To The Domestic Violence Survivors I Work With: About Your Children

I volunteer for the domestic violence organization you are brave enough to seek safety and assistance from.

We are acquaintances at best. Perhaps we’ve exchanged pleasantries in the common area after a session, but I don’t like to chat or linger too long out of respect for your privacy. When I visit the shelter, you often leave before I arrive.

My job is to care for your young sons and daughters so you may have a few uninterrupted hours to do what you need to do to move forward.

Since little ones aren’t armed with the emotional maturity and language to understand, let alone navigate trauma, I brace myself before each appointment. As an unknown adult in a position of authority, I show up expected to be tested with tantrums, outbursts and physical displays of anger.

Like you, I’m a parent. A mom who wonders how my boys conduct themselves and interact with others anytime I release them into the world. With this in mind, here are 5 observations I’ve made about your children.

Each one is remarkably capable. A preschool aged boy insists on opening his own snack wrapper. Another wants to search for parts to build a Lego tower without guidance from a grown up. A third takes the initiative to find and put on his own jacket, zip and bundle up. The phrase, “I can do it by myself” is prevalent.

They take care of one another, especially the siblings. A toddler with few words makes sure his older sister has a hat before going out to play. A big brother unties a knot in his younger brother’s necklace string. Their instinct is to help and protect.

The children are kind. A brother encourages his sister to ride the tunnel slide for the first time and waits so they can go together. A school-aged girl teaches a cranky toddler how to fold a paper airplane to distract him from his tired mood. A little brother lets his older sibling try out his new rubber snake. They lean toward what is positive and good.

They are loving. A young girl reaches out to hold my hand as we walk to the lunch table and asks me to rest beside her on a bench to watch the clouds. They talk about you with adoration and beam the moment they know you’re close enough to accept a knee high squeeze.

And filled with joy with every pump “to the moon” on the swings, every giggle as they cook up an invisible order of hamburger and fries, bounce and roll of a deflated basketball and stomp in a dwindling mound of crunchy snow. Amid the pain, your children’s default emotion is happiness.

Motherhood is challenging enough under less strenuous and terrifying circumstances. I respect your strength, determination and resilience. You are a survivor. Your children are survivors.

As you all continue to regain power and heal, please know I am here. Consider me part the village.

Advertisements

Turn Jew and I’ll Marry You

highway

InterFaithFamily picturehuffpo-blog-badge

Mac and I struck our deal over Sicilian pie.

“Turn Jew and I’ll marry you.”
I shook my head.  “You’re crazy.”
“Then raise the kids Jewish.”

Bringing up nonexistent children in a faith other than my own seemed easier to digest than lukewarm mozzarella.

“Okay,” I shrugged.

One civil ceremony, two children, and fifteen years later, Mac and I have put some mileage on our interfaith marriage bus since that momentous meal.

Turns out, there are many of us traversing a similar highway.

Hoping our collective experience might offer insight to couples merging toward the on ramp, I reached out to a handful of drivers in my lane.  Together we created a travel guide we wished someone had stashed in our glove compartment.

1.  Know your baseline

A clear belief system is the anchor for future decision making.

Leah, a Jewish woman whose spouse identifies as agnostic found questioning and self-talk freed her of dogma that didn’t sit well.

Flushing out what spiritually, culturally, and religiously, if anything was important to me:

not extended family,
not community,
but me

before I was in a committed relationship would have saved me years of agita.

2.  Face Fears

Fear is at the root of all issues interfaith.

Jill, a spiritual woman who is married to a Jewish man, raised Jewish children, and is active in her church and synagogue believes,

“If you are strong in who you are, then there is nothing to fear.  Notice when you feel threatened and investigate within yourself.”

My decision not to convert to Judaism is partially driven by fear.  While I’m proud of and dedicated to fostering Bubbe and Skootch’s religious and cultural identity, I am convinced that keeping a foot firmly planted in each camp will protect my sons’ from stereotype, anti-Semitism, and feeling left out.

Fear continues to outweigh rational thought and so, I have more investigating to do.

3.  You are you

My ideas, values, and traditions were not lost when I married someone from a different faith.

Individual identities are often clarified and strengthened when one is in an interfaith relationship as its nature requires each party to listen, reflect, and respond regularly.

I still hear Mac say, “Marrying outside my faith made me a better Jew.  It puts me in a position to think about what really matters.”

4.  Your children will always be yours

About a minute after Bubbe’s bris an outsider remarked, “He should go to the mikvah.  It’s part of the deal.”

Emotions muddled by post partum hormones, I felt torn between the conviction to do right by Mac’s Conservative Jewish upbringing and dread that Bubbe’s formal conversion would jeopardize our mother-son bond.

In search of guidance, I went to see a Reform Jewish rabbi.  She explained the difference between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox interpretations regarding matrilineal descent and ultimately offered,

“Think of bringing your baby to the ritual bath as a beautiful rebirth.”

Screw that, I thought.  What was wrong with his first one?

Bubbe never made it to the mikvah.

From dirty diapers and first words to stomach flues and first good-byes, believe you me, the kid is all mine.  And when it comes time for him to stand on the bimah as a Bar Mitzvah, this Catholic mom will beam with pride.

5.  Make a plan

The interfaith jury has spoken.  Whether it’s before the nuptials or on the second date, but definitely before babies make an appearance;

Decide.

How will you raise the children?

Will your family stick hard and fast to one religion, formally teach two, or like Laurie who is one-half of an interfaith and intercultural couple, celebrate and observe all holidays and life cycle events with a focus on spirituality, values, tradition, and gratitude?

Discuss religion even if one party isn’t religious.  Make your position known. Be aware of choices and stay open to compromise.  Do your relationship a long term favor; don’t rush this conversation to avoid cold pizza.

Invest the time.

The original plan will likely change, but a shared vision will minimize confusion, create the structure and identity children crave, and help all parties feel safe.

6.  Show up

Stacey, a proud Italian who was raised Catholic and her husband, a conservative Jew decided to raise their children in the Jewish tradition.  He was responsible for schul shopping and schleps the kids to Hebrew School.  She holds court during the holidays and planned each child’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations with care.

Laurie and her spouse deem it the responsibility of the parent whose tradition is being celebrated to teach the children about it in a meaningful way.

Regardless of approach, each person takes a turn behind the wheel.

7.  Resentment happens

Humans err, life is messy, and resentment happens regardless of how hard we interfaith folk plan.

When a wife is stuck writing out the family’s Happy Holiday cards all alone when she wanted them to say Merry Christmas in the first place or a husband plans a Passover Seder solo because his non religious partner won’t budge, bitterness ensues.

When the bus gets wedged in a ditch, Mac and I talk honestly about needs and feelings; then come up with a strategy to dig our way out.

8.  Find a friendly rest stop

Sometimes I feel banished to purgatory, belonging to neither side.

When my children were young, I was fortunate to find a local interfaith group.  During our regular “Coffee Talk” meet ups, we kicked around ideas, vented, listened, sought validation and understanding, and offered guidance.  These women and men were my leaning post and sounding board.

Every now and again, a new driver pulled in and shared her story.  Within a few sentences, she cried.  It never failed.  As the group watched the newbie let the air out of her tire, we recalled the struggle and welled up too.

The Coffee Talkers always left our friendly respite a little more relieved and a little less alone on the journey.

9.  Holidays and life cycle events are rough

The ride gets bumpy during holidays and life cycle events.  Isolation, frustration, sadness, and anxiety gurgle to the surface causing the bus to overheat.

When I find myself reaching for Tums, I make connections between Christian and Jewish traditions and then, build my own bridge.

10.  Build your own bridges

After agonizing through years of Hebrew laden High Holiday services and prayer heavy meals with extended family, I cracked.

“This is not my holiday. I don’t get it.  It’s too much and I’m not going anymore.”

My outburst and subsequent conversation with Mac gave us permission to create a Rosh Hashanah tradition where we each felt included and able to derive meaning from the environment.  We started with a relatable rabbi, the children’s service at our Temple, and a meal with friends and have since graduated to grown up services and food with Mac’s family.

I don’t touch Yom Kippur.  These things take time.

11.  Celebrate your spouse’s traditions

Mac, who was raised in a moderately observant home void of Christian symbols, had a post decorating nightmare after he participated in my mother’s Christmas tree trimming party for the first time.

But he kept it up out of respect for me and to model for Bubbe and Skootch the importance of honoring their mother’s tradition.

When we decided to put up our own Christmas tree a few years ago, I brought home a modest bush worried a grand statement might make him squeamish.  Mac gave our five footer the once over, examined the nine foot ceilings and announced,

“This tree doesn’t do the room justice.  Next year it has to be much bigger!”

Last Christmas, Mac drove the family to the Methodist church’s seasonal tree sale and picked one out himself.

12.  Give extended family a chance

Let extended family on the bus.  Offer to take a ride with them.  Prepare a kosher meal.  Attend a mass.  Kindness, sensitivity, and respect breed growth and mutual acceptance.

Those in our family who wondered about the idea of a non-converting Christian raising Jewish children now remark, “I forget she’s not Jewish.”

13.  Be honest with children

From brises and baptism to heaven, holidays and Jesus, at a minimum, Mac and I talk to Bubbe and Skootch about our family’s belief systems.

Any time our boys make an observation or inquire about Mom’s Christianity or their Jewish heritage we keep the response simple and direct.

“The Jewish people believe…”
“Mom grew up believing…”

So far, so good.

14.  Embrace the gift

Jill feels being part of an interfaith family is

“An opportunity for you and your children to learn and understand not just one but two cultures and religions on a very deep and intimate level so learn and embrace as much as you possibly can.”

What a special gift.

15.  Be open to the journey

The scenery doesn’t look quite the same as when Mac and I shared our Sicilian pie.  Our collective and individual spiritual perspectives have and will continue to evolve.  Interfaith marriage is a journey.  And we are a work in progress.

Interfaith.  Intercultural.  Interracial.  Intergenerational.  We are magnificently growing society of

Inter-Somethings.

While we need to map the course which best suits our family, honoring each other along the way will make the ride more enjoyable and all the difference.

Six ways to 65 years; Relationship Advice from a Platinum Couple

Grandparents' wedding picture

At my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary party, my new fiancé, Mac gave an impromptu toast to the happy couple.  Fifteen years later, we never imagined we would once again be celebrating with Joe and Dot for their 65th anniversary.  Last month, we were lucky enough to do just that.

My grandparents are part of The Greatest Generation.

He, a World War II Navy veteran saw The Battle of Normandy in the Atlantic, Okinawa in the Pacific, and lost his parents and almost his own life in a tragic accident all before the age of twenty-one.  A devoted husband and well-meaning father with a strong work ethic who can fix anything, Joe greets life with a smile.  My grandfather is a youthful, spirited song and dance man, musician and opera lover who has serenaded and entertained generations of children.

She, a family and community matriarch who experienced divorce, fierce sibling rivalry, and an alcoholic, estranged father during her youth is a compassionate but no nonsense lady with strong opinions who keeps emotions close to the vest.  A church elder, domestic financier, caregiver, therapist, hostess, Frank Sinatra enthusiast and rabble rouser, Dot has raised, fed, housed, guided and knit elaborate sweaters for generations of children.

Joe and Dot are salt of the earth folk who grew up only a few miles from each other.  They met at work after the war, fell in love and married in four short months.  In their hometown, they raised three children in a modest, two-family house where they still live today.  Now in their late eighties, while the rest of us are busy reading up on which way to lean, they are quietly leaning on each other; much more now it seems than days long ago.

Grandparents 65th anniversary picture

And so with sixty-five years of couple hood under their belt, I asked my grandparents to share six pieces of relationship advice, one for each decade of marriage.  Here is what they had to say:

  1. Have your own friends, take time to socialize individually with them, and be supportive when your partner does as well.  Trust each other; jealousy is not love.
  1. Swallow your pride.  Even when you know you’re in the right; let your partner think he is the right one every now and again.
  1. Let the person who is committed to and better at saving money be in charge of the finances.  Then try and save as much as you can.
  1. Life is a bowl of cherries; some picks are sweet, others rotten.  Always try to keep a cool, level head when snacking.
  1. Sing to your child if you have one, especially as he awakes in the morning.  If singing isn’t for you, create a daily ritual; he will always remember it.  And when your child does something wrong, don’t always tell your partner.  Sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen complicate things.  Work it out one on one with your kid; he’ll remember that too.
  1. At the day’s end, take time to decompress and give your partner time to do the same.  Be thoughtful and aide the process; have a cocktail ready for her when she gets home from work.

6 ½.   Follow your heart, stand by your love, and keep promises to each other.  If you have second thoughts or believe you can’t keep your word, don’t get married.

As the eldest grandchild who lived with them until I was five and then again at twenty-two with countless visits in between and thereafter, I had a ringside seat to much of Joe and Dot’s relationship.  My take away from watching them?

Flirt, dance, sit outside, visit, celebrate, play cards, laugh, argue, reconcile.  Life is a fast and fleeting ride so keep the relationship as interesting as you collectively see fit and be sure to have a good time.

Couple hood is complicated work; everybody has their stuff and it’s not all moonlight and canoes.  But if you go by Joe and Dot, trust, compromise, balance, communication, support, love, honesty, commitment, cocktails and a song go a long way.

Gram and Pop dancing