What Do We Tell Our Kids About Our Lives Before They Met Us?
There are quite a few people who can attest to the unadulterated stupidity with which I acted on many, many occasions when I was 16 (and thereabouts… and onward… for years… when I will stop only Gd knows). I’d be the first to testify against me.
At 16, I had a girlfriend and a car and I defied the Angel of Death at every turn. I never doubted I’d survive every idiotic move. I was spontaneous and naïve, chasing dreams of adventure on the edge of catastrophe without a clue about anything.
And that was just the beginning.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. My wife feels the same way. Just different in the details.
It’s a predicament because now we have these other humans around us all the time—humans we spawned—that want to know stuff that’s off script, stuff about us, my wife and I, their parents, about our lives before they knew us, about when we were kids and later and all along not religious at all.
Our kids (16 and 13) are trying to get to know us better, so they want to know our stories.
My concern is in regards to their attitudes toward what we did in our previous lives. You made your mistakes and turned out fine. You had your fun, so now we want to have the same opportunity to have that kind of fun. No matter how we raise them, billions are being spent to attract them to a life that is not Yiddishkeit. And their parents survived intact, so they might believe they can, too.
As much as we try to teach them what we believe is right, ultimately the decision will be theirs. And I’m afraid of that chance that they might pick the opposing team. Not that I would love them any less. I just want the best for them. And we think Torah life is best for them. We know what it’s like to believe morals depend on whether or not desire is inflamed. And so on. We want them to have Torah as their fundamental basis from which to navigate this very complex life. Telling them about our pasts can give them false impressions, can cause doubt about our arguments for Torah.
Conversely, they should know that we did all of that, had our “fun,” and still chose Torah.
And they have, like, their own private lives, too. Internally, at school, with their friends, alone in their rooms, even in front of our eyes.
So they know, from their own experiences, that there are some things we don’t and won’t share. But where do we draw that line? And does that line move the older they get?
One Recent Sunday
We’re all together in the van heading east on our way to a used bookstore in Davie. The plan is to visit the beach afterward. Feet in the sand and shoreline, breathe in the sea.
Transitioning from the Sawgrass Expressway to 595 East is an overpass slanted up to the right at a slight angle.
I glance at my wife. She’s in need of distraction.
“The problem is,” I tell her, “you never played with Matchbox.”
Knuckles white on the door handle, shoulders hunched tight, she says, “I did too. I pushed those cars on the orange tracks. But those were toys.”
“That’s the thing,” I say, “I didn’t just push the cars. I was in those cars. I was prepping for drives like this even then.”
The road levels, and we’re heading east, the sun setting behind us. She settles back comfortably again into her seat.
“But this isn’t Matchbox or Hot Wheels at all,” I say. “Driving this van is like driving a boat.”
“Just keep us above water,” she says. “Anybody thirsty?”
Merging onto the highway, I spot a boxy brown Volvo, much like the one my mother owned in the mid-80s.
And then one of those things happens, one of those accidents of being a dumb human unable to better use the gift of the power of speech. One of those times when I say something I kind of wish perhaps maybe I didn’t say.
“The first car I ever stole was a Volvo.”
Noah sits up, says, “The first? There were others?”
Ooops. “That’s the implication.”
“Seriously, Dad? C’mon. You didn’t really steal it.”
“You told us this story,” Chana says. “You ‘borrowed’ it.”
“Yeah, but I drove it like I stole it.”
Noah laughs. “Did you even know how to drive?”
Chana asks, “How?”
Incredulous, she says, “It’s that easy?”
“No. Definitely not.”
“Yeah,” Noah says, “I didn’t think so.”
“How would you know?” she asks him.
Bicker, bicker, back and forth, blah, blah. Sibling love.
“Tell us about the other times,” Noah says. “How many times did you do it?”
“What exactly did you do?” Chana asks.
“I took my mother’s brown Volvo for a ride around the neighborhood.”
“How old were you when you first did it?”
These conversations tend to give me a bit of anxiety that I fight to control. Their questions can go anywhere from here. What will come out of my mouth?
You have to understand, I can tell them, I somehow believed I was invincible, blessed, cursed.
By then I was obsessed with adventure, I can tell them.
And at 15 I started smoking Marlboro reds, I can tell them.
And I was also obsessed with girls, I can tell them. Obsessed.
And at 16 I got my license and a car and girlfriend, I can tell them. There are things I can’t tell, I can tell them. Ever.
And at 16 I drove that car with my girlfriend in the passenger seat and I was distracted enough to run a red light and smash the three month old car. Glass everywhere, but we were okay, I can tell them. Just scared.
And at 16 I started drinking, I can tell them. And it always had to be all the way for me, I can tell them. I puked everywhere, I can tell them, in gardens, backseats, living rooms, and highway emergency lanes.
I woke up in an alley and a few times on strange lawns, I can tell them.
College was debauchery defined, trying to live like a rock and roll star every weekend, I can tell them.
I’m lucky to be alive, I can tell them. I’m a living warning to you, I can tell them.
But they will find that part hard to believe because as much as that is part of my life, as much as that is part of my wife’s life, as much as we are who we were, we are now no longer those people. And they’ll know that. And they also know, though, that those people helped make us who we are.
“At least I didn’t get caught like my sister,” I tell them.
“Tia Shari did it too?”
“Yep. She hit another car or something.”
That night, after our beautiful outing, Noah got on the laptop to study for the first part of his driver’s permit test.
Baal Teshuva Blues
What do I tell them? What can we tell them? Our screw ups? Our triumphs? What stories to show our fallibility? What stories our guilt? What stories to show our prowess? What stories our perseverance? How will we make ourselves fully human in their eyes without ruining everything with too much truthiness? What can we tell them about ourselves to help them grow from our examples, good or bad?
What is our resume for parenthood? To be their parents?
We came to Chabad with full lives behind us. Noah was 3 and Chana was 6 months old when we first began to take on mitzvahs. They grew up seeing us progress.
Now they want to know from what, from where.
Our kids ask us, “Who were you guys?”
Rough drafts. Cross outs. Do overs. Perennial second chances.
Answers may vary.
We met in 1990. We got married in 1994. Noah was born in 1999.
All that time together we lived like it was 1999.
And then came 1999. And the world began in mystery again.
Previous lives. Before she met me. Before I knew her.
We met because she was reading about the alternative rock band Faith No More in a metal magazine during a linguistics class our first Fall Semester at Florida International University.
They know that story. They understand the irony.
We dated. We dated for four years, including a year of engagement.
We lived a life completely foreign to the one we have been trying to guide them along.
We want them to be better people than we were, smarter in every way, and able to make better decisions.
We want them to have purpose guided by Torah and love for Gd.
And all we can do is pray that it’s working — the schooling, the parenting, the guiding, the telling of appropriate stories at the appropriate time most of the time.
Our children have become human. Real humans.
And they’re social experiments, Gd help them.
Theory: From birth to puberty, kids are kids, so they are strange little aliens, foreign beings we are responsible for training to become fully human. Somehow, the human they become is more confounding than the alien. Might have to do with the fact that in the act of training aliens to be more fully human we ourselves become more fully human.
Theory: When kids become real people, it’s time to realize your game is up. Shh, it just got real.
I know they want to know our stories because they want to better know themselves.
My Gd, they are people just like us.
And sometimes they show us exactly what kind of people they are becoming.
On The Way To Mincha
On the way to mincha on Shabbos, my son and I are talking about the restrictions he’s been raised with so far and the various feelings he has as a teenage boy living within those restrictions. Taking it in stride, I’m telling him how this is natural and so on. And he says, “But you don’t really understand because you had no restrictions.”
“That had its own problems,” I tell him.
“You know,” he says, “I feel even worse now for frum homosexuals.”
I look at him. Here is a moment. I know this is a moment. Here is a subject we’ve spoken of before. The four of us have had conversations about homosexuality because they each asked us our opinions. The discussion wasn’t a difficult one for us. It didn’t involve having to tell them that I’d worked with and had gone dancing with gay friends in South Beach in the 90s, though I did. We told them that Torah says lots of things that make being Jewish amazing and uplifting and lots of things that makes being Jewish difficult and sometimes painful. Sometimes that’s coming from people and culture. And sometimes that’s coming directly from Gd. While He’s supposed to be creating all the time out of mercy, kindness, and goodness, our perception is not Gdly, so we’ll miss a bunch of understanding. But it’s clear to us that ahavas yisroel is at the top of Hashem’s Things To Do list he’s left for us. So we approach the topic from that vantage point.
And he says, “I have to hold back on certain urges, but it’s not for my whole life. And I have felt guilty for having them, but no one tells me they are the wrong urges to have.”
How do we know we’re doing something right? This is how we know. By the humans they become, despite where we came from, that they are humane, empathetic.
He says, “While I’m being forced to not do something, it’s only temporarily. But gays who don’t come out would be forced into something, like marriage, for the rest of their lives. I struggle, but it’s so nothing compared to what I’d imagine it’s like for someone who’s gay.”
“That’s a truly beautiful sentiment, Noah,” I tell him. And I hug him.
Mincha begins and I daven with much gratitude. There’s so much more he will learn. On his own. Making his own stories.
Both of them will. I know this because Chana, too, has shown her powers of empathy, has fiercely stood up for the underdogs, the bullied. She can’t stand hearing racist remarks said casually by schoolmates, or any denigration of people for any reason. She tells us of such things with exasperation. As if to say, how can anyone think that way?
And both of them have shown us that we’re doing okay because they are doing super awesome despite or because of what we tell them and what we show them.
The skeletons in our closets are shedding their clothes and showing themselves as mere collections of bones.
So what do we tell them? Where do we begin and where to we draw lines? I guess it depends on who they are individually. Can they handle that who you were is also part of who you are?
In any case, there’s always more to say, always more to show, always more to live, and always more to learn.