The Jewish Value of 'Peace in the Home' Is Easier Said Than Done – Kveller
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The Jewish Value of ‘Peace in the Home’ Is Easier Said Than Done

One hack for 'shalom bayit' I recently discovered? Losing your voice.

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It’s the evening of my birthday, and I’m alone with my three children handling bath and bedtime. My husband is on an airport run to pick up my sister’s family, and because I asked him to do this, I’m not allowed to resent his absence. Also, I have completely lost my voice.

At first I assume I left it in the karaoke room where I had my party the night before (Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” is a very long song), but as the moments pass, it becomes clearer and clearer I’m just sick. My insides feel cold, so I put my feet into the warm tub with the kids. 

Within minutes, the boys, ages 5 and 3, start fighting over a bath toy (a regular toy I made the questionable decision to allow in the bath), and I start to bark the customary “GUYS!” but realize I can’t. Nothing comes out but a raspy squeak. I stop to think, then tap my 7-year-old daughter, Sam. 

“Tell them to be kind and work it out,” I whisper. 

She is, naturally, delighted to play the role of translator and default boss and goes about making up a system of complicated hand signals I’m supposed to use to transmit messages to her, which she then passes along to Levi and Benji. This makes for a fun, conspiratorial vibe between the two of us, and she ends up directing her brothers with warmth and patience. And the boys are receptive! 

I point to the soap and mime scrubbing myself, and Sam says, “OK, time to soap up!” I silently stand to grab towels, and Sam claps her hands. “All done, guys!” she chirps, and her dripping brothers dutifully stand to be dried off. As I revel in all this — the efficiency, the cooperation, the lack of whining or squabbling — a phrase pops into my mind: “Shalom bayit,” Hebrew for “peace in the home.” 

I’d known of the concept but encountered it most recently on an episode of “Shaboom!,” a cute, silly animated series that teaches Jewish traditions and values. (And some solid jokes: “You know why this challah is lazy? Because all it does is loaf around!”)

I can’t remember how we discovered the show — probably inadvertently while on a search for Passover song parody videos —— but it’s become a YouTube go-to the kids enjoy and I feel good about. I find myself referencing it a fair amount, actually. 

The Yom Kippur episode, for instance, uses the term “slicha”  — “I’m sorry,” or “excuse me” — to teach the difference between a rote apology and a sincere one. So now when someone snatches something from someone else and mumbles over their shoulder as they flee, “I’msorryareyouOK,” I’ll singsong “slicha…” and (on a good day) the first someone may trudge back over to actually check on the second someone and try to make amends. Having a Hebrew word to use as shorthand in such situations has proven pretty useful.

Of course, though, I sometimes do not say “slicha.” I sometimes say, “YOUR BROTHER WAS CLEARLY USING THAT! GO BACK OVER THERE AND MAKE IT RIGHT!” Or a variation thereof. Those reactions, spoiler alert, do not contribute to shalom bayit. 

Increasingly, I find myself ashamed and frustrated by moments of irritability or exasperation. I understand these are natural human reactions and normal occurrences in a house full of small children and in life in general. Neither crimes nor personal failures. I’d just like to experience less of them.

In those magical, organic instances of shalom bayit, when everyone’s been playing nicely and we’re not in a rush and I’m not trying to do seven things at once, it’s pretty easy to mother as I’d like. A disagreement might pop up, or something may spill or break, and I can handle it in a measured tone, with empathy and validation and all the things from all the parenting podcasts. It’s when it’s time to leave for school and there’s a puddle of damp Cheerios under the table and I’m still slicing cucumbers for lunchboxes and someone’s wailing they can’t find one specific Lego while someone else who’s been told to put on their shoes 17 times is still barefoot that I have trouble accessing the peaceful, intentional, podcast-educated part of myself.

The night I lost my voice, though, I had to parent deliberately and calmly by default. Reactivity was not an option. Nothing could fly out of my mouth in the heat of a moment because nothing could fly out of my mouth at all. 

The house remained peaceful after the bath, when the four of us gathered in the little guy’s room to get ready for bed. At some point, as the kids put on their pajamas, Benji dipped out to the laundry room to retrieve the wooden stool he planned to use to hoist himself into his crib. Because he was wearing a bulging, green Hulk puncher on one hand (as one does), he lost his grip and dropped the big, heavy stool onto his tiny, little toe (as one does).

As I scooped up the hysterical Benji, I realized that, had my larynx been functioning properly, the first thing to come out of my mouth would have been something like, “See, this is why we don’t pick up heavy things while wearing a gigantic foam boxing glove.”

Well, I thought. That’s messed up.

Instead, I whispered “it’s OK” over and over into his curly hair. Before I even had the chance to mime the suggestion, Levi bolted downstairs to get an ice pack. Sam fawned over her injured brother, rubbing his back as I assessed the damage to his toe. “Want me to read to you?” she cooed, and Benji nodded, swiping the Hulk puncher across his teary face and squirming out of my lap. Levi returned with the ice, and I held it against Benji’s little foot as the three kids sprawled on their bellies reading with their arms draped over each other’s backs.

It was the cutest, coziest, proudest of moments, and I did, obviously, kvell my head off. But also I found myself thinking: So, to achieve shalom bayit, I need to… not talk? The “Shaboom!” episode made no mention of inflamed vocal chords, but is that the answer? Actually, should I maybe just not be here?

Of course not (for legal reasons, among others). And maybe I’m giving my malfunctioning throat too much credit. Maybe everything went smoothly because the kids knew it was my birthday, or felt bad I was sick, or maybe it was a full moon or Mercury was in retrograde or something. There are too many variables to determine a cause. Probably it wasn’t any one thing. But I suspect the combination of that night’s playfulness, togetherness and quiet had a lot to do with it.

Just as it’s hard for me to stay calm amid their outbursts and miscellaneous household chaos, it’s probably hard for them to stay calm amid my nagging or snapping. A kind of feedback loop. I know I can’t control their input into that loop, but that night showed me the value of trying to control mine. It felt, I suppose, like a lesson in taking a step back. In spending a second to decide what I’d actually like to say and in which tone I’d like to say it, or a beat to let them figure things out on their own.

I don’t think we can necessarily orchestrate shalom bayit, nor should we blame ourselves when experiencing the opposite (kvetchy bayit? Meshuga bayit?). I’d just like to try to set the tone.

For anyone wondering the exact number of times I’ve lost my patience since having this epiphany, the answer is one million. Recovering from laryngitis is apparently a lot simpler and quicker than rewiring the brain. But it’s something to work toward. Meanwhile, there’s always slicha. 

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