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Changing the Narrative

Changing the Narrative

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It was about a year ago when Maya, the social worker, announced her visit. Apart from sorting out my ex-husband’s visitation rights, she had to make sure that both I and my children were physically and mentally in a healthy situation. Being that I was a single mother with many small children, I guess they weren’t sure I was able to handle it by myself.

On the day of her visit, I scrubbed and cleaned the house. I made sure that the floors were devoid of any clutter. All of the laundry was folded neatly and put away. The bathrooms were as spotless as they could be in a home inhabited by eight children under the age of 13, and the kitchen was tidier than it had been in a while. I had even hired a handyman to fix some things around the house.

No sweat, I thought. Maya’s going to see that we’re normal people, and that my kids live in a clean, tidy house—and she’ll leave us alone.

I was sure that she was writing about a different familyMaya’s brief half-hour visit (for which I had worked so hard all morning) went by without any particular upset. I was certain that everything was fine. She asked a few questions, peered into cupboards and bedrooms in her best social-worker manner, and then left. I was sure we passed the test.

When I read Maya’s report afterwards, I saw that she had stated that as far as she was concerned, my children could still live with me. I considered that to be particularly generous of her, especially as my former husband had not made any bid for custody, and that this was not the issue in the first place. But when I read her impressions of my home, I was sure that she was writing about a different family.

“The house was messy and untidy,” she wrote. “The children’s clothing were neglected and stained.”

What went wrong? I wondered in horror. After all, I had worked so hard that day to tidy and clean the house. In my mind, I went through everything I had done to make the place look good. And it did—under the circumstances. But despite my best efforts, the walls were in great need of painting. There were piles of clutter that, short of Passover cleaning, I couldn’t get rid of. So I had just pushed them into a corner.

And when I stopped to think about it, my children’s clothes were a bit shabby. Being that my former husband still refuses to pay a penny of child support, I am the family’s only breadwinner. This means that my earnings are spent on basics like the mortgage, electricity and food, rather than extra clothing, new furniture or even decent kitchen utensils. My time also tends to go towards earning a living and looking after my children, rather than keeping the house as neat as I would like.

To Maya, who—I happen to know—has a husband and the average two children plus half a dog, the house was a dump that day, and my kids were scruffy. To me, the house looked great, and the kids were not too bad.

And it suddenly occurred to me that it is all a question of narrative, of how we tell the story. There are so many times when my friends tell me that I should write a novel about my life experiences. In fact, I have a running joke with one of my friends: Whenever I call her, I tell her that it’s time for the next episode in the grand soap opera. But joking aside, if we stop to think about it, life really is one grand soap opera. And the way that we tell the story and write the script can actually affect the way we live it.

I become Shoshana Benjamin, proud mother of eight beautiful childrenFor example, on a bad day, life can seem impossible. Being alone with so many children can sound like a desperate situation, and there are times when I wonder if it will ever get better. But on a good day, the script changes, and I become Shoshana Benjamin, proud mother of eight beautiful children, who is currently on a wonderful voyage of self-discovery. And I find that when I live this latter narrative, life somehow changes. It becomes not only livable, but even, dare I say it, happy.

This philosophy does not apply only to single mothers, but also to everyone else out there. Every individual human being has their tests in life—whether it is widowhood, singlehood, childlessness, money problems or simply frustration with life’s challenges. It can be a difficult test to find the positive in our lives, but if we really look for it, we always can. Although it is G‑d who gives us the tests that we all have to go through, we can always be the journalists who record these experiences and shape our own perspectives.

When we look at world events, for example, our perceptions are shaped by what we read in the newspapers, and—consciously or not—we adopt the media bias of the publications that we read or the broadcasts that we hear. Without knowing it, this governs exactly how we relate to the events described, and whether we view them as positive or negative.

A timely example of how perspective affects us can be seen from the events surrounding the exodus from Egypt, when the nation of Israel finally departed after years of slavery and degradation. At the beginning of this part of the story, the Jews were a downtrodden race and were still very tied to their experiences in exile. Between Passover, when they left Egypt, and Shavuot, when they received the Torah, their self-image gradually changed. During this interim period of Sefirat HaOmer, they evolved from a ragged race of frightened former slaves who were too afraid to cross the Red Sea, into a proud, unified people. They managed to override their suffering and became a nation that was worthy of receiving the greatest treasure of all—the Torah.

Similarly, we should find the strength to change our view of the challenges that we have to face in life. We need to rewrite the script as best we can, changing ourselves from the victim in the story to the hero.

Turning ourselves into brave warriors, rather than figures of pity, will give us the strength to keep on going through the wilderness of our personal hardships until each of us reaches our own, individual Mount Sinai. And no matter how difficult this may be, we should never give up and lose sight of that mountain—because it really is there.

Shoshana Benjamin (a pseudonym) is a professional writer, who lives with her eight children, and is slowly but surely rebuilding her family's life.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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jim dallas May 8, 2017

tear-jerker, yes, you should write, for sure!

social workers are frequently like that, it is not how are you coping, it is how does she/they meet our standards....very unrealistic and even often outright cruel! even todays instant photography would not help overcome the institutional bias.

you are a miracle in the making....do the best you can and pray always! Reply

the Oracle Indio, CA May 8, 2017

If you have things pile up, instead of putting them in a corner, just pack them in banker's boxes, the ones with the lids and handle cut outs, and label them something like "Donations' or "Recycling."

Perception is everything. Reply

Anonymous Georgia, USA May 8, 2017

What you have done, and what you are doing will serve as an inspiration to many of us. Your writing has brought tears to my eyes. The memories of abuse that I suffered at the hands of my ex-husband continue to haunt me. The lack of funds, the emotional horrors inflicted by family that supported his homosexual lifestyle while he physically abused his daughters have led to nightmares that continue. Thank you for your positivity and thank you for sharing. My heart aches for you and also sings with your achievements . I pray for your continued success and take heart from your inspiration. There is light at the end of the tunnel !! Thank you for lifting my spirits and for touching my heart. Jewish strong always !! Reply

S United Kingdom May 8, 2017

The comments on here are from 5 years ago, so life will have changed. The challenges of parenting are no different for a single mother as it is for a two parent family, just all the daily decision-making is done by one adult.

Do these reports have space for loved and cared for children? Can true measurements be made on happy homes and happy children? Everything is based on a one day bias opinion, or a few visits by an overworked individual, whom may one day reflect on their bias opinions. Remember, we can all have opinions it does not mean those opinions are correct.

I hope and pray your family continues to be happy and healthy Reply

Anonymous Montreal, Canada June 5, 2012

Social Worker I have been "burned" by a social worker who I thought was like a sister to me. When I saw the report she had on our family, I was furious! All families have there pluses & minuses. Even this social worker herself! Thank G-d I've been married 17yrs. we have our ups & downs at times but a loving relationship. Money at times is difficult but we do our best. You deserve a lot of credit for raising the children alone. All the best. Reply

Anonymous Baltimore May 18, 2012

Very nice article!! Reply

Anonymous Naperville, IL May 18, 2012

Shoshana's story I'm not sure any of us could pass the test of scrutiny without someone finding a flaw. The important thing is that the children are safe and in a secure environment. The social worker has to write something that lets others know she was there. I know that often they miss important details and as a result tragedy occurs. A pile in the corner or in several corners is just that. The time spent with the children and for the children cannot be seen on a tour. My best to you and your children. I hope you have the family and community support and help you need to succeed in raising your children to become healthy content and well adjusted adults. May your children give you lots of nachus. Reply

sue Kanata, ON May 17, 2012

You're right, a Mother (and of eight children) is a hero. You deserve all the happiness in the world.
As for paint or furniture, there are great used.com websites (one of them is Kijiji) and many people give things away. I've had enough bricks for my garden for free- the owners were very glad to see us haul them away. You might find free or very cheap paint available in similar fashion.
There is always clutter when kids are aorund and as for clothing you might ask other moms for hand me down clothes. Relax- being a super mom is sometimes not what your kids need or want! Reply

Vicky Bautista Pahrump, Nevada May 17, 2012

Support Hi Shoshana: you are a great mom and a strong person, it strikes me how much we try, and still fall short, but the most important thing is that you have a Father in heaven that cares about you and sees your dedication and love for your children. Man that refuse to pay child support to get back on their wives fail to see that they are punishing their children. Please be sure that you are doing the best that you can. I have 7 children, but I have a husband that cares for his children and is present. And even though he is here it gets really tough some times. You can't keep a clean house with so many kids! and if this person fail to see what a caring and loving mother you are is her loss. There is price in heaven for you, a huge one, you are going to need a wheel barrow to carry it!!! Reply

Anonymous mesa May 17, 2012

Changing The Narrative A story of great strength for a single mom. My mom was left alone when I was 4 years old. We were seven. In the country we were born, there was not social worker, no government help. I do not even know how my mom made it through. To me she was a hero. Many times I was neglected, and so was my brother and sister. I was the youngest. When my mom sent us to our father, we did not even have food to eat. But they both were my dearest parents. Each with its own past. Sad in content. Specially my mom. Descendant of Sephardic Jews. Running from the inquisition. Forced to live a life without Torah. Many things happened that I do not understand. But our G-d is great. I feel that He, blessed be He, in His Infinite love and compassion was protecting us when we were children. We did not have much of anything, but His love was present. Finding out that I am one of His chosen, is the greatest miracle in my life. Baruch Hashem!!! Reply

Shoshana Benjamin Jerusalem May 17, 2012

Thank you I would like to thank everyone for all of their encouraging comments.

Sadly, my ex husband still pays no maintenance for his children, but he does see them regularly. After having had to deal with the social services for various issues over the years, I have seen that many of them are good, well-intentioned people who would like to do more but have little resources available - and I think this is the case in most of the western world.

However, the true heroes in this story are my children, who have come through a lot and continue to go from strength to strength. Reply

Anonymous Nahariya, ISRAEL May 17, 2012

I was where you are now. B"H
When I kicked out my abusive husband, he called the Department of Social Services and claimed I was abusing and/or neglectiing my children. On the days of her visits, and there were many, I did my best to make the house look neat and nice, but just like the author's home, mine, too, desperately needed refurbishing. And the kids' clothes, with the exception of their Shabbos clothes, were stained and somewhat the worse for wear. My social workers also saw only the negative, exaggerated it, and even lied!
After many years of looking over my shoulder and looking into myself and reaching up to G-d for help, my kids have grown into responsible adults who identify strongly as Jews. I never gave up or compromised on Shabbat or kashrut or tzniut --never! On the night of bedikat chametz, my daughter called me to ask me where in the siddur is the bracha that you say, and the next day, her brother did biur chametz. Baruch Hashem! It will all come together for you, I know. Hang in there! Reply

Rivka Ziino Barrington, Ri May 16, 2012

life or existence, that is the question As I read this autobiographical snippet in time of the writer's "world", it seems to me that she sees her life and the social worker saw her existence. It doesn't matter what the social worker's family unit looks like, she was unable to see your life with all its demands, as full of beauty. She made you, "other" and that is neither fair nor right, nor is it a Torah perspective. You're a strong mom who is doing her best.

May you go from strength to strength,
Rivka Reply

Isabella cloete strand, South Africa May 16, 2012

sharing Thank you for kind words. May you and your children experience 'shalom" at your house and where ever you go. May you continue to inspire all of us. Reply

Anonymous Cary, U.S.A. May 16, 2012

Shalom and Blessings to you dear sister Shoshana May G-d bless you sister Shoshana and your eight children with strength and His Light and Shalom and best blessings.Amen
May G-d bless you to enjoy your children and your grand children and your great grandchildren . Amen May G-d bless you so much joy from your children that you may forget your sufferings that you went through. May reciting Tehillim and Siddur to G-d give you abandunt strength and help.
Amen Blessings and Shalom be with you and your children.Amen Reply

Anonymous Tampa, Florida May 15, 2012

Social workers Unfortunately, too often case managers for family services misrepresent themselves as social workers. A social worker is a highly trained professional to advocate for people in need and views others from a strengths perspective. If the person who came to your house was actual a social worker, I hope she was encouraging to you and your children and wrote down something that was going right, including your incredible resilience!! Reply

Linda East Windsor, NJ May 15, 2012

Support Shoshana, I support you and bless you and wish I was able to directly help you. You are a great role model to your daughters AND sons! My mother had 8 children in 11 years, BUT she had a husband and we had a father. I know her life was not easy but she did whatever needed doing because she had to. We are all independent, self sufficient adults because of her. Bless you. Reply

Yitz May 15, 2012

Great message Thank you for the reminder to look positively at my and other's efforts, and not to judge our progress, except to appreciate it. Reply

Norma London, England, Other May 15, 2012

Shoshana's story I find it incredible that Shoshana has done so much- and manages to support her 8 children- with her ex not paying any child support for his 8 children! That is truly shocking. I hope he has at least given her a get (divorce). I think you must really fight to at least get your children's keep. How could he leave you in this state- and I think that the social worker has very liittle understanding or empathy. You have my very warmest wishes- and I congratulate your children on having such a lovely, powerful mother. Be stiong! And get your husband to be 'farshemt' for his bad behaviour to you and his children. Reply

Anonymous wash, dc May 15, 2012

changing the narrative Thank you for your story Shoshana. I am going to share it with my 12 year old son. It is a perfect model for a challenge he is facing (and one I face every day). I will keep your story close. I love how you bring in the Jewish People's changing narrative about who they are. Very powerful! Reply

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