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Divided Family, Whole Simchah

Avigail Rosenberg

Mazel tov — it’s a bar mitzvah, a wedding! How to make everyone more comfortable, and put joy back in the simchah when the guest of honor is a child of divorce

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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LASTING MEMORIES The flowers have died, the invitations are long discarded, and the only mementos of the simchah are in the photographer’s hands and the parents’ hearts. Looking back on the big day, many a divorced parent — and child of divorce — can still take pride in the celebration

"M y parents got divorced when I was five, and I was 23 when I got married,” recalls Perri. “Even though 18 years had passed, it was still a big source of tension to know that my parents would have to be together in the same room again for my wedding.

“My father was remarried, which further complicated things. You have to dance with your mom, and even though, in general, she might not be jealous of your stepmom, this is a loaded moment for her. You can’t even focus on the simchah because you’re juggling so much — you need to dance with your mother and then you need to dance with your stepmother, but you can’t dance too much with her because it will insult your mom.

“And then there are the grandparents, and they hate the ex. You’re scared for your parents, who will have to face those nasty comments again. There are the relatives on both sides who make comments about your parents, too. And you feel guilty because you’re the one making them all come together again. At a certain point, I felt like, I don’t want to have a wedding, I want to just elope.”

Partnering Again 

As many children of divorce share, a shared simchah throws a divided family into a maelstrom of anger, hurt, pain, and raw emotion… with the baal or baalas simchah smack in the middle of it.

“It affects every part of the event,” says Batya, whose parents divorced when she was a teenager. “Arranging the kibbudim was a nightmare. There was a rav who my mother wanted to give a brachah to, but my father didn’t get along with him anymore. Should he get a brachah? Could my father bear to be under the chuppah with him? As a kallah you feel like it’s all about you, but it’s not. It’s also about the people in your life getting what they need out of the wedding.”

A simchah for a mutual child forces two people who are no longer married to interact again and, on some level, to become partners in creating a happy event.

“When a couple divorces, they — theoretically, at least — go on to live separate lives,” notes Rachel Rose, a family and individual therapist in a private practice in Jerusalem. “A simchah for a joint child brings them back together in the same room. Any issue that wasn’t resolved properly at the time of the divorce can resurface at the hall of a child’s simchah.”

Often, these issues interfere with the parents’ ability to focus on the simchah. “Is Moishy having a bar mitzvah, or are Mom and Dad getting a chance to show everyone how the other side is no good?” Mrs. Rose asks. “Overcoming a bruised ego and putting your child first may require an Academy Award performance, but your child benefits and you get to look like a star.”

The battle can begin long before the event itself, as two distinct units try to create a simchah that will be comfortable for both parents. Even happily married couples often disagree on how much money to spend and what kind of event to hold. For couples who are divorced, these questions are that much more tension-fraught, especially if the two live in different economic brackets or finances are tight, as they often are in single-parent homes.

“Ideally, the parents should sit together and plan the event, taking into consideration what they want and what the kid wants, and try to reach a mutual agreement,” says Elisheva Tobin Attali, an educational psychologist in Jerusalem with a private practice in couples and family therapy. “But before they do that, each parent should sit down alone to think it out. What kind of atmosphere do they want? How much money do they want to spend? Come prepared to the meeting.

“It’s easier said than done,” Mrs. Attali continues, “but both parents should remind themselves that it’s a one-time event for the child, and they both want the child to have positive memories of the simchah. Anything that’s not relevant to that, put aside.”

As a milestone event in the lives of both the parents and the child, the simchah will inevitably stir up many deep emotions. “On some level, no one wants to have a simchah while divorced. Almost everyone wishes they could have the simchah together as one big happy family,” says Rabbi Dovid Hochberg, LCSW-C, director of the Maryland Counseling Network and a psychotherapist in private practice. “The parents may have to mourn the loss of that dream — that their family can no longer be the way they envisioned it.”

“The older I become, the more I realize that, sure, this is a difficult situation, but everyone has complicated family situations. It’s so easy to look at other people’s families and say, ‘Wow, they have it all,’ but you never really know what stresses other people have”

The child, too, may feel a sense of loss, compounded by the challenge of navigating the needs of both parents even during the most exciting moments of his or her life. “The experiences that one would normally share with both parents may now turn into something that they feel they have to hide,” notes Rabbi Hochberg. “For example, a kallah may think, Can I tell Daddy that I went shopping with Mommy and found a great dress?”

A family situation that may have slipped under the radar will now inevitably be in the public eye. “Sometimes children feel very embarrassed, very stigmatized,” continues Rabbi Hochberg. “They think, My parents will make a scene, or, My friends will wonder why my mother/father isn’t there. They feel ashamed that their parents are divorced.”

Shared Dividends 

In the best-case scenario, the two parents will overcome their negative feelings and create a simchah the child will enjoy and remember for many years afterward. However, this may require enormous reserves of emotional strength and avodas hamiddos.

“I considered splitting the bar mitzvah between my ex and myself, but it was very important to my son to have one event,” says Devora, who was divorced for six years when she made her first bar mitzvah. “Many of my ex-husband’s relatives were coming in, and I hadn’t spoken to them in years. I realized it would be very awkward to see them for the first time at the bar mitzvah, so I made a lot of phone calls beforehand to break the ice. It was hard, but everyone focused on being a mensch and doing what was best for my son.”

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