The difficult job of a soldier's mom

Does a mother's role come to an abrupt stop when her child enters the army?

October 7, 2007 07:45
The difficult job of a soldier's mom

idf training 298 idf. (photo credit: IDF)


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When Malka and Yakov Glazel made history a few years ago by bringing into the world the first male quintuplets in Israel, Malka burst into tears. "I didn't think about the diapers and bottles or the difficult nights ahead," she said. "The whole pregnancy went by in the shadow of the [first] war in Lebanon and an hour after the Cesarean section I saw in my mind's eye my five boys sitting in a tank and I couldn't stop the tears." A nurse tried to console her: "By the time they are 18 years old, there'll be peace!" Then an older nurse chimed in: "You should know that the army is nothing compared to the fact that you'll have five daughters-in-law!" Both the prospect of peace and the belief that a mother can't abide her daughters-in-law are outdated, but the fear of Israeli mothers about their children going into the army is as real today as ever before. I always used to say that the worst day of my well-blessed life was the morning that my first son was circumcised. I felt so impotent in the face of what he had to go through then, so hurt by his pain, but I could nurse him and comfort him afterwards. Yet the day he was inducted into the army was a lot worse. I was shattered. Then came the ceremony with the terrible oath. Each child of mine coped in different ways, some more easily, some with difficulty. I still haven't got used to being a soldier's mom. The feeling of helplessness just grows and grows and there is nothing that we can do - try as we may - to protect our soldier-kids. We try not to be over-protective when they are growing up: We encourage them to form their own identities, make their own decisions and develop strengths to cope with the many hardships of life ahead. We can't wrap them up in cotton wool. Then the day comes when the army takes away our kids. We do not send them - they go because the law says they must, since Israel needs an army to survive. When this time comes, they are considered adult, capable of swearing allegiance to the state, even if this means giving up their life in the process. Being the mother of a soldier is like a mother-in-law, as the older nurse made me realize. In both maternal roles, the mother has to let go of her adult child and respect his or her choices. We have to accept that our grown-up kid is now old enough to use a gun and to marry. In both roles, a woman has to accept that she has no say in her child's daily life. She may want to interfere, shout and protest, but she has no right to do so. Some mothers and fathers of soldiers nowadays think that they do have such a right. Do they indeed? If so, when and how should they interfere? Recent events where parents protested angrily at the gates of army camps have highlighted the difficulties of being a soldier's parent. Just before Rosh Hashanah, irate parents shouted outside the Zikim base after a Kassam landed there, wounding 69 soldiers. They were deeply concerned that the army had put their sons in range of enemy fire, unnecessarily. And in mid-August, incensed parents gathered at the gates of the Duhifat battalion's base protesting against their sons' mission to vacate Jews from Hebron. They were deeply concerned that the mission was ideologically wrong. Ten-and-a-half years ago, the spontaneous protest following the helicopters' crash (that killed 73 soldiers) at She'ar Yashuv of four mothers of soldiers serving in Lebanon sparked a grass-roots mothers' movement that set the precedent for parental attempts to meddle in army policies. By the time our children are 18, what sort of parenting do they need from us? Does a mother's role come to an abrupt stop when her child enters the army? Or does it continue in a new format, or just change in intensity? What is our role from the point of view of the IDF and the soldier? Should we just relinquish our parental responsibility? Should we remain silent supporters - collaborators - of the IDF because our children are now part of it? Should parents protest, seek help or keep quiet? If a mother sees that her soldier is clearly in distress, what can she do if the soldier doesn't ask for help? If a mother feels that the army is misusing her soldier, what can she do? How can we reconcile our awareness of the threat of war and terrorism - and consequent necessity of a defensive army in Israel - with our anger, frustration and guilt when our children have to take part in missions that we feel are wrong? How to cope with "my concern over army policies that I condemn," or "the psychological effects of militarism on my child?" I am better at asking questions than at answering them. It seems to me that the right answer from the IDF's point of view, or from my son's point of view, may not be the same as mine. But I believe that we must ask these questions and debate the answers. WHAT IS a mother's role? The answer to this question certainly depends on who we ask - the IDF, a soldier or a mother. It may be clear to IDF officers that parents should be seen (at ceremonies only) and not heard. The army wants us on their terms, not on ours. They want us to send care packages and attend events when they invite us, but not much more. At the first parents' meeting following their child's induction, they are given phone numbers to call if necessary, but within a few months the soldier moves on, under a different officer, and the number becomes redundant. When the Zikim parents threatened legal action, the headline on the Army Radio web site announced: "The parents of Zikim [say]: For Barak we are like Syrians." Confrontational parents are Israel's new foe. Yet parents are becoming so vocal and empowered that the IDF now has to take them seriously. While army officers mostly think alike regarding a mother's role as a quiet supporter, a soldier's view will depend on whether he or she is a new recruit, in an office job, or in a combat unit. The soldiers' personality and maturity will also affect how they see a mother's role. In the small hours of the night in early April 2002 when the IDF entered Jenin for a massive counter-terrorism operation ("Defensive Shield") following the terror attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya, moments before going into the fateful action, two soldiers were wondering whether or not to call home to say goodbye. "You don't know my mom," said one. "If she knew where I am and what I am about to do, she'd come straight over here in her nightie and do the work for me! No, I won't call her now, let her sleep in peace." Yes, we moms will do almost anything for our kids in uniform and our kids know this. But there are some things that we just can't do. Just as soldiers are unlikely to agree on what their mom's role should be, so too mothers are unlikely to agree between themselves. There are no schools to learn how to parent soldiers or how to face the IDF if we deem that it is misusing or abusing our child. There is no parents' union or association that can give us guidelines. There is no rabbi who specializes in this matter. (Some recent rabbinic advice to soldier-parents was out of line.) In 1997, a hotline opened up every weekday evening, a service run by a couple of psychologists, a man and a woman who had made their careers as army psychologists. The two phone numbers for this service are now in the phone book, among the other hotline services, but no one answers either. A woman did however immediately answer the hotline for soldiers in distress. She sounded like a mature person willing to help, although her job is to help soldiers and not their parents. When I asked her for advice for a future parent in the position of the Zikim or Duhifat parents, concerned about their soldier-children for one reason or another, she said that in her opinion the only thing a parent can do is to shout outside the base. There is a private lawyer who has chosen to offer legal help to soldiers and their parents. His website offers: "Golden advice for parents whose children are inducted into the army." The website offers questions that he thinks parents are likely to ask and his answers to these questions. In the first question, about the unhappiness of the soldier son, the lawyer assumes that the father is reading the article and addresses the father - this is clearly a man's business and we mothers should keep out. Indeed, the Ha'aretz report of parental reaction to the Zikim attack depicted fathers shouting and a mother weeping. On the lawyer's website for parents, the author also assumes that the soldier lies to his parents about his being mistreated. The lawyer concludes his advice with three nevers, in bold lettering: Never tell your son's officer what to do, never shout at your son's officer, and never tell your son's officer that he's doing something wrong. The shouting parents of the Zikim casualties who are planning to sue the Defense Minister are using another lawyer's services. A mother's role, as I see it, is only to love and support her soldier-children, to be there for them when they need her and want her advice. When they do seek out her advice, her role is to help them find the right path themselves, not to dictate it for them. It is a mother's job to help her kids stand upright, face up to the tests and find the right way out of their difficulties - just as it is her job to help them face the many other challenges that life inevitably throws forth. But what if she doesn't agree with the path her child is taking obediently under orders from the IDF? Should she support her child by keeping quiet? It's always easier to run away from a difficult predicament instead of finding a useful way through it. But the easy way may not be the best way. Many mothers are now in conflict and wait for the day when they'll be an uninvolved mom-in-law and not an over-involved military mom. Women have empowered each other to question why, after all the love and hassle of raising our kids, we should passively let them become participants in a never-ending cycle of violence. As bearers of new life, we feel responsible for preserving the life that we have nurtured for so long. Mothers who know how to listen and show compassion can use their maternal skills to help each other, their spouses and their soldier-children when the soldiers want to share their experiences. We can and should raise our voices together when we are convinced that the army has been negligent or abusive, but we should never use our children as pawns. They have to learn to raise their own voices and speak out courageously. The sooner they learn, the better. As long as they can speak, we should not speak for them - however hard it is to stay quiet. A soldier's perspective I am 18-years-old and serving in an army base near Gaza. Just before dawn, after 12 long hours of night shift, I plod across the grey concrete slabs to the room I share with five other soldiers. I climb up to my bunk bed in the dark and lay down on my back. The light switches on and the bathroom door slams shut, opens, and shuts again. I turn to the wall, staring at the brown chipped paint. I must sleep, I know, as I have to work again tonight. But I can't. Thoughts crowd my head. Should I change out of my uniform first? Should I undo my hair? Reading is out of the question - I haven't concentrated on a book for months now, and didn't even bring one with me after the weekend at home. I can't talk with the girls in my room; we have long since talked about all there is to talk about. I should write, I think, it is one of the things that still reminds me of who I am. But I can't. As to phoning my mother, she is surely still asleep. Later, I tell myself, and continue to stare. Indeed, who am I? I certainly am not the schoolgirl I had been just months before. I can't play the flute anymore, or am too afraid to try. And books which had always crowded my bed and my head are nowhere to be seen. The last book I read was Harry Potter, and even that was difficult. My laugh has changed, my brother told me. And I need no more than a hurried glance in the mirror to see I look different. My headmaster in school once talked about identity. He quoted a philosopher who said that if you own a green sock, it's your green sock. If you wear a hole in it and darn it with red, it's still your green sock. You might sew on another two red patches, and leave no green material, but it remains your green sock. If you lose it, it is nevertheless your green sock. And what if someone tears it up and uses the red patches to make a doll's dress? I can't remember the answer, if there ever was one; but as I lie in that room, I feel as though the real me was left behind with my books, my flute, my laughter. Here I am, with only my family to link me to the old me, the better me. Talking to my mother is like medicine. I ask the same questions every time. And she reminds me over and over again that I am still the daughter that I used to be; she believes in me, and after closing the cell phone, wet with tears, I feel a flicker of self confidence coming back. Michele Klein is the author of Not To Worry: Jewish Wisdom And Folklore (Jewish Publication Society)

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