Once a year or so, my husband or I go abroad without the rest of the clan on a quick trip to see family. I’m American, he’s German, and we live in London. Our parents, siblings, and cousins are spread between Israel, Germany, and the US, so if we want to be with them for big events, or even smaller ones, it often means a short visit, sometimes with one of the kids in tow.
Until now, choosing which of our three boys to take was easy. At 2.5, the youngest is usually my obvious companion of choice. Short nursery hours mean that it’s nearly impossible for my husband to work and take care of him at the same time, so he came with me. The oldest has usually ended up tagging along with my husband. He was the most able to appreciate the extra time with family, and he’s closer in age to his cousins than his younger brothers.
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When my husband’s brother had a boy just after Rosh Hashanah–the first after three girls–there was no way he was going to miss the bris, even though it fell on Yom Kippur. Taking the whole family though would be impossible. We just got back from our annual summer visit to the US, and more importantly, a family of five descending on a house with a new baby is too much for even the most experienced parents.
My husband suggested taking just one of the kids along on his flash four-day visit. In a situation where we feel continually isolated from our families, where I feel continually disappointed that my kids won’t grow up with cousins around the corner like I did, it was a no-brainer. One kid would go, and for the first time, we had to choose which one.
The oldest, who is 8, is definitely easier to bring on a trip. He can entertain himself, dress himself, and ends up reminding us not to forget this or that more often than we would like to admit. But like a true sandwich child, the 5-year-old had not yet managed to accompany either of us on our trips. It was very clear that it was his turn.
We felt comfortable with our decision. We knew that our oldest would not.
We put off telling them until the day before their departure. It gave middle boy enough time to get excited about the upcoming trip, and lessened the agony of the oldest. And what agony it was.
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On Friday night, my husband pulled him aside and explained that it’s now middle one’s turn to join him. Oldest cried a bit but then managed to supress his disappointment until an hour or so before they left to the airport the next day. Then, the tears wouldn’t stop. You could see the disappointment weighing him down with each step he took as he wandered the house looking for something to keep himself busy. There was no way he was going to get into pajamas while his brother waited for the taxi to the airport. He tried to swallow his hurt and jealousy, only to have big sobs escape every few minutes.
How can you make an 8-year-old understand that by choosing his brother this time, it doesn’t mean we love him differently? That in a big family, it can’t always be his turn? I am sure that he intellectually understands the reasoning. But emotionally, it’s too much for his heavy heart to comprehend.
With Yom Kippur just days away, I wondered if he would be able to forgive us for this perceived injustice. After their taxi pulled away, I promised him his favorite dinners for the next few days. For the first time all night, I got a smile.
The truth is, it is easier to comfort him than comfort myself. Babies, engagements, Sukkot, Passover, birthdays, barbecues, Mother’s Day–from big life events to the more mundane, we are apart from our families for most of them. I can’t tell him about my guilt, about how I question every day if we are doing the right thing by living so far away, as if there were another sensible option at this moment.
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This won’t be the last time we need to split up our family for a good cause. Soon enough, it will come up again. We will end up repeating the same words of comfort to the two left behind, thankful that despite the distance my kids still feel close to their extended family, and sad that we are left choosing between our boys once again.