Parents choose to get married, to have children and occasionally to divorce. Children don’t choose any of this. For kids of divorce, their parents’ decisions leave a lifelong impact.
By Avigail Rosenberg
Recently I told my confident, smart and popular twelve-year-old that he has no idea how stable his life is compared to that of other kids of divorce. He was two years old when his father and I separated; he has no memory of our life together. I’ve raised him and his big brother near extended family, and he has a positive relationship with both me and his father.
His world, though, is defined by what his friends have and he doesn’t. He dissolved into tears and told me, “But my Abba lives far away.”
For kids of divorce, their parents’ decision to separate, as well-intentioned or unpreventable as it may be, means that life will never be the same again. No longer will they have two parents living in the same home; no longer will they enjoy the intact family structure that is so valued in the Orthodox community. Their contact with one parent may be limited or curtailed; they may be forced to deal with a parent’s remarriage and all that that entails. Their sense of safety and security is upended, and it might be years before they regain their footing.
While the divorce rate for the general American public is around 50 percent, Orthodox society has long prided itself on its high rate of successful marriages. Recently, however, it seems that frum divorce is on the rise, and its impact has been felt in the community at large. In fact, Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services released a documentary film on the topic called Rising from Divorce. The film’s focus is on providing emotional support to those most affected by divorce—not just the couple themselves, but their children as well.
While several long-range studies have shown that children of divorce are more likely to experience social, emotional or psychological difficulties, including feelings of failure and fear of conflict,1 those same studies reveal that parents can minimize these effects on their children if they protect them from the harmful fallouts of the split, notes Dr. Mark Banschick, psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series, who appears in the documentary. Kids in high-conflict marriages are also at risk for psychological damage, says Dr. Banschick, so divorce can sometimes be a reasonable and healthy way to give kids a better chance at a successful life. But, he adds, “If you want your kids to be healthy, productive adults, you have to realize that you are not the center of this story.” It’s the children who need to be at the center, Dr. Banschick explains, and they must be protected from their parents’ unhappiness rather than being swept into it.
Even for children whose parents protect them from the conflict, divorce leads to a lack of normal family structure and even a degree of emotional neglect. “As a kid, I didn’t realize how much instability I had in my life,” says Tali, today married and the mother of four. “My whole growing up years, we only had grilled cheese or frozen pizza for supper. Today, when I make supper for my children and sit down to eat with them, I feel like I’m giving them a gift that I never realized I was lacking.”
Other children of divorce share how they had to keep all their pain and confusion bottled up inside, since no one ever spoke about it. “I felt like I was the only one whose parents were divorced,” says Alyssa, a therapist in her early forties whose parents divorced when she was six. “I kept everything inside—and I mean everything. I was too embarrassed to speak about what I was going through. In my family it wasn’t something that anyone spoke about.
“After I got married, I was having trouble quitting a job, and my husband suggested that I get help. It’s been twenty years since then, and I’m still learning how to handle the trauma I experienced as a child.”
Monkey in the Middle
Two homes. Divided loyalties. Parents using children as pawns in the chess game of the dissolution of their marriage. All of these and more can negatively impact a child of divorce.
Divorce should not mean the loss of a parent to a child, counsels Dr. Aviva Biberfeld, a Brooklyn-based psychologist in private practice. “In the best of circumstances, the kids are going to have parents in two places; perhaps they’ll have two homes. If the parents are really focused on the children’s well-being, assuring them that they’ll still have a relationship with both parents, it doesn’t need to have the same negative effect. If visitation is inconsistent and the parents are badmouthing each other, it’s much worse.”
Children use trust in parents as their standard for trusting in others, adds Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt, a community activist in New York’s Five Towns who serves as a resource for single mothers and their children. “When we denigrate a spouse or ex-spouse to our child, we are in effect saying that the spouse cannot be relied upon or trusted. Being told by one parent that the other parent is not trustworthy makes the child question his entire trusting mechanism. It can make them live scared and sad lives, since there is no one they can rely on.”
Rabbi Greenblatt remembers a conversation with a young man whose parents had had a bitter divorce. “I befriended him when he was five years old; I helped him and his mother through my tzedakah fund throughout his life,” Rabbi Greenblatt says. He assured the young man that he would help him start the process of finding a shidduch and would assist with the wedding and beyond. “He looked at me with an impenetrable ‘Teflon look’ that said clearly my commitments weren’t to be taken seriously,” Rabbi Greenblatt recalls. “Tragically, this young man’s life had a very sad ending, perhaps due to the damage in his ability to trust.”
While divorced parents may forget the mistakes they’ve made, their children will not. “Picture a divorced mom complaining to a friend on the phone about her ex not paying child support,” says Dr. Banschick. “She’s going on and on—‘I can’t believe he’s acting this way, this is not the person I married.’ Then she adds, ‘He doesn’t even love his own kids.’ Her daughter happens to walk in at this point and hears the last line. Does this mom remember this incident the next day? Probably not, but her daughter will remember it for the rest of her life.”
Many couples will go for counseling prior to separation to receive guidance on how to break the news to their children, what information to share and how to share it, and how to make the “landing period” go as smoothly as possible. “Talk to your kids, be upfront with them,” says Dr. Biberfeld. “Kids need information, they need to know that their questions will be answered.” In addition, providing the children with professional help gives them a safe place to sort through their feelings and learn that they’re not to blame for their parents’ divorce.
“A therapist I worked with told me that a child sees himself as an extension of both his parents,” says Meira, a remarried mother of three in Teaneck. “If you make issues, it’ll affect the kids. I hate my ex with a passion, but I have an amicable relationship with him for my kids’ sake.”
Meira put her children, who were elementary school aged at the time of the divorce, in therapy six months prior to her separation. “It’s been four years now,” she says, “and they’re still adjusting to their new reality. It’s a hard reality to accept.”
Switching Back and Forth
On a practical level, sometimes it’s not the big things but the small things, like the logistics of switching homes, that can drive a kid crazy. Most experts advise that children have some or all of their basic necessities in both homes—pajamas, slippers and Shabbat shoes shouldn’t have to go back and forth. “Children shouldn’t feel like they’re living out of a suitcase,” says Dr. Biberfeld. “There should be toys, books and access to friends in both homes.”
In addition, she cautions, “neither parent should be the only disciplinarian, and neither parent should be the gift-giving, candy-buying parent. Nobody’s being done a favor if that’s happening, and it’s not going to be good for the child’s ultimate relationship with the parent.”
For Alyssa, who from the age of six spent Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at her mom’s and Tuesdays and alternating weekends at her dad’s, “visiting was great, but the technical details were really not great. The other home might be only five minutes away, but if I forgot something that I needed for soccer practice the next day, I didn’t have it. I couldn’t drive, so someone had to get in the car and bring it to me—which might or might not happen.
“To this day, I hate traveling. My kids are always telling me, ‘You’re so boring, Mom.’ I think to myself, if you had to travel as often as I did when I was a kid, you wouldn’t want to travel either.”
For a child in a frum home, switching back and forth between two homes can have another side effect: confusion over religious identity. Meira’s children, for example, live half the week with their father, who is much less religious than she is. “We have very different ways of raising our kids,” she says. “There are things he tolerates that I don’t, which becomes very difficult for the kids.”
Unfortunately, this situation is not uncommon, and in more severe cases, one of the ex-spouses may no longer be observant at all. If a parent’s lifestyle is not in violation of halachah, a New York-based rabbi advises considering the pros and cons of saying something versus staying silent. “Speaking up may cause stress between you and your child and will likely further increase the tension in your relationship with your ex. It’s better to view it as a chance for your child to learn how to cope with Jews not exactly like him,” he says. “Remember, our children model what we are, not what we tell them they should be.”
Meira tries to stay open with her children, though she finds that as they become teens, they struggle with identity more than their peers do. “I’m very open and honest with them,” Meira says. “If they tell me, ‘This isn’t how we do it at our father’s house,’ I say, ‘We’re not married anymore, we’re running our homes differently, and this is how I do it here.’ This is the reality they’re living with, and I try to help them accept it,” she explains.
When one parent is far away, the custodial parent may have to be more accommodating and sometimes even proactive when it comes to scheduling and visitation. Ben, a single father of two now-adult daughters, encouraged his girls to call their mother regularly, even when she moved out of state. “I would arrange their flights to visit her in the summer, even to the point of paying for their tickets when she couldn’t afford it,” he recalls.
Coming Out Stronger
Despite all the doom-saying, children raised in single-parent homes can come out stronger for their experiences. To help your children in this area—in addition to minimizing the negativity and creating a sense of normalcy—divorced parents can provide children with role models and develop a network of friends, mentors and extended family to serve as a support team. Dr. Biberfeld also recommends modeling coping mechanisms. “Teach your children that although things have been difficult, we’ll come out okay,” she explains. “Give them a vision of what you hope to get to.”
As a single father, Ben relied on the support of family friends to help his daughters through their teen years. “The wife of one of my good friends was very actively involved with the girls,” he says. “She used to take them shopping, she’d give me advice, and she’d listen to me complain. Today both of my daughters are well-adjusted, mature, responsible adults. Like a lot of things in life, if divorce doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”
Now in her thirties, Tali feels that her parents’ divorce has shaped who she is in “a thousand ways.”
“I’ve learned to put things into perspective,” she says. “As a teenager, I learned negotiation skills. I learned how to stand up for myself, not to be a pushover. I learned to make my own decisions. I developed some relationships with faculty in high school that really enriched my life later. Many friends have told me how lucky I am that I did that.”
Alyssa, for her part, says that her childhood experiences taught her never to take anything for granted, least of all her marriage. “I work super hard to give my children stability, a home they feel comfortable in,” she states. “I do my best to model for them the best marriage relationship that I can.”
Her journey has also given her a very strong belief in resilience. “A person can go through very hard times, but if they’re determined to try and get the help they need, they can come out even stronger,” she says. “I really believe that with the proper support, willpower, and siyata diShmaya, you can defy your circumstances and grow past them.”
1. See, for example, E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (New York, 2002), and Catherine E. Ross and John Mirowsky, “Parental Divorce, Life-Course Disruption, and Adult Depression,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 1034-1035.
Avigail Rosenberg is the editor of Healing from the Break: Stories, Inspiration, and Guidance for Anyone Touched by Divorce (New York, 2015), and the creator of www.HealingfromtheBreak.com, a resource for single parents and others.