Keren David

The empty nest is full again, and that’s a gift

'If pandemics are allowed to have silver linings, then this is mine, a chance to spend weeks and weeks with my family.'

July 02, 2020 17:01

Exactly one year ago this weekend, I was in Amsterdam. We’d gone there — me and my husband and our children — to celebrate, well, ourselves.

We’d just had our silver wedding anniversary, it was our daughter’s 23rd birthday, she was about to graduate from university. Our son, 19, was about to go travelling, all paid for by himself, and then on to university. It felt like a landmark weekend, and where better to mark it than the city where we’d lived for eight years when they were little?

It felt as though we were also marking the end of an era. The kids were pretty much all grown up, and leading their own lives. And although our daughter was coming back to live at home, after four years away, we suspected that would only be temporary. The battered old nest was preparing for emptiness. There was a slight undertone of sadness as we celebrated, a feeling that the closeness of those childhood years were drawing to an end.

Well, how wrong we were! For the past three and a half months, the nest has been well and truly full. We’ve been experiencing a new kind of family life, one of four adults co-existing. It has not been the easiest thing in the world. But if pandemics are allowed to have silver linings, then this is mine, a chance to spend weeks and weeks with my family.

Yes, of course we have driven each other crazy. Yes, there have been rows and tears and shouting. And yes, the domestic chores have often been at the root of those arguments. The people lucky enough to fall out over points of politics, philosophy and religion, usually have someone on hand to change the beds, do the shopping and make the supper.

In fact the challenges of domesticity got so bad that we instituted a new Friday-night tradition. Inspired by the weekly clap for the NHS, we now spend time over dinner appreciating each other. Whether it’s my husband quietly getting on with the laundry, or my daughter making Mexican food; my son training us to lift weights or my heroic efforts to serve a healthy lunch and dinner every single day, these efforts are praised and applauded. It turned out that our bickering came more from feeling unnoticed and undervalued than from the boring chores themselves. And yes, I know it sounds a little sickly and like The Waltons. But it’s not, and it works.

Parenting adults is very different to the early years. Thankful though I am to be spared home-schooling alongside trying to earn a living, I sometimes hanker after the days when I could tell my children what to do and how to do it. Now they are independent adults, and need my respect and understanding, while we all negotiate a new way to share space.

Of course, our attitudes towards Jewish things have been up for discussion as well. Why and how we keep kosher. What Shavuot means to us — and why doesn’t it have the same clout as other festivals? How my husband’s family differed from mine. And what does being Jewish mean for young people in their twenties?

To hear some in the community talk, you’d think that the main institutions that make a difference to Jewish identity are synagogue and school. The role of the home is rarely mentioned, and often when it is there’s a disparaging tone — a feeling that children must be saved from the ignorance and lack of observance that their parents hand down to them.

But I’d suggest that home life matters far more than anything external. If you have happy memories of growing up in a Jewish home, you will most probably want to recreate something like that for your children.

For some people home life has been harder during lockdown. The prospect of weeks shut in together have proved impossible; we know couples who have broken up in the past few weeks. When we celebrated our silver wedding in Amsterdam, we knew we were lucky to have got to 25 years.

Our marriage has been tested by stillbirth, unemployment and moving countries twice. We stuck together, but easily could have been torn apart.

I’m sure I am not the only person who struggled to find support during difficult times. And I do wonder why there seems to be so little honesty about the strains that family life can bring, and so much emphasis on presenting Jewish families as perfect, successful and wonderful in every way.

As lockdown eases, and this period of intense togetherness comes to an end, I think we’ve all gained a lot. Truly, it’s been a gift.

July 02, 2020 17:01

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