When the viral image of Michelle Obama embracing the former President George W. Bush hit the media, I saw something that warmed my heart. It wasn’t because I have any great love of our former Commander-in-Chief. I don’t. And it wasn’t because I saw the FLOTUS I have come to love and admire put aside obvious political differences for the camera. My heart was warmed because in that sincere moment, I saw my every day.
On the eve of the first political debate, my husband and I made the decision to watch the debates with our 11-year-old son. We had to put ourselves under the same debate rules as the audience sitting in that Hofstra auditorium—no comments, no editorials, no heckling. I confess that I don’t even know who my husband will vote for since we have avoided the conversation. I also confess that after 20 years of building a family and focusing on the things that hold us up and keep our relationship strong, it doesn’t serve me to know who he is voting for. But we watched the debate because we both keep having this nagging feeling that we are somehow robbing our child of something important. While we have spent years turning off the television to maintain an emotional détente, it feels like we are denying our son exposure to our most basic electoral process.
At this year’s Rosh Hashanah service I listened to the rabbi discuss the strains of anti-Semitism we have witnessed in the tenor of recent political discourse, in online tweets and discussion boards and buzzing in the ethos. Finding the proper tone with my son to bring these stories to him is our responsibility as his Jewish parents—but the tightrope we walk to give him information without editorializing the sources of this new-world order can test us both.
Our household political discussions with my son involve a much sanitized view of our differences. When my son questions our positions on various topics I try in earnest to present a “mom believes x” and “dad believes y” with compassion and at least some explanation as to why and how we care in similar ways but have different views of how the country should be run. But my son is starting to have his own opinions. As his social awareness grows, so do his political interests. He desperately wants to talk to me about the election but offering an unfiltered opinion would also mean a violation of the sanctity of my marriage.
Growing up the child of a union leader, I never expected that my life-path would hand me a mate from the opposite end of the political spectrum. I was a Jewish New York lefty-liberal to the core, a Boston-educated college student who marched on Washington in 1992 for women’s reproductive rights. I was raised under the teachings of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism—the “liberal elite,” if you will—and my values and mores attracted me to like-minded friends and companions. So when I met my, yes, Jewish, Republican-registered libertarian boyfriend in 1996, I never imagined the next 20 years of ups and downs, kids and houses, and, of course, political diversity that at times would bring arguments, misunderstandings, insults, and injuries.
Initially, it didn’t seem so hard to overcome. Socially, we were mostly on the same page, so we just avoided hot-button issues for the sanctity of our relationship. It was easy in the early years because the world felt less precarious. Our biggest political drama came in the fall of 2000 when we were watching an election results show hour after hour that ended without conclusion—we vowed to never watch results night together again. I don’t know if we have become more set in our ways as we’ve aged or if the political landscape has just become more complicated—or, for that matter, both.
I remember one day when my son was 4 years old and my husband considered taking him to a political rally. I think the gesture was intended to give me a kid-free day, but it ended with an argument and an explicit agreement that we would do our best to shield the kids from our own political agendas, giving them the opportunity to form their own opinions. We have both held to this arrangement and it has helped us avoid any form of indoctrination with our children. On the flip side, it has a price.
We didn’t watch the second debate as a family because we knew the subject matter might be more than we were ready to discuss and the vitriol would be too challenging to explain. And last night, with my husband out for the evening, we considered whether it would be appropriate for me to tackle the third debate alone with my son.
In the end, we decided against it because my husband was uncomfortable being disconnected from the conversation. Could I have just watched it with my son and confessed to my crime after the fact? I suppose. But having just engaged in a 25-hour fast and period of self-reflection on Yom Kippur, I could not with clear conscience trespass into turbulent political territory when we have worked so hard to build a balanced framework for how we share ideas with our children. For now, without clear bipartisan consensus, political discourse will have to be tabled.
I do look forward to the day when talking politics with my children can feel a little less fraught with potential to cause family strife, but for now we’ll just have to let some things go unsaid. Taboos can be exciting and dangerous to explore, but they can also do great damage when navigated recklessly. For now, my family will just have to rely on earnest moments of embrace between often political foes who can set aside their differences. Or maybe, in showing our children that two people can come together, build a life and a family, and still find comfort in our own mutual embrace, we’ve done more for them to build their world-view than two parents of same-political influence could ever do.