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On the Other Side of the Fence

Yisroel Besser

It’s easy to pity divorced mothers, often considered the victims of abusive or unsustainable marriages. But where do the fathers — shunted aside, separated from their children, living in substandard apartments, choked by child support and alimony — fit in? In a family-focused society, where parents and children are expected to interact in keeping with scripted mores, divorced fathers say it’s rare to find someone who will listen and validate their loneliness.

Monday, December 22, 2014

“If you think making time to learn with your children is hard, I don’t feel bad for you. Sorry. I just don’t.” Yaakov spears a potato and pops it in his mouth, the force of his movements the only indication that he’s seething inside. He speaks in measured tones, with practiced calm. “You know, I read something in an article recently that really resonated. It said that the studies that focus on the relationship between fathers and their children post-divorce discuss how the loss of contact negatively impacts the children. But they don’t talk about how the fathers themselves are managing. Kids need their parents — but it’s also true that parents need their kids. So of course I’m shattered inside. I’m being deprived of the most important thing in my own life.” The Lakewood coffee shop is boisterous and noisy, a good place for a personal conversation where everyone else has better things to do than eavesdrop, but Yaakov keeps turning around to make sure no one is listening. “I’m a freak,” he says without mirth. “I’m used to people looking at me. I’m divorced. In the frum community, that means that I have three heads.” Yaakov is one of several divorced men I spoke with, suffering through the pain and humiliation of being disenfranchised from their children and marginalized by a family-focused community. Much has been written about the struggles and challenges of divorced/single mothers, often considered the victims of abusive or unsustainable marriages. But where do the fathers — often shunted aside, living in substandard apartments, choked by child support and alimony — fit in? Who’s out there to listen, to validate their loneliness? Standing in the parking lot, leaning against the fender of his small Civic (“I borrow a minivan whenever I have the kids”), Yaakov continues: “Let’s face it, the frum community is biased against divorced men. There’s a stigma. The sympathy is always with the mother, she’s a victim, nebach, poor woman, she was married to a no-goodnik. He was abusive, he had anger-management issues, he’s a bum. He’s the bad guy.” Yaakov says his story isn’t unique. “Divorce happens. Sometimes it’s his fault, sometimes her fault, sometimes it’s everyone’s fault, and sometimes it’s no one’s fault. Regardless, they both have a right to rebuild their lives. True, the woman is weighed down with children or financial pressures, but the man carries a heavy load too, the most painful being all the negative assumptions. Women get invited for Shabbos meals; men get looked at through narrowed eyes. “So, if you’re trying to tell the story of the frum divorced male, that’s it. Everybody looks at us funny.”

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