This Veteran’s Day, my son, a college freshman, will wear military blues.
My son was 3 the first time he told us of plans to go into the military. But that same year he also told us he would be a cowboy, a farmer, and a firefighter. So I simply nodded and allowed our lives to continue. In his early teens, he announced at dinner his intention of joining the Israel Defense Forces. Again, I said little, knowing that time and experience would likely shift his thinking. But when, in the final years of high school, he raised the possibility of ROTC in college, I understood that this time there might be something to his planning.
I grew up in Canada. As a nation, we were raised to be proud of the sacrifices Canadians made during the first and second World Wars. My grandmother’s cousin, beloved like a brother, had been a pilot shot and killed in the fight against the Nazis. Her brother, my great Uncle Meyer, was a non-combatant soldier. But in our day-to-day lives, jokes made at the expense of the Canadian military were the rare reminder that there was a military. On the whole, the lack of militarism was one of the things that we were proud distinguished us from our American neighbors. Among the reasons my mother cited for not considering moving to the United States was the potential for military conscription.
But in the end, I did move to the United States. And in the home I established with my husband, elements of military life were never featured. Gunplay was strongly discouraged. I was open about my opposition to the overuse of military force. The last thing I imagined for my son was military service.
“How is it that two of most progressive families in the class are the ones sending their sons to the military?” This was the question posed to me by a fellow mom as our sons graduated from the Jewish high school in liberal San Francisco. The other boy would be enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces, my son in the American Army.
The answer, in part, I believe is the paradox and challenge of successful parenting.
A little over a year earlier, before my son made his army intentions publicly known, I sat watching his high school baseball team. Early during the play I talked with another mother. Her son, about to graduate, was planning on doing Army ROTC. Smart and talented, musically and athletically, this was part of a commitment to service. Confiding to her that my boy was similarly considering such a path, she commended my son on his leadership and willingness to serve. I was touched by this framing, even if it felt foreign. But later, another parent, not knowing my son’s plans, derided the whole concept of ROTC, explaining that they would “never let my son do that.”
But whether we want them to or not, almost from the start, children outgrow our capacity to control what they do. In fact, the fundamental goal of parenting, often lost in the tedium of diaper changing, carpool runs, and college applications, is to grow children who will be successful adults. And what differentiates successful adults from those who struggle at adulting is the ability to set goals and make intelligent choices that lead to the fulfillment of those goals. One of the hardest challenges for many parents is recognizing that in becoming adults, children will make choices that differ from the ones we might make for them.
So in part I see my son’s ability to commit to the military as a sign of successful adulting: his being able to differentiate his sense of self from who his parents are. And while I would not have chosen this path for him, I am glad that he knows his own mind well enough and is confident to break new ground.
But oddly enough, I also see my son’s choice as a natural outcome of the values that our family has instilled in him. In many ways, it is just as the first mother framed it for me at the baseball field. Both my husband and I are Jewish professionals. Both of us felt that we could not leave the work of creating a strong Jewish community to others. Our children have grown up watching us live our values in the work we do as well as in our home. They have seen that sometimes this means sacrifice, sometimes it means doing things for the greater good that we would not choose to do as individuals. They know that being Jewish means being part of something larger than ourselves.
These are many of the same values that propel my son to military service. In addition to living Jewishly, he has taken the bigger picture vision and made it his own. He is living his patriotic values, making sacrifices, and thinking of the greater good. He hopes for a career in politics, but no matter his career choice, he does not believe that he should rely on other to do what he himself would not be willing to do. I do not have to envision the same path as he has chosen to see clearly that he has made our values his own.
And for all of this I admire him. Even as I struggle with motherly and policy concerns, I am inspired by him. To live one’s broader values is no easy task. And from where I stand, the particular road he has chosen seems especially fraught. But it also makes sense with my son’s patriotic and competitive nature, his love of being part of a team and physically pushing himself. In the Jewish communities and in the liberal communities in which I live, many have and will continue to question the wisdom and vision of this choice he has made. I have questions too—though fewer as, like with many things, I understand more and more about this path. But in watching him make his choice and embody the commitment, I am proud of the adult my child is becoming.
As parents, we do not get to decide what our children will do or who they will be. We cannot envision the choices they will make or how they may differ from our own. I certainly never imagined I’d be a military mom. But we receive only a few precious years in which to share with them our vision and values, our skills and talents. And if we are lucky, they will take all of that into account as they make their lives successfully and very clearly their own.