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by Jennifer M. Paquette

The Jewish Homemaker
Pesach Issue, 5761

NOTE: This article has been significantly modified from the submitted version, and I had no input into the editorial process. Almost two years have passed since I wrote this article (my "four-year-old" son is 6 now!), and, while I stand firmly behind the sentiments expressed here, I really wish they came across a little better.

My four-year-old son, Yerachmiel Meir, has already decided what he wants to be when he grows up. But his favorite jobs change from week to week, and there are just too many possibilities to narrow it down to a single one. So one week he’s going to become a dentist/waiter; the next, a teacher/truck driver. His careers always seem to involve travel: from Israel to the Arctic Circle, there is nowhere he doesn’t want to live. At least, I didn’t think so, until one day in the car on the way home from daycare, when he announced that he wanted to be a helicopter firefighter: “But I’ll have to go to Alberta [where his father lives] to do it out there.”

Half-joking, I asked, “But where will your kinderlach live?”

His answer froze me in my seat.

“With their mommy,” he said. “They’ll live with their mommy, and I’ll go to Alberta to become a helicopter firefighter.” There was nowhere in the world Yerachmiel Meir did not want to live, except in his own home.

And this is why, despite the claims of Barney the Dinosaur and the million books out there helping children accept their “different” families, I strongly believe that once parents have had a child, they must stay together. Children whose parents are divorced cannot learn what it means to stay with their family, and family is the glue that holds all our other values together.

We tell our children to keep their promises, yet we do not keep ours. When they don’t meet their commitments, we call it lying or irresponsibility. When we do it, and call it divorce, we tell ourselves it’s for their own good.

We tell them to help people, to do whatever is possible to meet others’ needs. When they don’t, we call it selfishness. When we don’t, we say, “I couldn’t survive another minute in that marriage.” They themselves are in desperate need of two parents, but that, they learn, is just too bad, because we tell them we’ve got to go our own way.

Yerachmiel Meir must have noticed my discomfort after his pronouncement, because he backpedaled, searching for the right words. “As soon as I’m old enough, I’ll get married,” he said, “and I will have kinderlach, one or two or a lot, and then I’ll go away.”

If children learn that a divorced family is natural, then an intact family, of course, is unnatural. Although Yerachmiel Meir is a loving boy, liberated enough to cuddle his dollies just as his little sister Elisheva Chaya does hers, he has no way of knowing that it is unacceptable to leave his family.

A male role model is not the same thing as a father. When Yerachmiel Meir holds his dolls, I tell him he’s “just like Mr. Steinman with Dovid Simcha,” or that he’s doing something “just like Zeidy does.” But he knows that these are just people we visit. They do not live with us, so their influence is just as ephemeral as that of his own father.

Only if children see two parents busy with parenting, all the time, can they develop a natural, continuous awareness of family as the building block to socialization in human society. Dr. Laura Schlessinger is well known for her slogan “I am my kids’ mom.” We’re lying to ourselves if we imagine there is anything that supercedes our kids’ best interests. Being a parent must come first. So what if you’re already divorced, or divorcing?

Well, if you’re divorcing, stop divorcing. While you can — right now. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know you don’t think you can do it. People told my husband and I to stop divorcing, so I know firsthand that the advice doesn’t do much good.

Only one person had the courage to try to show my husband the truth. This man said, “If you divorce, you will shecht your kids.” Shecht them. Literally, the word means slaughter. And hearing Yerachmiel Meir’s grand plans to abandon his family, I now know what it means metaphorically as well.

When my husband and I were divorcing, we didn’t pay attention to that advice. I knew I did not wish any harm upon my children, and neither did my husband. Our intentions were good, and our goals in raising the children were unwavering. To raise healthy children, adults who are able to function in society and be good — those are worthy goals for any parent. But what do we mean when we say we hope to teach them goodness? Well, there’s good, and then there’s very good.

When G-d created the world, He would stop and look back on each day’s creation, just to make sure everything was all right. I imagine Him doing this much the way I enjoy watching my children sleep. He’d step back from the work and look around, and His heart would fill with nachas. But remember what He did on the sixth day?

On the sixth day, Hashem created all the animals: cows and snakes and tigers. And then He stepped back. “It is good,” He said, just as He had said the previous day. But this time, there was something missing; He knew He wasn’t done yet. And so He made Adam, and then Eve, breathing life into them and telling them to “be one flesh.” Only then did He step back; only then could He sigh with relief and pride: “It is very good.”

It is not enough to be good like the animals: mating, and then moving apart to raise our children. The animals were good in G-d’s eyes, but not very good — and second best is no way to raise a child. All my good intentions, and my husband’s, were not enough; not as good as the way of G-d. The loss, of course, was our kids’ loss. Our good intentions shechted them.

The children of well-intentioned divorces are crippled by their inability to observe a natural family at work. But if we work harder with these children to compensate for the loss, then, as with many other handicaps, we can begin to rehabilitate their worldview.

In the car that day, once I’d recovered from my flood of emotions, I said the first thing that came to mind. “Chas v’shalom,” I told Yerachmiel Meir. G-d forbid. I wanted to pull over, shut off the car, and climb in the back so I could hold his shoulders and stare into his eyes as I spoke.

“Yerachmiel Meir, listen,” I would have told him. “A child is a present G-d gives to two parents, not just one. And if somebody gives you a gift, it is not right to just give that gift away.”

Your children aren’t at fault, so we always have to keep this focus on what is right and what is wrong, even if it means admitting that we were wrong. Yes, we, the all-knowing, the powerful adults in their lives. Our children may have to learn that we were wrong, because the alternative is to make them feel as if they are something less than precious.

If you had both known what was right, if you’d known how important it is to Hashem that families stay together so children can grow up good, you wouldn’t have divorced. I’m not talking here about abusive marriages. Under no circumstances can staying with an abusive spouse be considered the right thing to do. And there are other situations that can amount to abuse (e.g., substance addiction) where there may be no alternative to divorce. I’m referring to cases such as mine, where the mother and father decide they simply do not want to live with one another. They may cite “incompatibility” or a “midlife crisis” as their reason. One of the parties may decide he (she) no longer loves the other. In these situations, especially when there are children at home, divorce is rarely the right solution. I am not minimizing the significance of these issues; they are painful and must be addressed, but within the marriage. Life deals us some curve balls; that does not mean we always have the right to duck.

What can you tell your children if you have divorced under these less-than-dire circumstances? About the best you can say is, “We did not know what was right.” It is short and simple, with no finger pointing. And please don’t drag your kids through a play-by-play of the last days of your marriage.

Once you acknowledge that you did not know what was right, use every opportunity to talk with your children about how to do the right thing. Even something as small as “adopting” a goldfish or a houseplant can be an opportunity to teach your children this trait. Feed the fish, water the plant, and talk about how it will stay with you as long as it’s alive.

Even a three-year-old girl can understand that a plant needs her to look after it or it will die, and she can feel proud of herself for doing a good job. “If you ignore your goldfish, it’ll go belly up” is, perhaps, a gentle way of teaching that “If you divorce, you will shecht your kids.”

Anything you can do to talk about the value of promises and commitments is helpful. Tell your ten-year-old proudly, “You said you’d be here at five, and you came back just in time!” He’ll start to see himself as responsible, as a person who keeps his promises. For older children, it’s also important that you show them that kedushah — holiness — is woven into every part of a Jewish marriage: from the ceremony, kiddushin, to the home itself, which is called a mikdash me’at — a small Temple.

“What is kodesh?” I ask my kids, when we come across the word in the weekly Torah portion. Even little Elisheva Chaya knows to shout along with her brother: “Special to Hashem!”

Our families are kodesh; they are special to G-d.

Don’t break them, please.

And if, unfortunately, they are already broken, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there; I am there. Do all you can to mend the situation, before your kids are old enough to act out fantasies like Yerachmiel Meir’s of “moving away,” so that yet another generation will grow up divorced.

Jennifer M. Paquette lives with her children in Toronto, Canada. This is her first appearance in these pages.

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