Restructuring Life After The Passing of a Spouse

Q: Unfortunately for me and my family, my husband passed away two years ago after a serious illness. I have an 11-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 9 and 6. I’ve put a lot of effort into keeping our family together and sharing positive experiences. I’m a stay-at-home mother, so money is tight. I try to instill strong Torah values, and I get relatives to take my older son to shul on Shabbos.

Unfortunately, my second son is less interested in going to shul, and less excited about Yiddishkeit in general. His memory of his father is vague (he was only 4 years old when his father was niftar), so the shul experience doesn’t seem particularly personal to him. My older son has warm memories of his father dancing with him on Simchas Torah, taking him to shalom zachars, and other simchos that they shared together.

I know that I can’t create something that my youngest child never saw. I want my older son to include him more in activities, but he doesn’t want to. He considers his brother a tag-along and doesn’t want to be responsible for him.

Another issue is that of accepting boundaries. As there are only two bedrooms in our apartment, I share a room with my daughter, affording me only limited privacy. My sons don’t realize that my bed and belongings are not public property. They go through my drawers and sit on my bed, and I’ve told them many times that it’s wrong to do so. They sit on my chair at the dining room table, and I’ve told them that it’s not kibbud eim. They say that I’m making a big deal about nothing, because they’ve been to many friends’ homes, and their mothers don’t respond the way I do.

A: Your sincere commitment to your family is admirable, as reflected in the way you strive to create a positive, growth-producing environment with the limited resources available to you.

Creating enthusiasm for frumkeit is an issue that every parent needs to focus on, not only single parents. Often, even in a home with two parents, one parent has the bulk of the responsibility of transmitting the mesorah. Figuring out what inspires each child becomes this parent’s spiritual mission.

The dilemma of having a tag-along younger sibling is an eternal sibling challenge. You may feel that spending time with an older brother will provide a positive male role model for your son, but this may not be helpful if your older son resents being put in this position too often. Perhaps your younger son behaves in a way that is uncomfortable or embarrassing to him (after all, he is three years younger), and this aspect of their relationship needs to be explored.

Some degree of responsibility and accountability should be expected from your older son towards his younger brother. This is an appropriate expectation whether or not he has a father to take him to shul. The idea of sibling loyalty and unselfishness needs to be discussed in order to reach a better understanding and agree upon realistic expectations.

In terms of boundaries, it is true that some parents allow their children to go through their belongings and do not make an issue of this. There are also parents who do not make a clear demarcation of which chair is theirs at the table. However, there is a definite concept in the Shulchan Aruch about not sitting in a parent’s chair, and if this is something you want to stress, it is part of the mesorah that you desire to give your children. It is definitely more of a challenge for you, as you share your room with your daughter, and sitting on your bed, or going through drawers, can almost happen unintentionally.

If your sons persist in going through your belongings, you can respond with minor negative consequences. As in all areas, our goal is not to be “like all the other parents,” but to do what is right as we see it.