The Fifth Commandment

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. It was a wonderful day for me – I felt loved. Need I say more? Probably not, because that sums it up pretty well. But, I do want to say more (otherwise I wouldn’t have much of a blog post, would I?).

Part of my mother’s day. I am so lucky!

I came across an essay by Anne Lamott, a writer I like very much, in which she argues for cancelling Mother’s Day. (If you want to read her post, here is a link: here, though if you aren’t on Facebook it might not work.) She made a lot of valid points. It is a day that can be fraught for many reasons: it can be a reminder of the painful loss of a mother or child, it romanticizes motherhood when for most the relationship is not as simple as a Hallmark card, it can be alienating for those struggling with infertility….the list can go on. But all celebrations have a flip side. Birthdays can be reminders of what we haven’t yet accomplished. The holiday season can feel intensely lonely. I think we need to be sensitive to that and reach out to those who may be in pain. We should also emphasize the love, not the consumerism. But we shouldn’t cancel the celebration. Mothers deserve to be celebrated, even the flawed among us (which would be all of us). Most of us are doing our best, which sometimes isn’t enough. And there are some who aren’t doing that, but then I hope we could celebrate those who helped us overcome, who played a nurturing role. A mother, whether they are biological, adopted, or chosen, is worthy of recognition.

After all, it is in the ten commandments. Even if one doesn’t believe in God, or has their doubts, the ten commandments offer some good moral guidance, and the fifth commandment says to honor your father and your mother. I have wondered what that means.

I remember when I was a child being in the room when my dad had an argument with one of my mom’s uncles. Uncle Morris was saying that children owe their parents respect and love. My father, in his forceful way, disagreed. He said children didn’t ask to be born. Parents were obligated, since they brought the child into the world, to care for them, but a child didn’t have to return the favor. Uncle Morris was taken aback. I think I understood, even though I was a child, that somehow this related to my dad’s feelings about his own parents. I’ve written about this before, but I believe my father didn’t feel loved or supported by his parents (at least not in the way he needed to be). To his credit, he, in turn, did his best to make us, his children, feel loved and supported.

What do we owe our parents, if anything? My mother has often told me that she doesn’t want to be a burden. I appreciate her saying that. I make a choice to drive to New Jersey to take her to the doctor in New York City. I choose to call her almost every day. Is that burdensome? Maybe. When I am crawling through midtown traffic to get to the Lincoln Tunnel to take her home from the appointment, it can be onerous. But, it still feels right. I want to do those things. Sometimes I wonder if I can or should do more. We are all pulled in different directions. Balancing it, our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our own health, is a never-ending struggle. I am constantly in conversation with myself about whether I am striking the right balance. It is not a very satisfying conversation because most often I feel like I am coming up short somewhere.

Do you have that conversation with yourself? Any comments on that fifth commandment? – it is a tricky one. Maybe they all are.

6 thoughts on “The Fifth Commandment

  1. as usual linda i am in tears from your blog today. i don’t think as parents we felt we never did enough but somehow our children did grow up to be decent human beings. our rabbi said if you raise a mench and we all know what that means, we have done our job. i spoke to your mom yesterday, she called to wish me a happy mother’s day. i can’t tell you how much i miss her. eleanor


  2. Some interesting observations you make….:

    Dad saying the child did not ask to be born…. although he may have said it, I wonder the context.

    I assume it was to justify a position that respect and certainly love are not automatically granted.

    For instance, think of the criminally abusive parent…. you would not say that the child, regardless of a biblical commandment owed the parent love. Furthermore, let’s assume the parent not criminally abusive and let’s look at the respect (or honor in biblical terms). I believe that the respect afforded the parent would differ: For instance, if the parent tells the child, you must not have ice cream for breakfast, then the child must respect that. If the parent, tells the adult child, you must not leave a mess in parent’s house after visiting…again…. you must respect that. But, the adult child does not have to respect a parent, for belittling the handicapped; for a parent who seeks to take advantage of others in business dealings. Right?

    Although the “i did not ask to be born” is not a particularly persuasive argument (I know where it would have gotten me had I chose that argument with dad in response to his providing me with a chore) I assume the gist of dad’s conversation with our uncle would have been along the lines of that regardless of the need to “honor” your parents (and HOW you honor your parents is an intriguing question) this does not equate with “respecting” your parents, and it most certainly does not require you to love your parents. (LOVE is just not an emotion which can be demanded.)

    As to your other points: do others have conversations with themselves? The better question is does anyone not have conversations with themselves? But for conversations with ourselves can you imagine how impulsive we would all be??? Not a pretty picture.

    And lastly, do you do enough for your Mom? I have ambivalent feelings reading that question. From my perspective, I cannot imagine what more you could be doing. You call EVERY day; you oversee and go to her medical appointments; give yourself a break Linda; Mom could not (Dad could not) ask for more honor than you bestow (bestowed) upon them. What you should reflect upon in your spare time, and I intuitively believe that Leah will second this, is what more can you do for your brothers.


    1. Very interesting comments. I completely agree that love can’t be demanded and that there are parents who are so toxic that children must cut ties. I also appreciate the notion that everyone is having conversations with themselves – and I think most people are, but, sadly I think some may not be, given the ridiculous behavior we witness. In the meanwhile, I will contemplate what more I can do for my brothers, in my spare time :).


  3. Honor your father and your mother. It is at once a complex and a very simple statement. With respect for those who have already commented, I wish to take a less lawyerly view of the statement. it may mean all kinds of things and yet, it seems that like many other seemingly hard to define virtues, you know it when you see it. And, while there are parents who are uniquely horrendous, by and large parents are like all people, they try their best and are imperfect beings.
    If we don’t respect the extraordinary effort of mothers in particular and parents in general, then it is we who have failed.
    Thank you for the wonderful blog post and excellent topic. Thank you to my Mom for always showing me love and for making me do my homework. And thank you Linda for raising two amazing human beings so that I can take credit for it.


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