| Magazine Feature |

Divided Family

Mazel tov — it’s a bar mitzvah, a wedding! How to make everyone more comfortable, and put joy back in the simchah when the guest of honor is a child of divorce


“M y parents got divorced when I was five and I was 23 when I got married” recalls Perri. “Even though 18 years had passed it was still a big source of tension to know that my parents would have to be together in the same room again for my wedding.

“My father was remarried which further complicated things. You have to dance with your mom and even though in general she might not be jealous of your stepmom this is a loaded moment for her. You can’t even focus on the simchah because you’re juggling so much — you need to dance with your mother and then you need to dance with your stepmother but you can’t dance too much with her because it will insult your mom.

“And then there are the grandparents and they hate the ex. You’re scared for your parents who will have to face those nasty comments again. There are the relatives on both sides who make comments about your parents too. And you feel guilty because you’re the one making them all come together again. At a certain point I felt like I don’t want to have a wedding I want to just elope.”

Partnering Again 

As many children of divorce share a shared simchah throws a divided family into a maelstrom of anger hurt pain and raw emotion… with the baal or baalas simchah smack in the middle of it.

“It affects every part of the event” says Batya whose parents divorced when she was a teenager. “Arranging the kibbudim was a nightmare. There was a rav who my mother wanted to give a brachah to but my father didn’t get along with him anymore. Should he get a brachah? Could my father bear to be under the chuppah with him? As a kallah you feel like it’s all about you but it’s not. It’s also about the people in your life getting what they need out of the wedding.”

A simchah for a mutual child forces two people who are no longer married to interact again and on some level to become partners in creating a happy event.

“When a couple divorces they — theoretically at least — go on to live separate lives” notes Rachel Rose a family and individual therapist in a private practice in Jerusalem. “A simchah for a joint child brings them back together in the same room. Any issue that wasn’t resolved properly at the time of the divorce can resurface at the hall of a child’s simchah.”

Often these issues interfere with the parents’ ability to focus on the simchah. “Is Moishy having a bar mitzvah or are Mom and Dad getting a chance to show everyone how the other side is no good?” Mrs. Rose asks. “Overcoming a bruised ego and putting your child first may require an Academy Award performance but your child benefits and you get to look like a star.”

The battle can begin long before the event itself as two distinct units try to create a simchah that will be comfortable for both parents. Even happily married couples often disagree on how much money to spend and what kind of event to hold. For couples who are divorced these questions are that much more tension-fraught especially if the two live in different economic brackets or finances are tight as they often are in single-parent homes.

“Ideally the parents should sit together and plan the event taking into consideration what they want and what the kid wants and try to reach a mutual agreement ” says Elisheva Tobin Attali an educational psychologist in Jerusalem with a private practice in couples and family therapy. “But before they do that each parent should sit down alone to think it out. What kind of atmosphere do they want? How much money do they want to spend? Come prepared to the meeting.

“It’s easier said than done” Mrs. Attali continues “but both parents should remind themselves that it’s a one-time event for the child and they both want the child to have positive memories of the simchah. Anything that’s not relevant to that put aside.”

As a milestone event in the lives of both the parents and the child the simchah will inevitably stir up many deep emotions. “On some level no one wants to have a simchah while divorced. Almost everyone wishes they could have the simchah together as one big happy family” says Rabbi Dovid Hochberg LCSW-C director of the Maryland Counseling Network and a psychotherapist in private practice. “The parents may have to mourn the loss of that dream — that their family can no longer be the way they envisioned it.”

The child too may feel a sense of loss compounded by the challenge of navigating the needs of both parents even during the most exciting moments of his or her life. “The experiences that one would normally share with both parents may now turn into something that they feel they have to hide ” notes Rabbi Hochberg. “For example a kallah may think Can I tell Daddy that I went shopping with Mommy and found a great dress?”

A family situation that may have slipped under the radar will now inevitably be in the public eye. “Sometimes children feel very embarrassed very stigmatized” continues Rabbi Hochberg. “They think My parents will make a scene or My friends will wonder why my mother/father isn’t there. They feel ashamed that their parents are divorced.”

Shared Dividends 

In the best-case scenario the two parents will overcome their negative feelings and create a simchah the child will enjoy and remember for many years afterward. However this may require enormous reserves of emotional strength and avodas hamiddos.

“I considered splitting the bar mitzvah between my ex and myself but it was very important to my son to have one event” says Devora who was divorced for six years when she made her first bar mitzvah. “Many of my ex-husband’s relatives were coming in and I hadn’t spoken to them in years. I realized it would be very awkward to see them for the first time at the bar mitzvah so I made a lot of phone calls beforehand to break the ice. It was hard but everyone focused on being a mensch and doing what was best for my son.”

Another strategy is hiring a party planner who can be the middleman between the two parents during the planning stages, being the deciding voice or carrying messages back and forth, so the ex-spouses don’t have to be in close contact. However, when a mutual event isn’t possible because the parents can’t stand being together (in the case of a bar or bas mitzvah, where the celebration can be divided), each event should have its own focus, suggests Elisheva Attali. “If it’s two parties, the kid will just feel torn apart, like his parents can’t agree on anything. A better idea is splitting up the celebration. For example, one parent can do the Shabbos, and the other can do an evening event. Even in a situation like that, if it’s possible to invite the other parent to the event you’re making, of course do that.”

Another option is for the two to divide some aspect of the Shabbos, such as one parent hosting the Friday night meal and the other hosting the Shabbos day meal, with relatives from each side being invited to their respective meal. Tirtza, whose oldest son’s bar mitzvah took place two and a half years after her divorce, found it easier to forgo the Shabbos aspect of the bar mitzvah altogether. “My son’s bar mitzvah fell on a Yom Tov, so we did the event on Chol HaMoed. He got his aliyah in shul that morning and we didn’t do a Shabbos at all — it would have been too complicated.”

The most difficult divorce circumstance is when a parent makes a decision not to attend a simchah of his or her own child. “If a bar mitzvah boy’s father will not attend, the mother should make sure that the child’s rebbe, grandfather, uncle, or a family friend is there to help negotiate the rites of passage that take place on the men’s side, so he doesn’t have to be alone,” says Mrs. Rose.

Even in this situation, however, the extended family can still be included in the simchah. Ora’s ex had moved out of the country after their divorce and contributed very little to her children’s lives. Realizing that he was unlikely to attend the first family simchah, a bar mitzvah, which occurred three years after the divorce, she reached out to her former mother-in-law, grandmother of the bar mitzvah boy, and invited her to celebrate with the rest of the family.

“I had my son write her a personal invitation, which I scanned and e-mailed it to her,” Ora relates. “She was a little nervous, but in the end it worked out very nicely. I got her an apartment to stay in, and she ate all the Shabbos meals with us. She was comfortable being part of the event even though her son wasn’t there.”

Sometimes it is the child himself who decides that, for whatever reason, he is unable to have one of the parents attend, notes Mrs. Rose. If so, encourage the child to discuss this with a rabbi, a mentor, or a therapist to make sure he’s fully comfortable with his decision.

Support from the Outside

The support of extended family, friends, and community in celebrating a simchah is invaluable to a child of divorce, as this can help smooth over the rough spots.

“One amazing experience I had was my high school graduation,” says Yael, whose parents divorced when she was a preteen. “It was a family graduation, with parents and grandparents invited, and while I wanted both my parents there, I was so nervous that there would be a scene. I discussed my concerns with a staff member before the graduation, and he made special arrangements so my family’s seating could be as comfortable as possible. He also went out of his way to give both my parents a warm greeting and make them feel welcome. I’m really grateful for that.”

Yael remembers other events, however, where community members were less gracious. “Why can’t people be menschlich?” she asks. “Don’t take sides in a divorce and show your feelings publicly in front of the children. Say hello, or just nod your head and smile. To show how you feel about someone in front of their children is just so wrong.”

Family friends who rise above the pettiness can change the entire face of an event for the child involved. “There were a few people who managed to stay close to both my parents after the divorce, and that was a very big brachah,” says Batya, whose parents’ separation was particularly bitter. “At my wedding, these people very comfortably went back and forth from one side to the other. It made a very big difference.”

Also invaluable to Batya and her chassan as they navigated the tightrope of family dynamics was their rav, who constantly reassured the young couple that it was their wedding and they could make their own decisions, and Batya’s in-laws, who “went above and beyond. Whatever we wanted, they accommodated.”

Certain rules of etiquette should be followed when attending the simchah of a child of divorce: “Greet the child whose simchah it is, regardless of which side invited you,” counsels Mrs. Rose. “Dance in the circle that invited you, but do not try to keep the child from dancing in other circles. Don’t gossip. You’ll be hurting a child who has probably been hurt enough already and is ready to move on.”

At a larger event, guests aren’t necessarily aware of the complexities within the family, and it may be easy to focus on the baalei simchah. “Just be happy with the child, be happy with the parents,” says Mrs. Attali. At a smaller or more intimate event, however, the family can often feel more sensitive. “The more people who are around, happy and focusing on the event itself, the easier it can make the event for the family.”

Involving the Steps

In a blended family, where stepparents may also want to be part of the event, a simchah is even further complicated. If the stepparent has a good relationship with the child, his role is very important, notes Mrs. Attali. “It’s another person to get excited and to be with him at this special time in his life. Ideally, the child should feel that even though it’s a complex family situation, everyone in my life is happy for me.”

How public the stepparent’s role should be, though, depends on individual family dynamics. Devora was remarried for several years when she made her first bar mitzvah, and her husband, the bar mitzvah boy’s stepfather, “was involved every step of the way, from figuring out the wording for the invitation to drawing up a guest list, picking a hall, deciding on a menu, and choosing paper goods,” she explains. Nevertheless, he took a backseat at the event itself, choosing not to speak and staying out of the limelight.

Often a stepchild will feel embarrassed at his stepparent’s presence or want a clear demarcation between parent and stepparent at the simchah. “Each of my parents wanted their new spouse to be part of the simchah,” recalls Batya, whose parents had both remarried by the time she got engaged, “but I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with that. I like my stepmother, but I didn’t want her sitting next to me at the badeken. She’s not my mother and I didn’t want her up there.”

While this perspective seemed reasonable to the 21-year-old kallah, her father was less than pleased. “In the end, we reached a compromise that as long as my stepfather didn’t get any kibbudim, it would be acceptable. I would have been happy to give my stepfather more of a role, but he was really respectful about it,” Batya says.

Some stepparents may choose not to attend an event at all rather than confronting their spouse’s ex, but others feel close to their stepchildren and want to be included. “Seating arrangements should be made prior to the simchah so that the new spouse has someone to sit with, and so that the former and new spouse don’t end up sitting together if they aren’t comfortable with that,” advises Mrs. Rose.

Even when a stepparent plays a larger role in the child’s life, they may have to step aside at the simchah, out of consideration for the other parent. “My stepson’s mother was treated as the baalas simchah,” comments Dina on the recent marriage of her stepson, who has lived in her home since the age of 15. “She walked him down the aisle, while I actually made the wedding! I had to remind myself that this was her biological child. She gave birth to him, she raised him, and I had to let her have her nachas.”

Letting Go of Perfection

The flowers have died, the invitations are long discarded, and the only mementos of the simchah are in the photographer’s hands and the parents’ hearts. Looking back on the big day, many a divorced parent — and child of divorce — can still take pride in the celebration.

“Because it was important to my son that all his family be together, we all overcame our very real discomfort to give him a sense of ‘I’m normal and I have a normal life,’ ” says Devora, recalling her son’s bar mitzvah and the efforts she made to reach out to her ex’s family.

Other mothers have a different avodah. “I worked on letting go of my guilt,” says Tirtza of her post-divorce bar mitzvah. “This was where Hashem wanted me to be, even if I hadn’t asked for it. I tried to remind myself that even in intact families, simchahs are very stressful. We think it’s going to be amazing, but in general simchahs are a very hectic, stressful time. That helped a little.”

For the child, sometimes it’s necessary to step back from the situation and allow the adults to make their own choices. “I had to learn not to take things so personally,” says Batya, recalling the conflict surrounding her wedding. “Ultimately, I had to let go of the ideal of the perfect family, the perfect wedding.”

It’s a lesson she reviews repeatedly, as into adulthood, each simchah brings up all the baggage again. “It’s the same theme,” says Batya ruefully. “My parents will offer to help pay, but they expect things to be done their way. So when one parent says ‘I’ll pay for the mohel’ and the other says ‘I’ll pay for the mohel,’ what do you do?

“We can’t make any simchahs in small quarters,” she continues, “since there has to be enough space for everyone to have their own corner. My parents won’t interact with each other or even make eye contact. I’ve learned to walk from one side of the room to the other the entire time.”

For other children of divorce, however, making their own simchahs in adulthood eases the strain of having to juggle everyone’s needs. “When I made my first bris, I didn’t have the headspace to deal with all the politics,” says Yael. “I decided that it wasn’t my problem, and I wasn’t going to worry about it. To my parents’ credit, they focused on the simchah and wished each other mazal tov. It gave me a real sense of closure.”

Yael’s experiences have made her more sensitive to other people’s challenges. “The older I become, the more I realize that, sure, this is a difficult situation, but everyone has complicated family situations. It’s so easy to look at other people’s families and say, ‘Wow, they have it all,’ but you never really know what stresses other people have. I remind myself that it’s not about history. Just focus on the simchah.”

Four Statements to Avoid When Making a Simchah

With all the stress involved in making a simchah, a parent might slip and say something they’ll regret afterwards. Never allow the following types of comments to mar the simchah:

  • “If not for your bar/bas mitzvah/wedding, I wouldn’t have to deal with your mother.”
  • “It’s too bad your dad isn’t pulling equal weight for this I’m not sure why he should get the nachas when he’s not even contributing his fair share.”
  • “I can’t afford to pay for XYZ, go ask your mom for it.” Besides putting the child in the middle, you’ll also make him feel orphaned — that his needs aren’t important enough for you to attend to them.
  • “If you invite your dad, I won’t come.”

Avigail Rosenberg is the editor of Healing from the Break: Stories, Inspiration, and Guidance for Anyone Touched by Divorce (Menucha Publishers). She can be contacted through Mishpacha.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 527)

Oops! We could not locate your form.