Recently, my two children from my first marriage visited with their father after three and-a-half years of not seeing him. Even though I was faced with some opposition from friends and relatives that lived through my divorce and its aftermath with me, I actually supported the idea. I told everyone how pleased I was that after all of this time their father wanted to spend “quality” time with them. I packed the children up and sent them for a two and-a-half week visit with a man I believed had turned over a new leaf.
For months leading up to his initial request of having the children visit with him in America from our home in Israel, I was shown a picture of a man I would feel safe sending my children to see. I was told that he had “returned” to Torah Observant Judaism, I was assured that he not only had a kosher home but more importantly a kosher “life” and that he desperately missed his children.
In the past he was never in a “good” place in his life to accommodate them; he was in a rocky second marriage, then he was going through a divorce, and after that, he was single trying to get his life on track.
Now things were different. He had been working on himself over the past few years and he established himself within a thriving, growing Jewish community. He held the same job for some time, he bought a car and owned a home within walking distance to the local Chabad shul, of which he is an active member. It looked as if his troubled times were in the past and my children would have an opportunity to renew their connection with him over a fun-filled few weeks.
With my son’s bar mitzvah around the corner, I felt it was an ideal time for them to reunite so that all of us could start fresh allowing the children to feel cherished and loved by all of their parents. I recall advising him at the time of our divorce, almost 12 years ago, to get his act together so that he would someday be someone our children can be proud of and, from all that I was shown, he took that advice seriously.
Now in retrospect, I realize that this is a case of my believing because I wanted to believe and of my seeing what I wanted to see. I so sincerely wanted to believe that this man that I dedicated so many years of my life to and with whom I had two beautiful children, was capable of working through his troubled times and was finally able to salvage his relationship with our children. I imagined my children being among the lucky few children of divorce able to sidestep the usual pitfalls and the difficulties that generally befall them. I also wanted him to see how wonderful our children were turning out. My imagination is so vivid that I even envisioned him thanking us for all that my husband and I have sacrificed for them over the years.
Without going into specific detail, it became clear to me during their visit that my children were faced with difficult circumstances upon their arrival; a situation that we had neither anticipated or prepared for, and it seemed as if it mocked the very essence of how we run our daily lives. Had I known about the true situation, I would have done my best to help my ex-husband work out some way of handling things that would have made it more comfortable for our children. I was concerned, I heard the confusion in their voices over the phone, and being so far away there was not much I could do. It was difficult to truly assess the situation. I did try and follow up with their father, who must have been too busy during their stay to respond to my concern.
My question to you dear readers is, what would you do if this happened to you? How can we as parents striving to raise our children one way send them into an environment that is so very different in values and beliefs from the ones in our homes? How do we encourage relationships for our children that are so foreign or in contrast to the way we run our lives? Is it better to just grin and bear the differences during visitation and hope and pray that they get through it okay and that we have taught them well?
Is it better to kick and yell and make a fuss, proclaiming our chosen way of life better then the other ways that they now see? Mind you, my children are pretty worldly and not closed minded, we have family members and friends with differing levels of religious observance and although we live on an exclusively religious settlement in Israel there is also tremendous cultural diversity here. The challenge here is not necessarily which way is right and which is wrong, but the unexpected and unfamiliar, and learning to come to terms with them.
As I saw it, the specific adherence to rules and regulations were not the main issue here. It was the lack of open and forthrightness that concerned me. I know the “professionals” out there will say, “communication is the key to success,” and that both parents must learn to respect each other’s way of life. I too believe this to be true, yet practically speaking, if there was a great ability to communicate and compromise, a good percentage of marriages would be saved from the agonies of divorce. So, how do we communicate with someone who is trying to be secretive? Communication is a two way street, and when there is no communication, how do we protect our children?
To be honest I take some comfort in the fact that my 17-year-old daughter felt uncomfortable with the lifestyle she was witnessing in her father’s home. Not that any of us want our children to be in uncomfortable situations – but to me, it was an indication that she felt strongly about her religious beliefs and the rules in which we run our lives. She assured me that I was not responsible for the position that they found themselves in and that she was able to deal with the situation because of the way my husband and I have raised her. I also need to accept and respect that she loves her father and because of that love, she will forgive and forget and will continue to enjoy the relationship that they share. I am proud of how mature she has become, but I wish she didn’t have to be so mature beyond her years.
Awaiting their return I was a bundle of nerves, counting the days until they would come home and thinking of the best way to deal with them. As I readied myself, I took a deep breath and a big step outside the situation so that I could process the information and not make this an emotional tug of war for them. I knew that in order to do that I had to curb my natural curiosity and not ask any questions about their trip that would make them feel disloyal to their father. I had to separate out my own feelings of disappointment, guilt and hurt, and it wasn’t easy.
As for the nay-sayers out there, the family and friends who would love to say “told you so,” or “how did you let this happen,” I stand by my decision to send my children for their visit with their father as difficult as it might have been on all of us. No matter how I sliced it, this man is their father, and it is their obligation to respect him and their right to love him. Making that difficult for them would only be hurtful to them.
After talking it over with a close friend I realized that what was really bothering me was that I had hoped my children would be different; that they would be the fortunate ones who escaped the usual mess that comes with divorce. I realize now that they are not. None of us is untouched by the reality that is our past. Each of the members of my family has his or her individual challenges to deal with due to the fact that both my husband and I had been married before, especially since we share some of our children with others. There will be times down the road when these children will need to make choices on how to include and respect all three sides of their family. We must decide on what role we will each play in their lives and in shaping their futures. I hope and pray that their challenges will be easy ones and their disappointments few.
Yehudit welcomes and encourages input and feedback on issues relating to the Blended Family and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org