In an opinion-piece printed in the May 8th edition of The Jewish Press, Rabbi Elchanan Poupko acknowledged the reality of Orthodox single mothers in our communities and showered praise on the heroic mesirat nefesh they consistently demonstrate. These are women who with fortitude and grit are able to “live up to the double responsibility of caring for both the material and religious needs of their children in a way that can only astonish those who are aware of it… and in a manner so humble and successful that it often goes unrecognized.”
Having “been there and done that” myself decades ago when single Orthodox women were fewer in number and, by virtue of the small demographic, often (inadvertently I hope) made to feel like second class citizens by the community they lived in, it is truly gratifying to finally have some recognition that we are deserving of respect and, as such, be treated on as equal a level as our married peers.
We were often overlooked when it came to invitations for Shabbat and Yom Tov or simchas – we were on the “B” list. Perhaps couples with less than stellar marriages were afraid divorce was contagious or that we somehow would be a negative influence just by our presence at the table.
On more than one occasion, I was treated as if I were invisible – even by family. To be honest, many of my friends whose children were rejected for shidduchim because they came from a “divorced family” cannot help but feel a sense of middah kneged middah when these individuals divorce in late middle age after enduring a dysfunctional marriage or one or more of their children have gotten divorced from a spouse who came from a “good” family with married parents.
So yes, it’s nice to get a verbal “pat on the back” for a job well done despite the heavy-duty odds.
But a parent’s mesirat nefesh – putting the welfare and security and comfort of one’s children first and foremost despite the emotional, physical and financial cost – is not exclusive to mothers. There are many, many fathers (married, divorced or widowed) who make their kids’ well-being their priority.
There are women who are incompetent or indifferent mothers, unable or unwilling to nurture their children. There are several reasons for this, some more disconcerting and disturbing than others.
Some women sadly suffer from severe depression or chronic anxiety that literally makes getting out of bed a supreme effort – let alone preparing breakfast, dressing their kids, getting them to school, hosting plays dates, or attending plays and recitals.
Others are physically handicapped due to an accident or long-term debilitating disease. In Ann Novick’s column, The Person Behind the Chair…and Beyond, we frequently read about anshei chayil, devoted men who have stubbornly stayed by the side of a chronically ill wife for years, if not decades, diligently “learning the ropes” of running a household and being both a mother and father to their children – and a “parent” to her as well. They feed, dress, drive and nurse their wives, in addition to working and raising the children. They sacrifice their hobbies, their free time, the opportunity to study, their social life and everything that healthy, unfettered individuals freely partake in without a second thought. These men are balabatim in the full sense of the word.
Sometimes their wive’s chronic illness leads to verbal and emotional abuse and these men take this in stride knowing that if they say, “Dayenu – I didn’t sign up for this and I deserve a life,” their children will lose their only functioning parent.
Truly they are supermen as are their counterparts whose wives have no physical handicap but are emotionally impaired and toxic.
These men tragically have children whose maternal DNA contributors are just that, for they are apathetic, unconcerned mothers who either ignore their offspring or invalidate their needs, and chronically minimize, vilify, mock, insult and disparage them. These women may have been the victims of insidious parental abuse and are mimicking the dysfunctional parenting that they think is “normal” or have developed personality disorders, like narcissism, where they are totally focused on their wants and perceived needs.
There are fathers who bravely step up to the plate and fill in the maternal vacuum with their love, devotion, and going the extra mile for their kids – no matter the price or cost to themselves.
I actually know a father who became very adept at braiding his daughter’s hair; he also made breakfast, lunch and snacks and got the kids ready for school, since their mother needed to “sleep.” Luckily his boss is a relative who accommodates his lateness.
These men are emotional life-savers for their children, as they offset the verbal/emotional abuse their enraged mother heaps on them – and are physical life-savers in some cases when their very young, dependent children are neglected by uncaring or self-absorbed mothers. They give the children the crucial message that they are loveable, and worthy and valued. It is a life-line that hopefully will enable the kids to develop the ability to have healthy relationships as adults.
Often these fathers sacrifice their lives for decades, staying in toxic marriages where they too are targets of vicious verbal venom. Nothing they do short of walking away can put a stop to it. Some do get divorced since they realize that their own mental and physical well-being is at stake.
I am haunted by a letter printed in the March 30th Family Issues section of The Jewish Press, from a distraught sister regarding her brother who has been physically and mentally broken by his personality-disordered wife. She writes, “My sisters and I went to see him and were shocked at what we found. He was a shadow of his previous self, gaunt and unkempt, a broken man who wept as he told us of the cruel and inhuman treatment his vicious wife subjected him to. After a long day, he was required to take over the nanny’s job of caring for the kids, picking them up from school, preparing their supper, doing homework and cleaning up after them. She was either out with friends or attending classes.”
She concludes that her brother can’t be the only man who suffers at the hands of an evil, narcissistic, physically, emotionally and verbally abusive wife.
Apparently, early on in his marriage, when his wife’s true nature came out, he was going to get divorced, but stayed married when she told him she was expecting their first child. He opted to stay – for his future children’s sake.
Over the years I have met fathers like these who basically have sacrificed their own potential happiness for years because they knew they had to be emotionally, geographically and financially there for their hapless children. Even when their wife would sabotage their effort to be a part of their kids’ lives, they would keep on trying to reach out over and over again.
These are the Orthodox single fathers – some still married and some on their own who deserve our immense respect and awe and support. May they all have enduring nachas from their offspring.