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A House Divided

Yitti Berkovic

It starts the same way every time. It’s always the two of them, reenacting the same scene, their words and actions so predictable, they may as well be reading off a script.

Here’s a snippet:

“Ma, Tzvi took my football away.”

I shoot Tzvi a penetrating glare and he throws his hands up in frustration. “I took it away because Ezriel threw it at my head!”

Now Ezriel is at my side, his big eyes wide and watering. “I didn’t throw it at his head – I just wanted him to have a catch with me!”

Tzvi scoffs with indignation. “I told him I didn’t want to have a catch – and he threw it at me anyway.”

Unfortunately, the scene ends the same way every time, too, never veering from the script.

Tzvi stalks off with all the self-righteousness a teenage boy can muster (you know what I mean: mumbling to himself, shaking his head as he marches to his room, slamming the door), while Ezriel stays behind and bursts into tears, breaking my heart into a million pieces.

There are things that just don’t mix. Oil and water. Milk and meat. Impatient older brothers and pesky younger brothers.

I keep waiting for that magical moment when they’ll actually enjoy each other’s company – but that seems as likely as cats and dogs calling a truce. 

Tzvi is 14, already in high school, already old enough to stay for the late night seder and to consider using a shaver.  

Ezriel is six and absolutely idolizes his big brother because he does all the cool things (like getting the ball through the hoop when its at its tallest and making a sunny-side-up without breaking the yellow.). But Ezriel hasn’t figured out how to be cool enough to win his big brother’s attention, so he makes up for that by annoying him every opportunity he gets. Negative attention, it seems, is better than no attention at all.

So Tzvi has no patience for Ezriel, and Ezriel has still hasn’t figured out that annoying someone is not a productive way of convincing them to play with you. 

But my two boys are not the only ones with a tendency to read from an old script. Maybe it’s in their genes? I’m loath to admit it, but my husband and I seem to have the same bad habit. Because as soon as Tzvi and Ezriel go at it, we find ourselves taking sides.

Yossi defends Tzvi.  “Ezriel is annoying him on purpose. He has to learn to give him space.”

I defend Ezriel.  “He looks up to Tzvi so much and is desperate for his older brother to give him some positive attention. Would it kill him to toss the football with him for a few minutes? Then Ezriel would leave him alone.”

Right on cue, Yossi and I turn on each other. He says, “You’re not being fair. You need to see this from Tzvi’s perspective. He’s still a kid himself, and Ezriel has to be told to give him his space.”

That only causes me to dig in my heels. “And you need to see this from Ezriel’s perspective. He’s only six! We can’t expect so much from him. Let Tzvi throw him a bone (or a football!) every now and then – and Ezriel will stop annoying him.”

It’s a stalemate, every single time. (We need the scriptwriter to come up with a plot twist!)

Don’t worry. Yossi and I know the rules.

We don’t undermine each other’s parenting in front of the kids, so our disagreements (almost) always take place behind closed doors and out of our kids’ earshot. But it’s pretty amazing how predictable and inflexible we both can be. We fall into a pattern – I side with my apple-cheeked cutie, convinced he is the wronged one, while Yossi sides with our peach-fuzzed and (slowly) maturing young adult, convinced that he isn’t getting a fair shake.

When we walk away, I know I feel judged (does Yossi think I’m a terrible mother?) and misunderstood (I’m only coming down hard on Tzvi because I believe in him!), and I bet Yossi would say he feels the same way. Worse, I’m pretty sure my kids sense that we don’t have a unified front, which probably – at least subliminally – reinforces their bad behavior.

A psychologist would have a field day exploring why Yossi and I take the sides we do (maybe as a sister who grew up sandwiched between two brothers, I relate to the feeling of vying for their attention but annoying them both instead?), but either way, we don’t need a psychologist or a parenting coach to tell us we aren’t handling this the right way. 

I can be as stubborn as Ezriel. And Yossi can be as stubborn as Tzvi. (I wonder where they get it from?). But we both love our children. We both want them to get along. And we know that splitting into separate camps is not going to solve our problem. 

We’re supposed to be a parenting unit, and we all know there’s no “I” in team, but very often, I think my way is better. As a mother and a woman and college grad who took (but occasionally slept through) Psych 101, I think I’m the one who is more intuitive about my kids’ needs. I’m the one with binah yeseira, right? Shouldn’t he trust me on this? Shouldn’t he see things my way?

Well. Maybe that would be good for my ego. It probably wouldn’t be great for my parenting. 

Under the chuppah, Yossi didn’t promise he’ll always take my side or always see things my way. (Shoot – I should have added that to our kesuba!). Besides, Hashem knew what He was doing when He made parenting a two-person job. As much as I don’t like criticism, I need my husband to point out my blind spots. And my husband needs me to call out his blind spots. And when we’re not seeing eye to eye in our parenting, it’s probably not because one of us is totally right or totally wrong, it’s probably because both of us have to move a little more to the middle.

So, the next time the scene replays itself between Ezriel and Tzvi (and, oh, it will), I’m going to try to be less predictable. Maybe I won’t take anyone’s side. Maybe I’ll hide in my room, sip a coffee, and pretend I don’t hear them screaming my name. Or maybe I’ll take a deep breath and try to incorporate Yossi’s point of view, (and Tzvi’s point of view. And Ezriel’s point of view. Gosh – I’ll never make anyone happy), and maybe we’ll finally veer off script and reach a happier ending. 

In the meantime, there is one thing Yossi and I agree on: Ezriel and Tzvi can both be impossible! Who raised these kids? 

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