Dear Dr. Respler:
I am currently involved in a yearlong custody battle over my three children, who are all under the age of 10. I did not want or provoke this situation. My wife – with limited success – continues to enlist the children over to her side in her declared war on me. I, on the other hand, advise them that this fight is not their problem and that they should stay out of it. I tell them that they are totally innocent, and that they should honor and love both parents.
During my visitation time, I play with them, read to them, cook for them and do school work with them. In short, I do everything the children need, even those things that are traditionally done by mothers.
The children appreciate what I do for them. However, their mother is constantly trying to get them to see things her way. She tells them that they should help her get their visits with me curtailed because, in her words, “fathers don’t know how to take care of children,” and “mothers know how to better take care of children.”
What amazes me most is the percentage of people that share that line of thinking. Rabbis who are affiliated with batei din and marriage counselors who ought to know better have this underlying, forgiving attitude toward mothers – in spite of the children’s needs. Statements like “it is not right to take children away from a mother,” or “children need a mother,” or “children always go with the mother,” or the famous “mothers take better care of children” are commonly offered as so-called self-evident truths. This even applies to fathers who have always been thoroughly involved in their children’s development. Custody is only given to a father (very reluctantly) when there is absolutely no alternative. And when that happens, people see it as unfair.
I find that women almost blindly sympathize with the mother in these situations and are not interested in the facts. They immediately assume that the husband, the beis din, the courts and the lawyers are a bunch of clever villains while the poor mother and her lawyer are the victims.
I wonder if all these people know what divorcing mothers frequently do. They destroy the fathers’ image in the children’s eyes, in order for them to be totally dependant on the mother. They teach their children to lie to, and steal from, their father. They coach them into making false accusations against their father, saying, “The more bad things that you say about Tatty the better.” They inform the children of accusations made by the father against the mother in court and sometimes even show them court papers, in order to arouse their sympathy and sway them to their side.
In a nutshell, many mothers teach their children to betray their father.
My goal in writing this letter is to remind people that when they judge a divorce situation – which really should never be done – they need to consider the best interests of the children more than is sometimes done and to remember that there are no “self-evident truths” in divorce cases.
I hear your pain and feel for you. While much of what you say is true, unfortunately, there are many fathers who play the same game and speak negatively about the mother of their children – to their children. No parent should use a child as a pawn in a divorce situation. To better the odds that a child from a divorced home will become more successful in future life endeavors, couples must work on keeping things amicable rather than stormy. The research of Wallerstein and Kelly makes this point very clear.
It is unfortunate that there are situations in which divorce is the only option. However, the process is incredibly painful for the children involved and parents must make every attempt to ensure that the children feel safe and secure – and that their needs are the priority for both parents.
In our practices, both Orit and I have seen the devastating effect of the trauma on children. For my part, I counsel parents on how to be more effective with their children in all situations. We work hard teaching parents how to imbue derech eretz in their children. Nonetheless, all these wonderful techniques are often ineffectual in a home filled with pain and strife.
The first area we need to work on is improving shalom bayis, since for the branches (our children) to grow the tree trunk must be strong. Yet, in the event of, chas v’shalom, a divorce, parents must always speak positively about one another. This entails not speaking negatively to the children about the other and teaching the children to respect both parents. A child should never feel guilty for loving and respecting his or her parent.
On a positive note, my friend has a daughter who is very happily married to a young man from a divorced home. My friend told me that it was the best possible divorce situation. Both parents remarried and had a wonderful relationship with their son, as well as an amicable relationship with each other. The couple felt like they had three loving sets of parents.
We should all learn from this couple who, despite their divorce, was able to raise amazing children. They were able to do this by instilling in their children devotion to and love of both parents and stepparents.
I wish you hatzlachah in your difficult situation, and I appreciate the fact that you’re sharing your views with readers of The Jewish Press. Hopefully it will serve to sensitize the community to not use innocent children as pawns in messy circumstances. Instead, we need to always act lovingly towards our children and make them feel secure – in spite of the divorce.
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