Experts say that keeping each home fully stocked with whatever a child might need — a full wardrobe school supplies reading material toiletries pajamas — reduces the sense of living an unrooted nomadic life (Photos: Eli Cobin)
or years the nightmare haunted him:
Shlomo is his six-year-old self standing in the hallway of his parents’ home. His mother and father each hold one of his arms soundlessly tugging him in opposite directions. He feels himself split in two.
The dream was so vivid that today almost 30 years later with only the slightest bit of imagination Shlomo — now married with young children of his own — is back in the terror of that hallway scene. No need for Freud here with the symbolism so glaringly obvious. This is exactly how it feels says Shlomo to be a child at the center of a custody battle.
“My friends who were at the center of nasty custody fights are cynical closed-off people who’ve lost respect for both their parents ” says Dalya whose parents divorced when she was 12. “They’re scarred on a deep psychological level. Other kids of divorce I know whose parents managed to get along have happy stable lives.”
Divorce is never easy and the very nature of a parental split-up throws children off balance often shattering their sense of security and stability. Within custody arrangements there are so many variables that can spell the difference between a well-adjusted individual and one with festering psychological wounds.
Is there a way to ease the pain and tension of a child faced with the confusion of dual loyalty two homes and perhaps conflicting lifestyles?
Gila’s Story: Psychological Chaos
At the time of my divorce ten years ago I was so desperate to get out of my marriage that I quickly agreed to the custody deal presented to me. My oldest was nine and though my husband was already displaying troubling signs I couldn’t foresee the issues that would arise as my kids got older. Today I regret that I didn’t fight harder.
My ex and I live in the same town and my kids spend two weeknights with me two with their father and alternate long weekends between us. In theory this sounds great. In my situation it’s damaging. After the divorce my ex changed to the point where now our hashkafos are completely different. In his house the kids have little discipline and tremendous freedom to do what they want. Following halachah isn’t emphasized and they watch movies that are antithetical to my values.
The inconsistencies are palpable to my kids and as teens they’ve suffered with questions of identity. The fact that they spend equal time with each of us has only added to their identity confusion. With time they each seem to be finding their own way.
I’ve considered going to court to try to change the custody arrangement but have concluded that it’s not worth it. The cost would be huge in terms of money time and energy and I realized that as they get older they go back and forth between houses whenever they want anyway.
When children are raised in two homes with radically different values, like Gila’s are, the typical result is psychological chaos. (The religious disparity between the parents wasn’t factored into the original custody agreement, because at the time of the divorce it wasn’t an issue.) A child holds both parents on a pedestal, forming his own identity in large part by drawing on theirs. Here, he instinctively turns to both parents for direction, yet taking cues from one means rejecting the other, whom he may respect just as much. That cognitive dissonance is unsettling and confusing.
“This is a nightmare for children,” says Miriam Horowitz, a clinical social worker at Refuah Health Center in Spring Valley, New York. “If one parent is no longer frum, I’d say to him or her: Do you want your children to grow up stable and emotionally healthy? The greatest chance of that happening is by maintaining a consistent lifestyle when you’re with the children. I’ve seen kids from the frummest homes go trick-or-treating. In addition to making their commitment to Yiddishkeit a struggle, it’s confusing and stressful to live two different lives. In cases like this, support from the yeshivah, where a child spends most of his waking hours, can be invaluable. When a teacher or ‘big brother/sister’ takes such a child under his wing, providing mentorship and TLC, the benefit can be very great. Therapy is also a must.”
The more united a front parents present — from major lifestyle choices to parenting styles to views on technology to just about anything else — the more grounded and whole a child will be.
Could Gila’s story have ended differently had she gotten the right help when setting up a custody agreement?
Some divorcing couples decide on the arrangement themselves, and have it drawn up by lawyers. More commonly, each side hires a lawyer to negotiate the deal in order to protect his or her interests, with the understanding that they’ll settle out of court. Ideally, these lawyers take a collaborative approach, with the goal of negotiating an arrangement efficiently and fairly. Another option is mediation, in which a neutral third party helps the couple negotiate the deal. A mediator is most often a lawyer or community askan, but can be anyone the couple chooses.
“When choosing an askan as a mediator, one must be very careful,” says Ilana Blass, an attorney who has worked for the Beth Din of America and currently does divorce mediation. “Many askanim are excellent, but I’ve seen mistakes arise when they’re not experienced or conversant in the law. Often, out of eagerness to get a deal signed, an askan may pressure the couple, which can result in a less-than-ideal agreement for one side. A good lawyer won’t settle on a deal until it’s in his client’s best interest.”
It’s always advisable to have a lawyer involved in working out the custody agreement, says Natan Shmueli, a divorce and estate planning lawyer in Brooklyn, New York. “Sometimes people use standardized custody agreements, without the input of a legal expert. This is a bad idea, particularly in the frum world, where there are so many circumstances that aren’t covered in these agreements — brissim, Yamim Tovim, simchah events. An experienced lawyer knows what to anticipate. The more the details are spelled out in the agreement, the less friction there will be down the road.”
Advice from one divorced woman: The couple should meet with the mediator or lawyer alone. “The parents are the ones who need to live with the arrangement, so no one else’s opinions should count. In my case, family and friends got involved, and made things unnecessarily complicated.”
When at least one parent is angling for a fight, the case usually ends up in beis din or civil court, and the custody arrangement is determined by the dayan or judge. “Halachically, one must first go to beis din,” says Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt, an askan in the Five Towns. “If beis din determines that the defendant will not honor their subpoena (hazmanah), then it may allow the plaintiff to pursue a resolution in civil court.”
In some states, such as New York, beis din does not have jurisdiction over custody cases; however, if all parties agree, the court will often rubber-stamp the beis din’s decision. In other states, such as New Jersey, beis din does have jurisdiction over custody.
Dalya’s Story: Two homes too many
my parents divorced when I was 12, and in the beginning, my siblings and I would spend a full week at my mom’s, followed by a week with my dad. My seven-year-old sister didn’t want to go a whole week without seeing one of her parents, so we instituted an inviolate midweek dinner at the parent we weren’t with that week.
When I was 14, I became tired of the instability, and my siblings and I started living with each parent for two weeks at a time (with a weekly supper at the other parent). This created more of a sense of home and permanence for us. Today, at 18, I still keep this arrangement; I feel it works well for older kids, whose relationship with their parents isn’t defined by whose house they sleep in any given day. Younger children tend to miss the parent they’re not with, so this wouldn’t be ideal for them.
My parents live a ten-minute walk from each other, so moving between houses isn’t a huge shift. Our school and social life remain the same, and it’s not hard to get things we need from the other house. My parents are chilled with us coming and going as we please.
But even in a smooth situation like ours, it’s very annoying to live in two places. I’ve always felt I don’t spend enough time with either parent. I hate the constant schlepping of things like school uniforms and books. If I want something from my other house, it’s a hassle. I never know if things are truly lost, or just at my other house. Imagine trying to collect library books. It’s difficult to make plans, always needing to figure out where I’ll be living at any given time. Even small things, like remembering each parent’s preference for how things should be done around the house, can be anxiety-provoking for a kid. I look forward to living in one place some day.
It’s really important for parents to listen to their children’s preferences in how to split their time, even when they’re young. My parents trusted that we knew what was best for ourselves, and usually accommodated us. This made us feel secure in knowing they were there for us, meeting our changing needs.
Dalya’s two-home situation is unusual. Unless there is a specific joint-custody agreement, children usually live primarily with one parent (the “custodial parent”), usually the mother, and move in with the father every other weekend, plus one other weeknight. Many agreements include a sliding scale, allowing for more flexibility as the children grow older and develop preferences as to where they want to spend their time, or a clause that allows custody to be revisited when children reach a certain age.
“By age 12, I believe a child should be able to choose where to live,” says Miriam Horowitz. “A boy may begin to identify more with his father, or may want to learn with him on a regular basis. If a young teenager strongly wants to change his arrangement, court or beis din will usually take this seriously.”
Even when the living arrangement is ideal, it’s a rutted road to travel. “Living in two homes would make any adult crazy, yet we impose this on our kids,” she says.
Is there a way to ease this tension without sacrificing a close parent-child relationship?
“It’s always tumultuous for a child when his parents get divorced. Providing as much stability as possible is critical,” says attorney and mediator Ilana Blass. “The closer the parents live to each other, the more that can be achieved. Small things, like keeping the same bus stop and playground, help a child feel anchored. There’s even a growing trend for children to stay in one house, with the parents taking turns living there. While not for everyone, the idea is worth considering.”
Experts say that keeping each home fully stocked with whatever a child might need — a full wardrobe, school supplies, reading material, toiletries, pajamas — reduces the sense of living an unrooted, nomadic life.
A divorced mother of six advises: “Make your children’s time with your ex as comfortable as possible for them. For example, I’d send my girls to their father with their Shabbos clothes on hangers, even though I knew the hangers would never come back with them, because I didn’t want them to feel disheveled while there. It often meant buying new hangers each week, but I felt that eliminating even the small stressors while visiting their father would be the healthiest for them in the long run.
“I also did my best to support my children’s transition between homes. No matter what time of night they got back from their father, I’d have macaroni and cheese and a listening ear awaiting them.”
Yoni’s Story: Parents on the warpath
I was five when my parents divorced, but if that sounds like things were settled, think again. My parents fought over me in court for almost eight years. It was excruciating.
During the custody battle, I lived with my mother, and went to my father every other weekend. My mother was fighting to have me live with her, and have supervised visitation with my father once a month. My father felt that living with my mother wasn’t in my best interest; he wanted me to live with him and have normal visitation with her.
I’ve experienced both the best and the worst of being parented amid a firestorm. My father’s operating principle was always, ‘What’s best for Yoni?’ Time and again he showed me that the most important thing in his life was being there for me. My mother… her primary motivation seemed to be vindictiveness toward my father, even when that meant hurting me. If I ever voiced my opinion about the custody battle, she’d say things like, “What you want isn’t relevant.” When I was with her, she didn’t let me speak to my father on the phone, and even once the court mandated it, she always listened in on the other extension. He wanted to learn with me over the phone, but she made it impossible.
Even a very young child senses who’s on his team. My mother bought me nice things, but my father brought home very little money (the courts confiscated most of it for child support), and at his house I wore secondhand clothes and there were no extras. Despite that, I knew my father was my best friend; I was never close with my mother.
My father couldn’t afford a top-notch lawyer, and almost gave up the fight. By the grace of G-d, around that time he met his second wife, a mother-tiger type who found him a better lawyer who took his case pro bono. Eventually my mother was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and my father was awarded custody.
Throughout the custody battle, I knew when decisions were being made in court, but my mother kept me in the dark as to what specifically was going on. I found this very distressing. I also viewed it as a lost opportunity to daven for an outcome I wanted. When I did happen to know about a specific ruling coming up, I’d set the timer on my watch so I could daven at the exact time.
My father, on the other hand, was probably a little too forthcoming about court proceedings. It was a dirty fight, and he told me more than I needed to know. But this wasn’t done out of malice toward my mother, and even when he won, he encouraged me to have a good relationship with her.
The biggest gift my father ever gave me was the ability to think and judge independently. My mother would send me on ridiculous guilt trips, which my father would counter with the constant refrain, “Yoni, does that make sense?” That sentence saved me from a tremendous amount of guilt, and taught me to think objectively.
The breakup of a child’s family, no matter how peaceably done, is by nature traumatic. But when parents are out for blood, with warrior-lawyers who engage in drawn-out combat, they leave a battlefield littered with broken young souls.
Rabbi Ezra Rodkin, a rav in Brooklyn, is often asked to mediate between divorcing couples. When he hears hints of saber-rattling, he tries to cut it off at the pass. “I explain to them, ‘You have negius, you don’t have perspective. Please try to put what is in your child’s best interest first.’ Getting them to realize this is key to avoiding the warpath.”
Rabbi Rodkin shares a vort he heard from Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky: Of all the keilim in the Beis Hamikdash, why is it specifically the Mizbeiach that Chazal say sheds tears when a couple divorces? He answers that the Mizbeiach is covered in the blood of korbanos day and night, and is therefore certainly hardened to the sight of blood. Yet when a couple divorces, the blood spilled belongs to children, and for that, even the Mizbeiach cries.
Battle tactics to prove an ex is an unfit parent can be foul. “One father I dealt with taped all his conversations with his child’s teachers, trying to bait them to say something incriminating he could use in court,” says one school principal. “He said things like ‘My ex brought my son to school late? He missed a few homework assignments? His mother’s obviously irresponsible and unfit.’ Kids I’ve seen who’ve been used as pawns to hurt the other parent are angry, angry, angry.”
Indeed, research done at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2009 has found that 65 percent of children involved in high-conflict custody cases experience clinical anxiety, with associated behaviors such as aggression, depression, sleep disorders, and bedwetting. Moreover, 56 percent of such children develop attachment disorders that make it difficult for them to form relationships.
The opposite edge of the sword can be just as injurious: If one parent moves far away and only rarely sees his or her child, that child may struggle with feelings of abandonment that never go away. “When parents divorce, they tell their child, ‘This isn’t about you, you’re still the most important thing in each of our lives,’ but if a parent moves away, that message doesn’t ring true, and the child may even feel his parent is trying to get away from him,” explains Ilana Blass. “Parents need to understand that this can impair a child’s ability to form healthy relationships later in life.”
In Yoni’s case, the loving, fit parent almost lost custody to the manipulative one with a psychiatric disorder. Unfair as it is, money talks. A high-powered, well-connected attorney can run his opponent into the ground with his clout in the courtroom, or with unnecessary motions that cost money, time, and energy; lower-income individuals have less available of all three. Even when someone qualifies financially for a free lawyer through the Legal Aid Society, he or she is usually assigned a newbie attorney looking to build experience, no match for a moneyed other side.
Is there any recourse for a parent considering staying in an abusive marriage out of fear that the children will have visitation time alone with a dangerous ex, post-divorce?
“When a concern is raised about either parent’s mental health, a forensic evaluation by a psychologist is usually mandated by the court or beis din,” Miriam Horowitz says. “If a parent is deemed unstable, his or her visitation will require supervision. Generally, parents should trust that the system will keep their children safe, because staying in an abusive situation is too damaging for the children.”
Still, there are no guarantees. Sometimes, supervisorship is awarded to the unstable parent’s family members, scant comfort for a worried parent. Other times, the court allows the abusive parent to take a ‘course’ to ‘fix’ his behavior, after which he can receive unsupervised custody. “These are valid concerns,” says Horowitz, “and there are no easy answers.”
David’s Story: Flexible doesn’t mean weak
True to my Floridian roots, I’m a laid-back kind of guy. I understand that being flexible makes my kids’ lives better. My ex, on the other hand, is rigid and uptight; she won’t veer an inch from the custody arrangement. When my stepson graduated, my son very much wanted to attend his graduation, but it wasn’t “my night,” and his mother didn’t allow him to come. Out of spite for me, she punished her own son. As any divorced parent knows, it’s very, very difficult not to be spiteful back. But I keep my eye on the ball, and try to do what’s best for my kids.
I often see divorced dads canceling or just not showing up for their visitation. Your kids are expecting you! More than just leaving them disappointed, it can breed the sentiment that people in general can’t be relied on.
Divorced women I dated would describe how they’d have plans to go on vacation with friends, and right before leaving, their exes would cancel their visitation, making it impossible for them to leave. Not respecting those plans is cruel, and the resentment it fosters between the parents is detrimental to their children.
A child’s best interest should be the one guiding principle when custody-related issues arise.
“The biggest mistake parents make is to put their own needs before their child’s,” Ilana Blass says. “This only compounds the trauma they’re living through.”
If your ex needs to miss a weekend and wants to make it up, don’t be spiteful and not allow it. If your daughter’s best friend is celebrating her bas mitzvah and she’s scheduled to be across town with her father that weekend, rearrange things so her social life doesn’t suffer.
Parents who feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of custody or extended visitation need to find some type of support. It’s no secret that single mothers need the assistance of men to learn and daven with their sons; organizations such as Sister to Sister support divorced women in other ways. But fathers have a need for support as well.
“I was at a hotel for Shabbos and met a divorced father with his children,” Ilana Blass shares. “He said he can’t stay home with his kids when Shabbos is longer because they go stir crazy and he can’t handle it — in the hotel they can run around. He told me that many divorced men bring their kids to hotels for Shabbos. But standards sometimes fall away when a parent is struggling desperately to cope — Friday night, I saw the kids coming out of the pool. It’s critical for divorced men to have support systems.”
Another common mistake parents make, often innocently, is to involve their children in discussions about changes to the usual schedule.
“One dad I know would sometimes be in the town his children lived in for Shabbos, and would ask them directly if they could come visit him on Shabbos,” says Miriam Horowitz. “This puts kids in a bind: They’re afraid to hurt their mom by asking to go, but not asking will hurt their dad. They feel like the bad guys no matter what they do. Bottom line: The more parents cooperate and put their children’s needs first, the more healthy, happy, and stable their children will be.”
Shoshana’s Story: Someone to talk to
When my parents divorced, they did the seemingly impossible: They put all grievances aside in front of us kids, to the extent that we had no idea there was even any trouble between them. This made us feel safe.
Even so, things were very hard at first. I was five and my brother three when they divorced; we spent weekends and one weeknight with my dad, and the rest of the week with my mom. When it was time to leave mom’s house, my brother would scream and scream. A day later, when leaving dad’s house, he’d scream and scream again. It was my job to coax him into the car, which at age five was traumatic for me. This went on for many months.
Even in the smoothest of divorces, having to constantly leave one parent behind is painful. My message to children of divorce: Your parents may be overwhelmed and unable to give you the support you need. Don’t hold your feelings in — it’s essential to find someone to talk to.
The upheaval of divorce and, in its wake, the challenges of custody, make emotional support critical for everyone involved, even if the divorce was amicable. “Every child of divorce should have a therapist who can validate his or her pain,” says Miriam Horowitz.
While Shoshana’s brother had a hard time leaving each parent, the reverse is also common. “For years, whenever my son was with one parent, he wanted to be with the other,” shares a divorced mother. “He felt torn and disloyal. When he started dorming in high school, that tension was reduced tremendously. Without background static, growth can happen.”
Sometimes, even among the most decent of folks, intense anger and sense of injustice can lead people to act toward their exes in ways they’d find horrifying in other circumstances. Inevitably, this scathes their children, the very ones they’re fighting to protect. How can one remain in control when engulfed in such raw, ugly emotion?
Chani Juravel, LCSW, a therapist in private practice in Monsey, New York, explains that as difficult as it is, it’s important to keep your eye on the prize. “And the ultimate prize is to maintain a trusting, close relationship with your children. This often means exchanging the short-term goal of ‘feeling right’ with the long-term goal of the gratification of a strong connection. That doesn’t mean negating your feelings. Emotions like anger and sadness need an outlet, and it’s critical for people to have whom to vent to, in an appropriate setting. Ideally, you should be able to be real about your feelings and still react in a way that will do you proud.
“A popular approach in psychology today is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It involves accepting that you have a right to your feelings and then committing to act in a way that’s loyal to your values nonetheless. ‘Yes, my ex is making unfair demands/slandering me/taking advantage of me, and my anger is perfectly valid. With that said, my actions don’t need to be controlled by that anger. I can behave in an elevated way.’ This is not because your ex deserves it, but because you and your children deserve it.
“I tell clients, imagine your children eulogizing you at your funeral. What would you want them say? Make that goal your reality. Speaking with others who’ve faced this same struggle and ultimately benefited by taking the high road can also be very helpful. As tough as it is, it will never lead to regret or losing the respect of your kids.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 673)