judaism guided both of you this year? What traditions or rituals bring you the most meaning?
Shabbat continues to play an important role in the rhythm of our week. We love that we now have more space and can host people on Shabbat more comfortably. This year, before we went to my parents’ house for Passover, we invited our local relatives to come over and join us in hanging mezuzot on our new home. It was so wonderful to be surrounded by our family during this moment.
Several years ago, I began a tradition where we give tzedakah to a specific organization each night of Hanukkah. We discuss the area or issue that we want to support and then do research together to choose the organization. I really enjoy watching Gali be so thoughtful in determining what we’re going to support and why.
This is for both you and Gali: What are you most grateful for this year? And what are you looking forward to about the year ahead?
Sarah: I’m grateful for a healthy child who is becoming more and more independent, as she should be. I’m grateful for the time I had to just be an adult without being an active parent this summer. I’m grateful for all the people in my life who lift me up. I’m excited for new growth and learning for me and for Gali. I’m also looking forward to going to Israel with my immediate and extended family. Gali has been asking to go to Israel since she learned to speak and I can’t wait to experience such an important place to me through her eyes.
Gali: I’m grateful for having a house now and having good friends. I’m looking forward to getting together with my new camp friends and getting to study a country in fourth grade.
You became a single mother by choice 10 years ago. Reflecting on your experiences, what advice would you give to a new mom embarking on this journey?
My advice hasn’t changed much over the years. I always say do it. I believe that it’s impossible to be prepared to be a parent, and especially a solo one. You’ll find the strength that you didn’t know you had and that’s an amazing feeling. My number one piece of advice is to make sure you know who your people are. No matter how strong and self-sufficient you are, everyone needs support, people to back you up, people to give you a little time to take a break, other adults to talk to so you don’t go crazy in babyland, toddlerland, childhood, teenage years and beyond! And this continues to have been the best decision I have ever made.
Want more? Read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine of this special series.