My ex-wife, the mother of my eldest son Yoav, prepared roast beef for our holiday dinner. She knows that it’s a favorite of Lior, our youngest son. Sometimes she even makes it for Friday-night dinner. Afterwards we just kick back sated and discuss the week that was. It’s been 20 years since our divorce and even if we were angry at the time we don’t remember why. She and my wife, may she live a long life, are good friends (nothing like a common enemy) and the last time we went abroad our kids demanded to stay with her so that they could make brownies together.
My friend ‘A’ brought his two children, his ex-wife and boyfriend. No, not her boyfriend - his. It was the first holiday they all spent together. They drank a lot of wine and laughed endlessly. Afterwards they became sad knowing their oldest son had to leave soon and return to his army unit’s training camp.
My friend ‘I’ spent the holiday with his son, his mother and her girlfriend. My good friend ‘Y’ had a somewhat unhappy holiday. One of her twins went to the US to study medicine and she misses her. Her life partner and the second twin joined her for the holiday. They discussed how it was time to get pregnant again. The twin thought they had waited too long. Fifteen years together and isn’t it time for her to have a little brother or sister?
What is a family?
I grew up in a world where there was only one definition. We all were expected to look like a Norman Rockwell painting: Ma, Pa, three young'uns and a dog. Any other option was less respectable. I remember the intensity of the guilt I felt when I divorced, the sense that I was a failure as a father and parent. I had failed life’s most basic mission: staying married.
Now it seems strange. Yoav’s mother lives two houses from ours. She has her own life but is part of our family and always will be. She recently told my wife that they need to redefine themselves: “You have been living with him for over 20 years. I was with him for only 2 and half years. It makes no sense that to this day you are the ‘second’ wife. I relinquish my title.” Then they burst out laughing because they are both strong and generous women who have decided that jealousy and anger are terrible ways to define one’s life. It’s far preferable to raise happy children who know that they are more important than the stupid things their parents have done.
I know there are people who believed we should have stayed married because it’s always better for the children. But there are also those who won’t give children medicine for stomach aches because it is not natural. The fact is that children are part of nature and they get stomachaches. I define my family cell by who they are and not by what the rabbinate, the state or my neighbors on the third floor have to say.
I once got a call inviting me to take part in a panel discussion on ‘The Divorce Epidemic’ sponsored by Ben Gurion University. I turned down the invitation because divorce isn’t an epidemic. It is part of one’s basic right to try and achieve happiness. However, if someone wants to initiate a panel discussion on ‘The epidemic of people who stay married even though they can’t stand each other’ then call me up. Seems to me that this is a much more prevalent condition.
Yes, I am familiar with the theory that today’s young people don’t fight for what they have and the family unit breaks up over every little thing. Maybe this sounds like I am moralizing but failing to hold it together when facing the small things, means an inability to cope when confronted with major things. If the color of the couch is the reason for the break up then maybe the two of you should not raise children together. When the right person comes along you’ll be prepared to fight for him or her even if it includes boiling the baby’s pacifiers at two in the morning.
Holidays are linked to tradition and customs and thus are always complicated for new families because of the natural tendency to favor the traditional family unit. Whoever spends the holidays without family knows what it means to be alone. Others, and it doesn’t matter the combination of participants, feel they are playacting family and it’s neither authentic nor sincere. They are wrong.
The ‘family unit’ of the past included one man and four women and they were certain that this was the only way to be a family. The kibbutzim tried to turn the children into communal property. Moshe Rabbeinu’s father was married to his own aunt. The meaning of family is constantly being reinvented and new rules are created. There isn’t one final destination but many. The direction is often unclear not always clear but one thing has become quite evident: Unhappy people will find it hard to raise happy children.
‘A’ told me about the day he informed his children that he had decided to remove his kippah, divorce their mother and come out of the closet. He was sure they would sever all ties with him but it did not happen. Everyone was deeply hurt but they would not turn their back on their father.
I told him that at least from his children’s’ point of view, the discussion had taken place long before. It took place during the first 15 years of their lives when he was their devoted and loving parent. Children only care about one thing: They need to know that they are loved unconditionally, no matter what, without limits. If they know they are loved it is much easier for them to accept the fact that their parents are human, that they have needs and they are also entitled to the lifestyle of their choice unconventional though it may be. No one can convince me that ‘A’ is less of a father than someone living at home who doesn’t quite remember the name of his tenth child.
People always have trouble accepting it when someone makes different choices and actually pulls it off. They are suspicious sometimes even malicious when confronted with unfamiliar ideas. Of everything I have done in my life, creating a family was the most difficult, the most complicated and the most satisfying. I can totally understand why people who think that protecting this valuable asset requires the digging of a strategic moat full of laws and rules around the castle.
That’s okay so long as they acknowledge other kinds of castles with other laws. I don’t know with what family you celebrated the holidays or in what configuration but I hope for you that you loved them and accepted them as they are. Everything else has a way of working out over time.