I’d cry at night thinking myself too damaged to create the kind of loving stable home I wanted for my children
Growing up, the worst part of my week was the car rides back and forth between my divorced parents’ homes.
On the way to my mom’s house, where I spent the weekends, I’d wonder with trepidation what might happen there. Her small apartment in a diverse city neighborhood was such a huge stretch from the suburban life I lived during the week, and her broken-down Jeep might as well have been a spaceship propelling me forcefully between planets. I slowly put on the skin of the person I was every weekend and prayed nothing bad would happen.
On the way home in my father’s car, I’d slowly rip the skin off while he rapidly questioned my every move. What did you eat? Where did you sleep? Which friends of your mother came over? Did you interact with your stepfather?
Usually around the exact same mile marker on the highway the questions would turn into a lecture. “Your mom has no idea how to parent a child, how to give her a normal life, and that husband of hers is not fit to be around children.” On and on it went. My stomach hurt the most at this point in the weekend and I curled myself into a tight ball. It usually took until Tuesday for my insides to unclench, almost in time for it to happen all over again.
My parents divorced when I was five months old. My father eventually got custody. I know only murky details of how that happened, stories recounted with pain-filled accusations.
My father remarried when I was three, and I was co-raised by a loving and wonderful stepmother who I have always only thought of as a mother. They eventually divorced as well, though I still lived primarily with my stepmother. Each one of them — my mother, father, and stepmother — went on to marry and divorce three times. Each time affected me less and less as I became more desensitized. I was blessed; I always felt loved by each of my parents. But each one’s love came along with the price tag of their own demons.
I used to wonder and dream about what having a happy marriage would be like. I used to wonder if I would be capable of building such a marriage. I wanted it more than anything in the world. I’d cry at night thinking myself too damaged to create the kind of loving stable home I wanted for my children.
I joined NCSY in high school and learned about real Yiddishkeit. I’d always gone to Jewish schools, but my family wasn’t frum, and I didn’t care much. At my first shabbaton I looked around me and saw frum families sitting around a Shabbos table together. When they got to Eishes Chayil, I ran from the room crying. I knew what those words meant and seeing those families that seemed so happy together only accentuated what I lacked.
During my high school years, I slowly became frum. I fell in love with Shabbos, but what really propelled me forward was learning what the Torah had to say about the foundations of a frum marriage. Respect, giving, shema b’kolah, the laws of taharas hamishpachah — everything I learned brought me closer. My relationship with Hashem became the relationship I wanted from my own father. I was healing.
At the same time, I also began to find my voice with my parents. One especially tough time found me cowering in my father’s car on a Tuesday night after he found out that I deliberately didn’t sign him up for parent-teacher conferences at my high school. He was so mad at me and at the school that he yelled the whole way home to his apartment. It was only hours later that he finally thought to ask me why I didn’t want him to speak to my teachers.
“You always make the teachers feel bad,” I said, “as if my bad grades are their fault. [B’s were bad grades.] Then, the day after conferences, the teachers either steer clear of me completely or feel pity for me and act extra sweet. I don’t want that anymore.”
My father didn’t talk to me nicely for weeks after that, but for the first time, I began to feel it didn’t matter. That my self-worth and ability to have a voice were worth more.
I left home for seminary knowing that most likely I would never live at home again. I felt ready to do the work to discover what the next steps of my life needed to be.
I had a growth-oriented year in seminary, but toward the end, the reality of shidduchim, especially for a baalas teshuvah from a divorced home, began to hit me. Could it be that I would have come so far in this quest for a family of my own, and I’d still have so many more hurdles to jump? I would tearfully look up from my siddur and say to Hashem, “I’m doing this for You because it feels true. Please give me the family I need as a reward for all this.”
I went to the Kotel for 40 days at the end of seminary and poured my heart out to Hashem. I can see in my memory the picture of my hand on the cold stones of the Kotel. I felt so close to Him and yet I was so scared. I stroked the stones and noticed how their crevices made them even more beautiful. I felt a kinship with the Kotel — I have deep crevices too. I finished sefer Tehillim on my last day there. Hashem had brought me this far, and I knew He would continue to hold me.
Moshe and I had known each other before, but were set up the summer after seminary. Only Hashem could have been the shadchan for this unique shidduch. He came from an incredible frum family and had been learning for years in a yeshivah in Israel. He was two years older than I was and unlike anyone I’d ever dated.
He was fun and loved to make me laugh; I loved the me I was when I was with him. He made me feel confident and light. He didn’t take anything in life too seriously and that rubbed off on me. I knew I needed someone who created this feeling inside of me. It felt stable. Within weeks we were engaged.
I was scared, but that fear was eclipsed by excitement. Still, every part of me screamed the question “Can you be stable enough to build the family you’ve always dreamed of?” I was petrified, but let myself be swept away with the current of hope. Things seemed meant to be. I felt Hashem holding me and guiding me through what felt like a dream.
I would love to share a fairy-tale ending where everything was perfect from the moment we wed. But that would be Hollywood and would rob us of the credit for the real, deep-rooted work and tears (mostly mine) we invested in our marriage. It would also rob this story of the true siyata d’Shmaya that we experienced from our very first moments.
The first few years were hard. I was looking for someone to soothe the emotional black holes inside of me, and my husband needed some sensitivity training. We fought a lot. I cried a lot. We had three kids quickly, and though they were such a brachah, it also made it hard to connect through the exhaustion.
I will tell you that I have always adored him. I will tell you that no one could make me smile the way my husband always can. I will tell you that from every fight we got closer.
One night, after we’d been married a few years, my husband came home late from his chavrusa. He’d gotten caught up in his learning and figured the 15 minutes wouldn’t mean anything to me. I was crying, and Moshe got annoyed with me for making a big deal out of something he didn’t think was important.
A fairly common conflict… but my past made it harder. His not wanting to comfort me made me feel like I was too much and I was afraid he would eventually leave me. But I didn’t have the words to explain why this was such a big deal. That night, I cried myself to sleep, expecting him to say it was over in the morning. I’d ruined it.
Sometimes Moshe would get it. He’d look me in the eye and say, “Yocheved, I’m not going to leave you, ever. You need to believe me.” I couldn’t yet. I needed him to prove it.
Those first ten years were a whirlwind of kids, moving, jobs, and figuring out who we were as individuals and then as a couple. I started running every day and went to graduate school. Around that time, something shifted. I felt myself becoming a stronger person. The noise inside of me quieted down. My connection to Moshe continued to grow. With every passing year I internalized even more the simple truth that a healthy whole person makes a better half of a marriage.
I am writing this while celebrating a milestone I never dreamed possible: our 20th wedding anniversary. I got married a week before my 20th birthday, and I’m now celebrating my 20th anniversary. I’ve now lived as many years single as I’ve lived married.
COVID almost kept us from going away, but I was adamant that we needed a trip to celebrate our accomplishments as a couple. Together.
I left my husband learning in our hotel room as I took my laptop and ran to find a suitable place to write out what this all means to me. I found a table near the ocean. It’s dark outside, but I’m sitting near a dozen lit lanterns. The smell of the sea breeze hits my face, and as I open the laptop, I dig my feet into the sand beneath me. I hear the ocean in the background. The waves are crashing up against the sand with majestic power, leaving something new and beautiful in their wake.
Each of the past 20 years has done the same. The pain that shaped so much of my childhood feels distant. It has become the source I draw from that lets me feel eternally grateful to be where I am today. My life isn’t free of problems and pain, but they’re all part of normal life. Today’s issues feel manageable because I have a strong family as the backbone of my life.
I used to think that marriage would be what would save me. Now I know how potentially dangerous that belief could have been. I had to learn how to walk away from the big emotions and get used to the sometimes-petrifying feelings of life without constant emotional drama.
I grew a lot from learning how to challenge the scripts in my head that said I was damaged and couldn’t handle things. I needed to prove to myself that I could handle difficulty, and then rewrite the script over and over again. I needed to constantly consciously concentrate on the good and move the pain going on inside me to the background. I needed to run a few times a week as a way to process everything around me, to use endorphins to battle down the blues that would sometimes emerge. Marriage was a huge piece in my journey, but it would be misleading to say it was the only one.
I look back and know with certainty that it was a miracle that brought us here. It shouldn’t have worked. Considering where I was emotionally at the time I got married, I can’t understand how this beautiful tapestry formed. But Hashem heard my pleas and brought me to the moment I’m in now. Every tear, every tefillah, went straight up to the Kisei Hakavod, and that is the only reason I am where I am today.
I close my eyes and see that little girl in the car driving home with her father beside her. In my mind I reach out to her. I feel her fear and despair at what the future holds. I whisper to her.
“You don’t know it yet, but you’re going to be okay — more than okay. This constant pit in your stomach is going to end. You’ll build a family for yourself that exceeds even your wildest hopes. You’ll be able to do this because you are healthy and strong. Hashem will hold your hand and you’ll create your dream.”
I close my laptop, take a deep breath of ocean air, and go to rejoin my husband. It’s time to continue celebrating the everyday gift and accomplishment of our marriage.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 746)
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