In Their Own Words: Life as a Divorced Parent

 “Tamar”  

As told to Aviva Engel

My husband and I divorced after ten years of marriage. We have two sons. I was single for two years and am now remarried. Baruch Hashem, I now have another son and a daughter!

Growing up, I had only one classmate whose parents were divorced; it was an anomaly. Eighteen years ago when I got divorced, it was still nowhere near as common as it is today, and it was a completely different era. Social media wasn’t what it is today and divorced women couldn’t network with one another online the way they do now. There were only a handful in my neighborhood, and we would get together at someone’s house and support each other.

I remember a difficult incident. One Yom Kippur, I didn’t have anyone to leave my boys with. They were very young, so I brought them to shul with bags of snacks. They were sitting and eating very quietly, and a man turned around from the men’s section and gave me a look that said, “Your kids don’t belong here.” After that, I didn’t return to shul for months.

Fortunately, that experience was an outlier. I live in a beautiful community that overwhelmingly supports divorced women. My sons and I were invited to many meals, and I always knew we could go to my neighbor, who would host us at a moment’s notice. My neighbor was, and still is, my lifeline and my closest friend. Whatever her husband did for their family, he did for me. When he sold their chametz, he sold mine, and when he donated the machatzis hashekel (half-shekel charitable donation customarily given during the month of Adar), he gave for me as well.

“People are happy to have a divorced woman for a Shabbos meal and they’re happy to take a kid to shul, but they have to be asked.”

One of the organizations that helped me tremendously during my divorce was Sister to Sister. Today I am a volunteer for the organization and support others. I often give divorced women the following advice: find a community and a rav for yourself. A lot of women complain that no one calls them. I assure them that there are people who care about them, but we all lead busy lives and between work and family the hosts simply forget to extend an invitation. People are happy to have a divorced woman for a Shabbos meal and they’re happy to take a kid to shul, but they have to be asked. Sometimes you have to take the initiative. I know it’s hard to be the one asking, but you have to put yourself out a bit. Otherwise, others don’t know you’re struggling.

Conversely, when I was divorced, there was a woman in town who used to call me like clockwork every three months on a Tuesday morning to invite me for Shabbos. I always felt like I was her project. There are people out there who are thinking about you, but sometimes it’s done in a way that may not feel warm and fuzzy. Ultimately, though, I knew she meant well and I would accept the invitation.

Aviva Engel is an award-winning freelance journalist and a director of communications in Montreal, Canada.

 

“Shlomo” 

As told to Steve Lipman

When my ex and I separated after seven years of marriage, I gave the get right away. Giving it so soon enabled my ex-wife to drag her feet and take inordinate amounts of time to respond to any divorce-related issues. Nevertheless, I do not regret giving the get when I did.

We’re still working on our legal divorce. My wife has primary custody, a 70-30 arrangement—I have the kids on alternating weekends; I don’t know many men who have primary custody of their children.

Upon separating from my wife, I moved out of town to attend school to become a healthcare professional. It wasn’t feasible for my wife and kids to make the move. It was a very difficult decision for me, and I was viewed by family and friends alike as though I had walked out on my family. Unfortunately, at this point in my life I can’t afford to move to the community where my kids live; I would have to make three or four times my current salary.

We have been successful in making custody arrangements based on each of our needs, schedules and family obligations, even without an agreement or divorce in place. I often drive in for a day to take the kids to doctor appointments and to care for them when they are ill so my ex-wife doesn’t always need to take a sick day. I’m not required to do this when they are in her custody. But because single mothers are underappreciated, I have tried to be as agreeable as I can in our negotiations and in our relationship. I want the kids to have the best experience.

A lot of assumptions are made about the “dad,” particularly in the Orthodox community.

The parent who does not have primary custody gets the short end of the stick—I don’t get invited anywhere for Shabbos. It’s a challenge to be part of the frum community when the kids aren’t with you. I don’t have my own home, which makes it difficult to have guests and friends over. In addition, many friends fell out of touch, I suspect because they don’t know whose side to take, or because they have chosen to take sides. People don’t know what to say, think or feel, or how to communicate with you about the divorce.

A lot of assumptions are made about the “dad,” particularly in the Orthodox community. I don’t get much sympathy. People think: “You don’t have the kids, you don’t have to do bedtime.” I would love to do bedtime. It’s not fun knowing you’re missing out on your kids’ formative years. I would gladly give up all this free time for a 50-50 custody arrangement. It’s hard to continue being a great dad while carrying the stigma that “you left.”

In the Orthodox community, there is also a perception that it’s easier for the man to move on than for the woman, which is partially true. I have more time to get an education, to date, to focus on other aspects of life. But the kids aren’t with me full time. I miss out on the day-to-day routine. Granted, I don’t get woken up by a kid, but I miss out on the snuggles.

Having the kids on Shabbos makes it very hard to go to shul; I’m with the kids myself, and they are young. On the other hand, it gives me a unique chance to be mechanech them, to educate them—by davening and making Kiddush at home, spending time with them the whole day and being involved in their learning. We will do this until they are able to sit next to me in shul without running around, making noise and needing my attention. When they are with me at home, I try to give them constant attention.

Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.

 

“Rivka” 

As told to Tova Cohen

Finances tend to be tight when you are divorced. As a full-time healthcare professional, I work hard so my two kids (ages thirteen and eight) can have what they need; I don’t want to tell them I can’t buy them something because I don’t have the money. I don’t mind working hard, but I’m tired all the time.

I’m blessed to have a huge support system—I have a lot of family who live nearby and a great circle of close friends. I’m not sure how I would have survived the divorce process without them. You really see who your true friends are when you’re going through a divorce; I lost one friend because she questioned and gossiped about my choices.

People should never assume they know the reason for someone’s divorce. You never walked in that person’s shoes, and what you see and perceive does not paint an accurate picture of what goes on behind closed doors. People should be less judgmental and focus on their own homes—everyone has their own problems that deserve attention.

Programs like My Extended Family (an organization that provides support to children from divorced families) are amazing, but there is more that individuals can do to help. If you find out that your child’s classmate’s parents are getting divorced, invite that kid over for playdates, and then also invite his mother or father for a Shabbos meal. Offer to help with tangible suggestions. “Do you need me to drive your son to minyan?” “Do you need someone to learn with your son?” “Do you need anything from the grocery store?” Just keep offering—even if the single mom doesn’t need the help, she needs to know that people in the community care about her.

If I could speak directly to other single parents, I would tell them to care for their mental health so they can be the best parents possible in the face of ongoing stress. See a therapist regularly. A therapist gives you necessary coping mechanisms and strategies to deal with the toxicity and trauma you experience in a divorce. And most people who are divorced have experienced some kind of trauma, whether or not there was actual abuse. Incidentally, in many cases of divorce it is about abuse—more often than you would think. It’s just not discussed in the Jewish community, but it needs to be, just as there needs to be better education in high schools, yeshivos and seminaries so young people, especially young women, know what a healthy marriage looks like.

Offer to help with tangible suggestions. “Do you need me to drive your son to minyan?” “Do you need someone to learn with your son?”

I did not have an amicable divorce. While I’m happy for those people who had “good” divorces, I don’t think it’s the reality for most people. The biggest challenge I face is co-parenting with my ex (we share 50/50 joint custody). For instance, my son is applying to high school now. It would be great to co-parent with my ex and decide together what’s best for our son and what his future might look like. But we get bogged down by fighting about other things. It feels like we’re working against each other when we should be working together. And this is an ongoing, constant challenge that’s very difficult to work through since it affects every facet of our children’s lives: camp registration, dentist appointments, you name it.

One of my parents passed away three years ago. It was a huge turning point in my life. Combined with the fact that I have been caring for Covid patients since the start of the pandemic, my perspective really changed. I realized that maintaining a positive outlook is crucial. Life is short and I need to try and be happy. This is not the life I imagined for myself, and I sometimes feel guilty that this is the life my kids are living, going back and forth between two very different households; I didn’t imagine this for them either.

But everyone has something they’re dealing with. I count my blessings and always try to see the positive. Baruch Hashem, I have a job and the ability to provide for my kids. I have a supportive family. Not everyone has these things. I don’t take anything in life for granted.

Tova Cohen is a senior writer at UJA-Federation of New York and a freelance writer in fundraising communications for a number of nonprofit organizations. Her creative bylines have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Tablet Magazine. She lives with her family in Englewood, New Jersey. 

 

“Ruben”

As told to Aviva Engel

I’ve been divorced for two years now, and there are definitely challenges. One challenge is lighting the Shabbos candles on Friday night; it’s something my ex-wife used to do, and now I do it. Obviously it’s a mitzvah for me too, but it often brings back memories.

Ashkenazi men wear a tallis once they’re married. If you’re at shul in your own community, people likely know you’re divorced (even though you are wearing a tallis). But when you leave your community or travel, for example, people naturally approach you and ask, “Where’s your wife?” You’re kind of caught in this situation of not knowing how to respond. It can be uncomfortable.

I live in the same community as my ex-wife. I realized that a lot of invitations stopped coming once I got divorced. Baruch Hashem, there are still a couple of families with whom I’m really close and they always reach out to me. But I definitely think guys tend to have a harder time getting invites once people choose sides.

When I got married, a number of young couples moved into town and we all lived in the same apartment complex. We would always get together on Shabbos and host one another for meals. The guys would hang out together, and the women would chat. We had a lot in common. I don’t have that anymore. Perhaps people just don’t want to associate with someone who is divorced.

As a community, we need to fight the stigma surrounding divorce and become more accepting and more understanding.

It’s very easy to point to a divorced individual and say, “I know why he got divorced—because of this middah,” or  because he “acted a certain way.” It’s easy to sum everything up and conclude, “Oh, now it makes sense.” But the reality is that regardless of our marital situations, we all have weaknesses and areas that need improvement. The difference between married and non-married people is that as a divorced person you’re more exposed. And this is how the stigma develops. As a community, we need to fight the stigma surrounding divorce and become more accepting and more understanding. Rather than turn away from a person who is going through a difficulty, realize that that is when he or she needs the community’s support most.

Ruben Bernshtein of Edison, New Jersey, is the founder of Ish Chayil, an organization dedicated to helping frum divorced men.

 

Resources:
1. Ish Chayil, Reuben Bernshtein: 732-801-9898
2. My Extended Family, a project of Mayan Yisroel of Flatbush, offering services to children of divorce: myef.org.
3. Sister to Sister: sistertosisternetwork.org.

 

More in this Section

The Divorced Family by Aviva Engel

Supporting the Divorced Parent: What Every Community Can Do to Help by Aviva Engel

Children: The Victims of Divorce

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This article was featured in the Summer 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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