Divorced-Dad Conundrums

Q: I am a divorced man with both teenage and younger children. My ex-wife, with whom I have joint custody, is not frum at this point in her life, and suffers from great mood swings.

My 15-year-old son desperately wants to go out of town for mesivta this year, and I am just stuck as to how this can occur. Though his mother can’t physically stop him, she can make his life miserable. In the past when certain situations have occurred, she has called schools on the phone, becoming quite hysterical, berating me and Yiddishkeit. She recently became very angry at our son’s Rebbi because she felt that he tried to make arrangements for a new school behind her back.

Two of our daughters have become estranged from their mother because of her mood swings and difficult personality, but their mother blames this on the fact that they’re going out of town for school. There are few people who can reason with my ex-wife, as once she feels that they don’t agree with her, she no longer wants to speak to them.

A younger son already refuses to go to her home at all, and stays with me all week. His older brother — the one that I’m writing about — probably feels closer to his mother than all of his five siblings.

I see that it would be the best thing for my son to go out of town. I’m sorry to say that he takes care of his younger siblings too much (at both our homes). My ex-wife and I are both self-employed, so we have no set hours, just a lot of deadlines.

My son organizes all types of activities for his eighth-grade class, gets along very well with peers and would be an asset to any school he’d be in. Since the neighborhood schools don’t really meet his needs academically, I think he’d do very well out of town. What are your thoughts?

A: Your letter has many facets, and the situation is clearly complicated. If your son were to confront his mother in a pleasant fashion about his desire to go to a school out of town, it might help — in theory. However, if she is very self-absorbed and needy, she may simply ignore his pleas and say that she feels differently.

To approach his mother in a forceful manner would most likely be unhelpful, and would likely incriminate all the family members (she might think that all the other family members told him to behave this way, as it is the only way to get anywhere with their mother…).

This can easily exacerbate an already difficult situation, as she will only feel that everyone is against her (especially since she is no longer observant).

If she has already sabotaged relationships with other children’s schools, you have realistic concerns about this happening with your son as well.

You can advise your son to discuss this issue with his mother in a pleasant manner, but not to expect much of a practical outcome.

He needs to focus on what he really appreciates about his mother and, in specifics, express how much he enjoys the company of his younger siblings and is not giving up this part of his life. He needs to try to convince her that leaving his parents’ homes is not leaving the warm attachment that he has with them, particularly her. (Though both of you may miss his babysitting acumen, he has greater pastures to navigate.)

This type of opening can help to soften her feelings about the issue, and help reassure her that he will not become distant from her.

But until he is able to go out of town, there is much you can do to help him in other ways. With regard to your son’s working “too much” with his younger siblings, your joint custody time can be modified, and you can be home earlier. If your son had medical needs you would modify your work schedule to accommodate him. The same holds true in relation to his emotional needs. Making him less of a “parentified child” is necessary for your son not to lose out on his childhood.

Trying to work with the neighborhood mesivtas towards having his academic needs met with a tailor-made program within their system is the present direction to go. As your son works well with peers and creates school activities, he can continue to do the same. Looking towards January or next September to make a change can still be a realistic aspiration for your son. Hatzlachah.