She Realized Her Family Needed Time for

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false, which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

—Frederick Nietzsche

From the moment her pregnancy test came back positive, Ruth Ginsberg sprang into action. Of course, she was overjoyed: she and her husband had been trying for four years, but she was also fraught with anxiety. She had devoured dozens of books about how to be the perfect mother, had interviewed everyone she knew about it, and searched online for the latest studies and trends on optimizing child development.

So first she called her husband, David.

"Quick, Honey, call Rodeph Shalom. We've got to get a slot in the preschool class of 2010 before it's too late."

Then she called her supervisor at Morgan Stanley, where she'd worked in the IT department for the past seven years, to resign.

That evening Ruth and David made a solemn pact to be the best parents, to give their child every possible opportunity to develop to his or her maximum potential, to provide every experience that would improve his or her chances for success in the world, and to spare no expense, time, or energy in pursuit of their child's happiness and achievement. After staying up all night making passionate plans for the future, David slept fitfully for only a few hours, as Ruth insisted they play a tape of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."

"Don't worry, Honey," Ruth explained. "I've read all the research that says listening to Mozart will make our baby smarter."

After Sarah was born, Ruth was so much in love with her that she was determined to fulfill the pact that she and David had made. She began to write the names of every object around her on Post-it notes, then put them all over the apartment.

When David came home and just wanted to sit down, he'd have to pull the labels off the chair, the lamp, and then the TV set. When Sarah was six months old, Ruth was reading Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and flashing Baby Einstein cards at her.

On the rare occasion when Ruth and her husband were both away from the apartment at the same time, she was sure to hire Lupe from the second floor to baby-sit. She instructed Lupe to speak only in Spanish so Sarah could learn a second language.

All Ruth's efforts were paying off. By the time Sarah was one, a full page in Sarah's baby book was already filled up with words she had learned. By three, thanks to a giant Hooked on Phonics package from Sam's Club, Sarah knew how to read. In addition to starting preschool (at Rodeph Shalom, of course), Sarah was enrolled in art enrichment, Suzuki violin, and pre-gymnastics.

Everything was going according to plan. Sarah was a precocious child and seemed to flourish in the spotlight her parents shined on her. All their friends and family applauded the couple's superhuman efforts to help their child excel. But then Ruth discovered she was pregnant again. She worried about how she would keep up the pace with twice as much to do. David worried about having enough money for all these lessons and special programs and about how working more overtime and freelancing would keep him away from his family.

With Jonathan's birth, the Ginsberg's family life got pretty complicated. Aside from regular school, Sarah had to be taken back and forth to soccer practices and games, violin lessons and recitals, and ballet class. With David away all day and most of the night, Ruth was so busy with both children that she was usually asleep by nine o'clock and exhausted all weekend. There was never any spare time for just sitting down and sharing a leisurely family meal together. Everything was hurried. The only priority was "Is it good for the kids?"

As the kids got older, the situation only got worse.

"Sarah is showing remarkable talent and maturity on the Bach violin partitas," her music teacher reported. "With her mu-sicality and virtuosity, she ought to concertize."

"If Sarah keeps playing so well," her coach told them, "she could easily get an athletic college scholarship for a Division I soccer team."

"Sarah is really an exceptional child," Ruth and David were told by her eighth-grade science teacher. "She definitely has Ivy League potential."

Ruth and David were so proud of what they had accomplished as parents. They had really fulfilled their goals for their children so far. But just when they wished they could ease up a little, the pressures only increased. With the chance for Sarah to get into an Ivy League school, they enrolled her in special after-school classes and private sessions with the coach. They continued in their passionate resolve to spare no expense and do whatever it took to help their kids succeed, even if it caused pressures and stress that led David and Ruth to quarrel about financial strains and give up even occasional family outings.

When Sarah was accepted at Dalton, the exclusive Manhattan prep school, her parents were jubilant, but Sarah went to bed early with yet another migraine headache. David was getting really concerned and suggested to his wife that they take some time together, maybe drive down and spend the weekend in Atlantic City.

"This family hasn't had a vacation together for years, Ruth," David pointed out.

"I know, Honey, but this just isn't the right time. Sarah has an extra soccer practice on Saturday and that big chamber music recital on Sunday."

When Sara was in her junior year, the migraines were coming at least once or twice a month. Nevertheless, she was elected class president and became editor of the yearbook. These extracurricular activities in addition to her music lessons and soccer practices required her to stay after school until at least five o'clock every day; sometimes she didn't get home to start studying until seven or eight at night.

The beginning of senior year was just plain madness. College applications, final SAT preps and tests, touring campuses for interviews, building up her community service hours for her résumé, writing college application essays, and keeping up with her academic, athletic, and music responsibilities devoured every second of Sarah's day. David noticed that she was also losing weight and seemed to have absolutely no social life whatsoever. But the moment Sarah's early acceptance to Harvard arrived, all their sacrifices seemed to have been worth it. That pact had paid off. Ruth wept tears of joy. Their little Sarah was set for life.

Late that night, David and Ruth sat on the old couch drinking a rare glass of wine celebrating the moment and looking through their old box of family photos.

"Here's Sarah with her first blue ribbon in preschool gymnastics," Ruth said to her husband. "She was so good, even then. And look at her holding that plaque for first prize, second-year violin. She was only five years old and what a darling."

"Yeah, yeah. And here she is winning the spelling bee in the sixth grade," said David, shuffling through dozens more pictures of their daughter with all her trophies, accolades, and awards. Suddenly he stopped and looked up with an anguished expression.

"What's the matter, David?" Ruth asked.

"I just noticed something. Look at these pictures, Ruth. Is Sarah ever smiling, is she laughing, does she look happy? Is there ever any joy in her face? No, she looks blank, like she's not even there."

"I know it was a strain, David. It was a strain on her and all of us. But she made it. She got into the top school in the country. Now all we have to worry about for a while is Jonathan."

But it didn't turn out that way. After a summer internship at a local genetic engineering lab, Sarah packed her books and got on the train at Grand Central to leave home for the first time. For a month or so, Ruth and David were relieved to have only Jonathan to focus on. With Sarah gone, they began to realize that Jonathan had a mind of his own. Jonathan resisted joining his high school basketball team, even though he was tall and the coaches had tried recruiting him. He also told his parents that all those service hours working at the homeless shelter his parents wanted him to put in for his résumé were keeping him from hanging out with his friends.

"Hey look, Mom. I've got great grades. I study my brains off, but give me a break. I need some time for myself and don't want to end up like Sarah."

"What does that mean? Sarah's at Harvard, for heaven's sake," Ruth exclaimed. "You should only do so good."

"Yeah, sure, Mom. She weighs less than a hundred pounds, and I can't remember the last time I heard her laugh. Come to think of it, I can't remember the last time I heard anybody in this family laugh. All I can remember about growing up in this family is working, working, working, trying to keep up with that stupid schedule you've made for us."

Ruth dismissed her son's concern, but only a week later there was a long-distance call from Mental Health Services at Harvard University in Cambridge. It was eleven at night, and the voice on the other end sounded serious.

"Mrs. Ginsberg?"

"This is Dr. Rubicon. I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour, but I really need to talk to you about your daughter."

Ruth had to sit down and pass the phone to her husband. David sat quietly listening to the doctor explain that Sarah's roommate had brought her in earlier that day requesting help. Sarah had been experiencing crushing migraine headaches for the past two weeks, was unable to hold down food, and couldn't sleep. "She's told us she's feeling overwhelmed, cries all the time, and says it's impossible for her to study."

"This could be just typical freshman-itis, Mr. Ginsberg, but I'm concerned about depression and potential health problems brought on by her not eating for so long. I want to hold her for a couple of days and make sure that at least she gets some water and food in her."

Ruth could hear everything the doctor was saying and suddenly piped in, "But she can't miss class; it could ruin her whole semester!"

David looked aghast at his wife. The doctor quickly responded, "Mrs. Ginsberg, there are more important things than a semester at college. Your daughter's future health and happiness are at stake, and that has to be our priority."

There was dead silence in the room after David hung up the phone. He'd been haunted by those joyless photographs of his daughter for almost a year. Ruth kept hearing Jonathan's words over and over in her head.

"I can't remember the last time I heard anybody in this family laugh."

"What?" David said. "What are you talking about?"

"Jonathan told me that last week, and he was right."

That night, for the first time in eighteen years, Ruth and David revised their Big Pact.

A week later, they drove up to Cambridge with Jonathan and took Sarah, just released from Dr. Rubicon's care, out for a milkshake and a movie. As they were walking back to her dorm arm in arm, Jonathan noticed the orange and black decorations and pumpkins all over town.

"Halloween is coming up. Hey, let's go buy some masks."

Any other time before today, Ruth and David would have nixed such a frivolous waste of time. But today was different— they nodded knowingly at each other and followed Jonathan into a costume store. Jonathan was the first to pick—Spider-man, his childhood hero. David jumped in with a Richard Nixon lookalike. After going through the big bin slowly and carefully, Sarah chose Cinderella. Then the threesome looked at Ruth, curious as to her next move.

Finally, after much hemming and hawing, Ruth started walking around the store and picked out a big red nose and a large, curly multicolored wig.

"What are you going to be, Mom?" her children asked.

Slowly Ruth put the bright red ball on her nose and placed the big crazy wig on her head, and smiled.

"I'm a clown. I love you so much, and I know now that a big part of my job is to make all of us laugh, enjoy each other, and have fun. Don't you think it's about time?"

It was. They had fun, and for the first time they could remember, they all laughed together. There was joy in their family again, and Ruth vowed to keep it that way.

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