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I Am the Child of Divorce

I Am the Child of Divorce

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The deed’s been done; the label can be slapped on. I am officially a “child of divorce.”

Or is it a “child from a broken home”?

My parents’ get (divorce document) has yielded a discombobulated muddle of emotions: insecurity, sadness, anger, relief. The threads are hopelessly knotted together, and I’m slowly realizing that that’s the way it’s going to be. Divorce is not neat.

I was 21 when I heard that my parents were separating, and my first reaction was, “Thank G‑d. Finally.” My parents’ marriage had bumbled on dysfunctionally for decades, ultimately careening into a black hole of broken trust. No longer would we children have to feign bliss, pretending that all was dandy on the home front. The infection that had festered for years had finally pierced the skin, oozing out in a putrid finale of terrible choices.

I am officially a “child of divorce.”

My mother had a severe personality disorder (though we didn’t realize this until much later). Her father had been physically abusive, her mother cold and apathetic, and she had never learned to love. With each year that she refused to get help, the disorder deteriorated, reducing a brilliant woman to a demented, disturbed soul. But outsiders couldn’t see this. On the surface, Mommy was a well-respected school principal who charmed audiences with her charisma, erudition and fantastic sense of humor.

In the meantime, my devoted father became an expert at propping up the fallen pieces, creating stability in a roiling sea of capriciousness and narcissism. Mommy couldn’t be relied on for anything, but Dad was a rock.

Though my brothers and I sensed the bomb ticking just beneath the surface, for the most part, life was good. We were secure. My father, by nature an Honest Abe, had become an expert in pretense, unconsciously pulling off the most masterful show of his life. Only as we got older did we begin grasping the depth of Mommy’s illness, and the impossibility of her maintaining a meaningful marital partnership.

In my freshman year of high school, I began to seethe at the hypocrisy in my parents’ marriage. Any tension in our home was almost always my mother’s doing, but to the world-at-large, she was a pedagogical marvel. Daddy, on the other hand, was deemed the unremarkable one of the two: kindhearted but low on talent. The injustice was infuriating.

Daddy assumed a horrid role: he became our buffer, stomaching the rage, the outbursts, the maddening illogic, so that we kids would emerge unscathed. The cost to his own emotional health was steep, but he was determined to protect us. Mommy had no maternal instinct. Daddy made up for it sevenfold.

On a subconscious level, Daddy knew the marriage wasn’t viable. But he was a can-do type who had never rocked the boat, and he wasn’t about to start. Whatever it took, he would keep it together, giving us the gift of a normal childhood. And to a great extent, he succeeded. Unlike many children of divorce, I don’t view my childhood as a series of shouting matches or hate-filled stares. Though the dysfunction was ever-present, lurking in the shadows, it exploded only intermittently. The sweet memories of my youth far outnumber the black ones.

In our home, we heeded Daddy’s unspoken plea not to upset the applecart. He so badly wanted to have a normal marriage—like his doctor-lawyer-Indian-chief pals—and we didn’t have the heart to shatter his illusions. So we began a decade-long dance of denial, Daddy and us, each waltzer awfully aware of the bald truth, but unwilling to confront it together. For if we collectively, openly acknowledged that the emperor wore no clothes, life as we knew it could not continue.

No longer would I have to deal with my resentment and anger alone

Years passed, and it finally happened. Mommy did something that seriously compromised my sister’s safety, and Daddy had no choice. The curtains had fallen, and the relief was profound. No longer would we have to present as the model family. No longer would I have to deal with my resentment and anger alone. No longer would I have to hide the truth from the same rabbis and mentors who had so adulated Mommy in the past.

The divorce was a public announcement of defect, and now, we could move on . . . and heal.


Being a child of divorce is a strange thing. You are the product of a wrecked union, a faulty fusion of souls. You bore witness to flawed relationship skills, to recurrent patterns of psychologically unsound behavior. The fear is constant: will you repeat those mistakes?

Today, a fully developed self-identity and a mature faith have helped me accept the reality that G‑d makes no mistakes. In the biblical song of Haazinu, Moshe avers this pillar of faith: “The Rock [G‑d]! Perfect are His works, for all His paths are justice.”

My childhood was warped in so many ways, but there is comfort in knowing it was tailor-made for me. G‑d wanted me to tackle this particular life test. My job now is to learn the lessons and build anew. I have emerged scarred, but I have also emerged with a unique understanding of people and relationships. Going forward, I must put that to use.

Friends have asked me if I wish my parents would have divorced earlier, before the underlying decay swelled into a foul, embarrassing debacle. But I’m reluctant to engage in easy Monday-morning quarterbacking.

As a young girl, could I have properly processed the storm of emotions, the sense of disorder that comes with divorce? I don’t know.

As an impressionable, self-conscious teen, could I have dealt with divorce’s societal stigma? I don’t know.

In the long run, would I have been better off had Daddy ended the diseased marriage earlier? I don’t know.

But of one thing I am certain: Daddy did his best. Amid miserable life circumstances, he was a fount of love and stability. When he could easily have crumbled and abandoned us, he was a lion: fiercely protective and radiating a strength that masterfully betrayed his inner despair.

Ours is a world of falsehood. Scintillating, clever Mommy wasOurs is a world of falsehood everyone’s darling; true-blue Daddy was mediocrity personified. In the World of Truth, however, our limited perceptions will be upended: we will behold seemingly unexceptional folk—those who went about their daily lives with consistency and faith, making selfless, G‑dly decisions with zero recognition—sitting on high, basking in the light of the Creator they sought to emulate.

Daddy, our hope is that when you look at us today—all happily married, with loving, stable spouses—your painful sacrifice will have been worthwhile.

As told to Leah Ben-Simon
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Anonymous USA June 28, 2016

Skeptical You are exceedingly one-sided.
Your vilification of your mother is remarkable as is your placement of your father upon a pedestal. You make him out as a martyr. Was your mother officially diagnosed? What about your father? What role did he play in the disintegration of the marriage? Were they individually seeing therapists? Were they seeing a couples counselor? Were you altogether in family group therapy? How much real work was being done to repair and heal the family by both parents before divorce? Be careful in your thinking. Reply

Anonymous Bklyn March 9, 2015

thankyou for sharing this was awesomely honest and revealing. People will see this and really learn about the dynamics, pain and more, of Personality Disorders.
bless you, and thank you for sharing.
Mental health, and particularly this issue, is very very tricky and painful, and people don't understand much at all about it. This is one step toward helping people to get help. The comment below by Max called Sharing Stories is right on the mark.
This is a situation which must reach the general public and help prevent this painful, horrific issue. Reply

Geoffrey Jacks Lakewood, CA January 12, 2015

Re: I Am the Child of Divorce Very Powerful. Thank you for sharing. May G-d Bless You. Reply

Kyle Salt Lake January 5, 2015

Toda Raba Thank you for sharing this pain with others and, in so doing, help to lessen our pain. Tikkun Olam. Reply

Max brooklyn January 5, 2015

Sharing stories Maybe Chabad.org can start a new section on their website,
where people can share their family experiences and trauma.
It seems that there is a need for people to share and discuss.
There is a lot of suffering out there, that goes unheeded, and
a lot of children cries that go unheard.
And the story of violent failed marriages continues to perpetuate.
Because people hope things will somehow get better, without outside help.
Maybe uniting and sharing stories can help people to get a better sense of their condition and make sound decisions.
In many of the cases of family abuse, Rabbaes or Family Counselors are unable to help and being put "out of reach" by the abuse parent.
Many of the good counselors charge outrageous fees. $250-450 an hour.
How many people can afford extensive effective counseling at such rates Reply

Anonymous January 4, 2015

child of divorce what is crucial for the welbeing of the children/adult children and their future family is that they receive help on how to avoid repeating the cycle either by becoming like the unstable parent , or choosing a partner/friends/situations with similar characteristics. Getting out of the situation is not enough.
This type of help/mentoring in developing awareness could be given as an extension of counselling that is given to heal the scars. Otherwise the painful and unhealthy pattern will continue , and people will find themselves trapped in the same scenario, and so will their children.
It is like a blind spot people develop because they denied their feelings to survive, and therefore unable to trust their own discernment when they really need to. Reply

Paula Reilly January 4, 2015

I too am a child of divorce I agree with everything you wrote. I too ended my marriage as well and have no regrets however, my children both adults at the time, still have residual anger toward me for leaving their fragile father. Thank you for an illuminating piece Reply

Anonymous Texas January 3, 2015

Divorce is bad but every night as WW II is bad too. Divorce is hell.
Staying married can be a bigger hell.
I am a survivor of a "marriage" like that.
There are worse things than divorce.
Much worse. Reply

Anonymous Israel January 3, 2015

Bs"D
Thank you for your letter.

I too, came from a "broken home".  My father ז"ל had personality disorders which went undiagnosed  but were manifested in home life.  My mother ז"ל put up with it until the kids exploded in fear and confusion.  She had been the buffer of all our difficulties, until she saw the effect on the children.  Then she divorced my father, which further ostracised her because in her era, Jewish women didn't initiate divorce proceedings.

She tried so hard to give us a "normal" life, but it was so hard to feel normal when we had to move every year for lack of money to pay rent.  But she held it in, and tried so hard not to burden the kids.  My father had long since disappeared, never to come back.  So much personality difficulties for everyone in the family.  My poor mother paid dearly for being the bulwark of the family for us children.  She passed away at 54 from a fatal disease.  My siblings were all set up in schools and marriage.  I, being the youngest, was left tossed and turning by my growing up difficulties, all alone. 

I pulled through thank G-d, with the help of Hashem and a lot of counseling.  When I "graduated" from my counseling, I was sure I was "cured".  But I replayed history and married a man who was physically around but totally emotionally unavailable.  So sad.

I lived "the lie" of a normal marriage and made excuses to the kids about their father, who was emotionally unavailable to them, for close to 25 years, thinking I could put my heart "on hold".  But it didn't work.  I  developed a major depressive disorder, but I emerged the better for it.  I understood that the drama which I had faked for decades, was my undoing, and immediately divorced the father.

Most of the children and I are in counseling which is a G-dsend.  Should I have divorced him earlier?  I had been living in a warped emotional existence - I had no concept of how to extricate myself from the drama, having been used to a life of neglect and sexual abuse. until thank G-d I got intensive counseling.

I was "heavy-duty" mother and father and the toll on me is still physical and emotional.  It's been a long haul and will continue to be so, to undo so much damage.  But I am so grateful that I divorced.  My life is clean and real, thank G-d.  Hashem should give all of  us the clarity to make healthy decisions in our lives.

"One more act of goodness and kindness can bring Moshiach." Reply

Anonymous East Coast January 1, 2015

as a child of an ill parent...I'm not so sure I agree with dr. c.
I relate to much of what the author went through, it could have been my story she wrote up here.

My mother has a narcissitic flavored borderline personality. She is extremely difficult to relate to. I definitely suffer from this.

My parents divorced after I got married. I am grateful that it was not earlier. unlike the author,I did not breath a sigh of relief. I mourned for the loss of what was and what could have been.

I don't know if them divorcing earlier would have helped much, she would still be my mother. Either way I would have to heal from a narcisstic mother, divorce at an earlier age would have just added to my load of things to recover from.

As long as they were married there was hope. Divorce did not suddenly make my mother a nurturing and loving woman.

Thank G-d my father remarried a wonderful woman and my sisters are married to good people.

I agree with focusing on doing good in my life, when Moshiach comes my mother will recover, before that, I don't expect it. Reply

Paula CA January 1, 2015

Well Written and Clear I see that what was eloquently written has been perceived in various ways. I found neither vilification nor condemnation of the mother. Moreover there was a form of abuse present that the father and children shielded from the public. Fact: Mother was nonnurturing, successful in work, and maintained a facade while the father and children maintained as best they could for whatever reasons; and the writer states alternative possible scenarios that might have been. For eight years if my own childhoid I was beaten and terrorized by a stepmother. I know abuse, I know what an oblivious father is, and I know a mother, my biological mother who, though beautiful and kind, and who I longed for, visited me only once a month for a partial Saturday for years. No one protected us nor did we have a kind and nurturing father to shelter our little lives. Am I vilifying? No. I'm stating what was, as does the author here. Reply

Anonymous January 1, 2015

Been There--It's Hard Because I have been in this person's situation as a young child, I empathize whole-heartedly with the person telling this story. In my own case, my father was bipolar, an alcoholic, and someone who erupted in a terrifying level of violence--battery and rape--against my mother, which I witnessed when I was four. The damage was incalculable and I did a lot of terrible things in response to this trauma, which was made worse when my mother took up with a bullying, punitive man who took a particular dislike to me, both because traumatized children are difficult and because he was full of rage himself and was angry because my mother sexually rebuffed him.

I urge people to keep their eyes open and not to be fooled by the fact that someone is high-functioning. Also, abuse is much higher in step-parent families, so watch out there too. You can literally save the quality of a child's life. In fact, you might literally save a life. Reply

Michael Rudmin Portsmouth, Va January 1, 2015

Perhaps this isn't about her parents Sloan, and Dr. C: I am sure this story has played out millions of times; and the same destruction the child faced, the mother faced (and was destroyed).

Yet it seems possible that any Jew could have written this article, whether her parents were divorced or not.

This article is about the 'get' of 10 Tevet.

And yes, the mother in the situation likely might not recognize her need for help, nor the damage she has done.

But I know of a classmate of mine who is on the exit from G-d, headed into cold secular musical interests, because she feels abandoned.

The damage continues, and will until the mother recognizes her situation. Reply

Anonymous Chatsworth December 31, 2014

I really expected this to be a guilt trip for divorced people, but it isn't. I don't totally agree with this attitude toward a mentally ill woman, but people do have to save themselves when they can't save someone else. Reply

Larry Austin December 31, 2014

Jennifer GD commanded that when a divorce is necessary, a certificate is required to make it official.

Because spouses deserve better than to live out their lives inflicting misery and pain on one another--or one on the other, either.

Divorce needs to be difficult, so that couples who are meant to work it out will make the effort. But divorce needs to be permitted, because all too often it is desperately needed. Reply

Anonymous Bklyn December 31, 2014

In a situation like this with a widely respected and high functioning but mentally ill parent, the children would likely have ended up with the mother (unles she voluntarily gave that up) which would have been an even worse situation. My soon to be step kids have learned all sorts of dysfunctional behavior from their mother who we don't trust at all and there's very little that can be done about it because it's subjective and there is no clear cut evidence of abuse (like broken limbs). Reply

Paul McGowan ROCKWALL December 31, 2014

My Divorce I have been married twice and soon to be divorced a second time. If you place blame the first one was all my own doing. The Second I do not know. It is still in the process. Reply

EBG December 31, 2014

Does your mother have Borderline Personality Disorder? Reply

B Sloan Conway, SC December 31, 2014

What a shame Throughout this article, the mentally ill mother is vilified. She too was a victim of a bad family situation and deserves help, not condemnation and ridicule.

Was Daddy a hero because he "held the marriage together?" Quite possibly the answer is no. The children, if they lived with him in a more stable setting, might have suffered less. There might have been more honesty too. There might have been a happy, stable second marriage for Daddy.

We will never know. But one thing is sure: vilifying the ill mother is not the answer. It goes against the tenets of Judaism by blaming a victim, an ill person. I hope someone helped the mother get help. People with personality disorders who get psychiatric support can materially improve their lives.

I hope that down the road the anonymous teller of this story will learn compassion for her mother and for her family. Meanwhile, we need to have compassion for the entire family. Reply

Anonymous Framingham December 31, 2014

father the father is a hero in my opinion, keeping shalom at the expense of his ego. as a result the children had a semblance of normal childhood. otherwise, if parents divorced, they would have had it much worse. their father had the maturity and love to see the "big picture" . the big picture? "My children have to grow up to become healthy adults." when kids grow up, they can draw their own conclusions, like the writer did. Reply

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