By: Rabbi Doniel Drandoff
Dovid arrived 10 minutes early for our meeting, with his mother and 2 siblings. Dovid, an 11 year old boy, was visibly angry when he entered my office, while his younger sisters, ages 6 and 9, seemed shy and uncomfortable. Beyond those immediate observations I couldn’t help but notice that Dovid’s shirt was torn by the elbows and that his shoes had seen better days. The girls, Dasi and Miriam, were similarly unkempt. Dovid’s mother just looked downright depleted. After settling the children down to hang out in our My Extended Family chill room, I invited Dovid’s Mom into my office to talk. Her story was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. Yet, I hear such stories regularly. Tatty recently moved away. For over 2 years he avoided paying child support and slowly disengaged from his kid’s lives. During that time the kids began to spiral down, each in their own way. Dovid was impacted the most, as he idolizes his father and misses him terribly. Needless to say, Dovid has been struggling in school and has even begun getting into fights with classmates. To top it off, a few months ago he started wetting his bed. While his friends are running to avos u’banim on motzei Shabbos, Dovid sits at home with nobody to take him. He rarely goes to shul on shabbos because he is embarrassed to sit alone. Dovid’s mom sees her kids falling apart before her very eyes, but has no idea how to help them. Her financial troubles haven’t been easy for the kids either. She hasn’t been able to pay tuition in months and is behind on her rent and utilities. Putting food on the table has become a real struggle, and many nights Dovid has cereal and milk for dinner. His rebbe reported to me that he often comes to school without snack and when asked why he doesn’t have snack Dovid simply shrugs it off. Dovid’s mother works, but it is simply not enough to support the family alone. In short, she feels as though she has a front row seat to watch the destruction of her children and her family. Yet, she feels powerless to do anything to alter this horrible trajectory. She feels hopeless.
Dovid’s story is real and all too common. My guess is that most people reading this column have but to look within their own immediate families to find the nearest single-parent child. Maybe some of you have to move a little further out, beyond your nuclear family, to find the nearest single-parent child. But in this day and age you will be hard pressed to find too many people who have to venture too far out. I don’t think that it is extreme to say that it is now an epidemic. There are thousands of children in our community who do not live with both of their parents together. Many of these children wake up every morning feeling scared, angry, lonely, insecure, and immensely guilty. Dr. Mark Banschick is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with decades of experience working with children from single-parent homes. He has written a series of books titled The Intelligent Divorce and his lectures span the globe. He explains that the stress and anxiety that divorce often brings up for children can lead to regression, aggression, unhealthy attempts at perfection, low self-esteem, and depression. It is an extremely heavy burden for a child. When these core issues are left untreated and unresolved they can lead to all kinds of risky behaviors in adolescence.
I think that most people would be shocked to hear some of the profoundly sad comments I have heard from single-parent children over the years. A 9 year old girl, whose parents have been battling in court for over 3 years, shared with me that she wishes she would die and go up to Hashem so that she wouldn’t have to be in pain anymore. A boy, age 7, once commented to me that he hates being a spy for his parents. His parents were horrified to hear that their son felt this way. They couldn’t believe it. Yet, the burden of being told to report back about “how much money mommy spends on school supplies”, or “what time tatty gets you to school in the morning”, is very heavy for a child. Parents often don’t even realize how much stress they are adding to their children’s lives. In another case, a 12 year old boy cried to me that he knows that his parents got divorced because of him! He was absolutely sure that if he had behaved better, or if he had done something differently, his parents would still be married. I worked with that boy for a long time, and he eventually recognized that it wasn’t his fault. But I can’t begin to describe the torment of that child. His daily life was colored black, to the point that he had given up. This boy was on his way to an adolescence of risky behaviors, all to numb the pain that he couldn’t bear.
Raising children nowadays is very complex and challenging, even in the best of cases. Even when there are 2 parents living together, who love each other and do their best to raise their children right, it is not easy. Single parents are sadly at a disadvantage. They are not weak. They are not less wise. They are not less devoted. In fact, as clinical director of My Extended Family I have had the zechus of working with some of the most impressive fathers and mothers I have ever met. Devoted to the point of ignoring their own personal needs. But that is often not enough. It is not enough because it takes a collaborative effort to raise children. Collaboration between mommy and tatty can yield incredible results. But when that is not possible, collaboration on a wider and deeper scale is necessary. Kol hamekayem nefesh achas mi’yisroel k’ilu kayem olam maleh– anyone who saves a Jewish life is as though he saved a full world. We have thousands of olamos maleh in our community. Many of whom drift through their days in a haze of depression and anguish. We must be prepared to recognize how we as a community can take part in the raising of single-parent children. As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. This old adage is only more true for children from single parent homes.
In an effort to bring the community together to learn about the plight of single parenthood, the serious challenges facing the children, and what we can all do to help, My Extended Family will be launching a series of events. Our inaugural single-parenting event will take place Monday evening November 19th, at Kingsway Jewish Center and will feature some excellent speakers. We will hear divrei chizuk v’hisorirus from Rabbi Dovid Ashear, world-renowned speaker and author of Living Emunah. Then, we will greet Dr. Mark Banschick, author of The Intelligent Divorce. Dr. Banschick has decades of experience counselling divorced/divorcing parents. He will discuss some of the single-parenting do’s and dont’s, while offering real life guidance to the community at large.