In many cases, children can be a deciding factor in whether couples choose to divorce or stick it out. Some decide to stay together for the kids, while others decide that splitting up is what’s best for the children.
“They say it’s better to come from a broken home than to live in a broken home, and those words could not be more true,” said Adina (not her real name), a mother of four who separated from her husband earlier this year.
She said staying together was not in the best interest of her children, and although there are challenges related to the separation, she’s confident she’s doing the right thing.
“With my kids, there are different challenges now, but they are doing better than they ever have. They feel safe here,” Adina said.
According to the Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA’s 2011 National Household Survey analysis, the impact of divorce can be particularly difficult on children.
“Recent studies suggest that children of divorced parents have lower achievement rates and are more likely to drop out of school than children in intact families. The children’s relationships with their parents can also be more strained.”
Nati Becker, a PhD candidate in social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the haredi community near Jerusalem, has conducted research about behavioural problems of children from divorced religious families.
“The most noticed challenge is for parents setting rules and enforcing them. Because of the large number of children, the single parent – usually the mother – has to face alone a wide range of tasks, and does not have the emotional availability to do so,” Becker said.
“Also, the boys in divorced families are ashamed of going for prayers in the synagogue without their father, and find themselves out of the community activities.”
Miriam recalled her own struggles as a child of divorced parents.
“When my parents got divorced, my life went upside down. I was 18 and I went off the path. I went to university, I went to Western [University] and I did what my parents didn’t want me to do,” Miriam said.
“Then I met my husband and he was just becoming religious. I was going out and he was coming in.”
Miriam, who divorced in 2013, said she found her way back to her roots during her first marriage, and she, her four children and new husband are all Orthodox.
“The biggest thing is to keep the kids out of the conflict because it is so hard,” she said.
“If they have two loving homes, they can do better than in a house that is full of conflict.”
Caroline Johnson, co-ordinator of Jewish Family & Child’s Changing Family Program, said the organization has services to try to normalize the experience for children coping with their parents’ divorce.
She said the developmental ages and stages of the children when their parents divorce will have an effect on how – and when – they process it.
“Just because a child’s parents may have divorced when they were two years old, they can still very much be nine or 11 or 12 when they start grappling with issues [that] relate to it, and their struggles at that age would look very, very different,” Johnson said.
With toddlers, increased clinginess and attachment is a common reaction.
“But at the nine-to-12 range, we see a lot of self-blame, the idea of separation and divorce being their fault,” she said.
“We may see the maladaptive behaviour stuff that parents really worry about – the crying, the talking back, the shutting down… but we tend to see kids fall into the new normal really somewhere around the three-month mark.”
She said it becomes a more serious issue if children don’t bounce back after a three-month period where the family has established a predictable routine and provided access to each parent.
“When all of these healthy, supportive kinds of things are in place and children are still unable to rebound, that is when we would want to explore more thoroughly what may be happening for that child.”
Johnson said it’s important to communicate with children throughout the transition, but there is a certain approach parents should take to make them feel safe, secure and validated.
“We would really encourage families to sit with their children, and rather than be intrusive with questions, to sit with their children and say, ‘I know this really sucks. If I were you, I’d probably be upset, too, and when you’re ready, we can talk about it,’” she said.
“The children are validated in terms of their parents knowing that this is extremely difficult without placing demands on the child to be able to come up with the language to describe it, because it is quite an emotional moment for them, and they may be overwhelmed.”
When it comes to how parents cope with single parenthood, Rachel, who has a toddler from her marriage that ended last year, said she’s coping better than one might expect.
People look at you and they wonder, ‘How are you dealing with this? How are you a single mother, working and doing all the things you’re supposed to be doing with a partner?’ But on the other side of it, I know a lot of people look at me and say, ‘Wow. Look at what she’s capable of. Unbelievably, she can continue with her lifestyle, she’s providing for her child, she can still afford to go on vacation.’ In some ways, [it’s empowering] that I’m able to continue on.”
The National Household Survey showed that there is a significant increase in the number of single-parent families.
In 1991, there were 25,730 Canadian Jews living in single-parent families, compared to 33,555 in 2011, which represents an increase of 30.4 per cent over the last two decades.
Adina feels that living without the stress of a dysfunctional marriage makes her a better mother.
“Single parenthood is a challenge, but the truth is, it’s easier doing it on my own than doing it with the wrong partner. At the end of the day, I’m physically exhausted and I’m so tired and drained, but I don’t feel like my soul is drained. I don’t feel that emotional feeling of having nothing in me,” she said, adding that both she and her children benefit from therapy and services provided by JF&CS.
“I’m the parent now that I always wanted to be, that I wasn’t able to be before.”
Part of being a good single parent is being a good co-parent, explained Erin Silver in a 2015 Globe and Mail article.
“We wanted our kids to know that divorce didn’t have to be a dirty word,” Silver wrote. “Our kids bound us together for life, even if our vows didn’t.”
Silver said that if it wasn’t for mediation, she suspects that she and her ex would continue to harbour anger and resentment toward one another. Their mediator explained that parents serve as role models, and the better parents get along, the better the kids will be able to manage their own relationships.
“Thinking about things in that way – respecting and trusting one another as co-parents, rather than distrusting each other as former spouses – is what finally enabled us to move forward.”
JF&CS offers a number of programs that can guide families through the challenges associated with separation and divorce.
Johnson said JF&CS offers individual counselling, giving parents concrete strategies and tools to use at home, and individual support for children at the age of eight or nine and older.
There’s a program called “1 Family, 2 Homes,” for children as young as four. The sessions for parents include tips on keeping kids out of the conflict, how to actively listen to your kid, and the impact of separation and divorce on children.
In addition to a legal clinic that provides free legal advice, other programs include: “When you’re about to separate – what to tell the kids” and “Looking Ahead” to a new life beyond a divorce.
Miriam said she benefited from a New York-based organization called Sister to Sister.
“You must have a reference from a rabbi, and they have meetings in Toronto, and they provide grocery gift cards. They offer $200 per child toward camp. They provide school supplies,” Miriam said.
“There are so many resources that exist today,” Johnson added. “Many law offices that specialize in family law will have tutorials on their site where you can go and watch a video to give you a snapshot of what to start thinking about.”