Certainly most of us have heard the term “deadbeat-dad” used in relation to fathers who fail to be financially responsible for their children. There is also another type of “deadbeat- parent” (I prefer to use the word parent in an effort to avoid gender bias and with the understanding that this phenomenon can occur with mothers as well), and the phrase is used to depict parents who are emotionally unavailable or inattentive to their children’s emotional needs after the breakdown of their marriage.
A “deadbeat” is defined as someone who does not pay his or her debt – a loafer or lazy person; in general someone who does not meet their responsibilities. Now, responsibilities come in many forms. Raising children is a costly endeavor and being financially dependable is one of the main concerns we parents have. So many hours are dedicated to securing the fiscal needs of our families. After a divorce when financial burdens are increased, and there are additional debts from attorney and court fees, as well as the cost of dividing up a household and starting over, making ends meet can be overwhelming. Today, our court system views a large part of parental responsibility as being financially accountable to your children and providing for their basic needs – food and shelter, education and healthcare. If a parent falls behind in his or her child support obligations there are consequences, and if a parent fulfills his/her monetary requirements they are praised for being “responsible” and “caring” parents.
Well, what about those parents who meet their legally set forth financial obligations but not the emotional needs of their children; parents who do not go the extra mile necessary to ensure their child’s wellbeing, both physically and emotionally? According to the “law” these people are defined as good and responsible parents simply because they have found a way to support their children’s basic humanistic needs. However, we cannot overlook the harm being caused their children – harm which is not only damaging but long-lasting.
As Torah-observant Jews we must keep in mind that the Torah way of parenting is not to think of our children as possessions that we own and are free to do with as we please. They are special gifts on loan to us from Hashem, from G-d, and we are responsible to raise and care for them, with His help. This means that children cannot be divided up like other assets during a divorce. They cannot be sold like a house or traded in like a car. We are responsible for them from the moment they arrive and, hopefully, throughout the rest of our lives.
Being parents of a blended family my husband and I have had “real life” experience with my children from my first marriage and his children from his first marriage. I have seen parents struggle and fight to stay connected and involved in their children’s lives and succeed in maintaining the loving, warm relationship that should exist between parent and child. I have also seen parents who unfortunately do not take their responsibilities and obligations to their children seriously. Parents who caused more harm than good in their too few, half-hearted attempts to stay connected, parents who continue to put their own needs above those of their children.
Divorce can add an almost insurmountable challenge for the non-custodial parent trying to stay involved in raising his/her children. If you and your ex-spouse had differing parenting styles when you were married, chances are you are not going to agree on how to raise your children post-divorce either. When there is a lack of good communication with the custodial parent, the non-custodial parent can feel out of sync with their children, making involvement that much harder. For some, the challenge may seem so great that the non-custodial parent will simply give up and move on with their lives. They would rather leave their children behind instead of patiently staying the course until emotions settle and new norms emerge which would allow them a greater ability to play some role in their children’s lives. Often standing back and taking on a lesser position is the answer rather than putting the children in the middle of a chaotic situation.
Ultimately there are consequences for the emotionally deadbeat parent just as there are for financially deadbeat parent. In fact the consequences are often greater and more life altering. I know that my children from my first marriage unfortunately have had a roller coaster relationship with their father since our divorce. Years of disillusionment, broken promises, undelivered gifts, missed visits and false hopes of a true relationship have taken their toll. I wonder after each disappointment how long it will be before my children begin to believe again that next time will be different; that next time he will actually come through. We all would like to trust that his intentions are good, but there is never any follow through on his part; he is just not able to give them what should be their birthright. Fortunately, they have grown from the process of learning how to deal with their father and maybe those lessons are the best gift he has been able to give them.
In my humble opinion, if you cannot be a positive force and partner in raising your children, at the very least pledge that you will not cause any additional harm to them. Be true and honest regarding your limitations. Do not make promises you cannot keep and do not string the children along on false hopes. If you are unable to participate in raising your children, support those that are; that may prove to be the best contribution you are able to make for the welfare and wellbeing of your children.
At the end of the day the children will come to understand that each of the adults in their life was acting responsibly and participated to the best of their ability out of the deep love they felt for them. Choosing to play a less active role does not necessarily equal a less meaningful one; remember sometimes it is the small supportive characters that receive the greatest applause.
Yehudit welcomes and encourages input and feedback on issues relating to the Blended Family and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org