I am perched on my young son’s bed, reading him a story about a little boy who searches for a pot of glue to stick his mummy and daddy’s marriage back together. The message of the book is that even though his parents may be broken, their love for him is not.
Luke sits very still. He is only seven, but he is drinking in every syllable, connecting the words on the page with what I know is the defining event of his young life: the breakdown of my and his father’s relationship when he was just two years and nine months old.
My tear ducts are welling, and a lump is growing in my throat. But I carry on reading because I know I am doing the right thing. This story is helping to mend my child’s splintered heart, helping to explain why he cannot have the one thing he wants so much: for the two people who brought him into the world to live under the same roof, with him and his sister.
And then he asks the killer question. “But why don’t you and daddy love each any more? You loved each other when I was little.”
“Well, erm, sometimes,” I fumble, “mummies and daddies argue a lot. Grown-ups’ feelings can change, darling…” And I trail off, because my words sound inadequate, inappropriate even: it feels cruel to tell an innocent child that adult promises can turn to dust, their love vanish like morning mist. As a parent, your instinct is to protect your little one.
That conversation took place two years ago, and even though I have revisited it countless times since, I’m not sure I’d manage any better if Luke asked me the same question this evening. And I am hardly alone in my post-separation parenting struggles, not least in the Jewish community where, according to the last census, divorce increased by nearly 4 per cent from 2001 to 2011.
This equates to around 17,000 divorcees among Britain’s estimated 284,000 Jews, but the statistic doesn’t include Jews who have been divorced in the past and who are now remarried, although the emotional effects of separation on their children remain, of course, the same.
In fact, other surveys indicate that an additional 24,000 people fall into this category, which means that nearly one in five British Jews has been divorced at least once.
And that’s not the whole story either, in that not all Jewish parents walk down the aisle. Like an increasing number of Jewish women, I co-habited with the father of my children,
As did Rabbi Charley Baginsky who serves South Bucks Jewish community. Two years ago she and her former partner separated after which their children, now four, six and eight, went to live with her.
“I was clear from the outset that this was what I wanted — for them to live with me, and visit their father.”
She was also clear that she wanted a clean break from her former life, and when she left her partner she also said to goodbye to her job as the rabbi of Kingston Liberal Synagogue. “In many ways, I grew up there, had my children there and I felt we needed a fresh start, to be part of a synagogue where the kids were not constantly asked: ‘Where’s Dad?’ We moved house too, which meant they changed schools. In short, we created a new reality, and for us this has worked. I don’t parent well when I feel in limbo. And I think things are also easier for children when they are black and white.”
After our separation, my children’s father returned to his native Italy, so in that sense I guess our lives are black and white, too. Geography dictates that the children live with me full-time. Money, work pressures and a new web of relationships means his visits to the UK are sporadic and ad hoc. Although my daughter who is 15, is fine with this, and with our separation generally, Luke finds it highly unsettling. After his father’s visits, Luke’s behaviour becomes testing, both at home and in the classroom. It is as if each visit re-triggers the trauma of our separation afresh for Luke.
Were there some more predictability to his dad’s London trips, some regularity of contact, I feel it would help our son enormously.
Psychologist Una Archer, who specialises in supporting families after separation, agrees. “Routine is important for all children, but especially for those whose parents have separated.
“Predictability helps them make sense of their world, it is emotionally reassuring. Your son wants to live with his dad, and not only can he not do so, he doesn’t even know when he will see him next. That is very hard for him.”
If we haven’t managed his visits properly, one thing my ex and I have done well, says Archer, is to always protect the children from any adverse feelings we might feel towards each other. To me, it’s just obvious emotional common sense that you don’t criticise your ex in front of your children, yet we all know divorcees who do just this.
“In the heat of divorce it can be hard to respect your ex, but try to see the situation through your children’s eyes, and to find something good to say about their other parent.
“Children love both their parents and if they hear dad say something hurtful about mum, or vice versa, they feel torn inside.”
According to the Jewish Marriage Council, which works within an Orthodox framework, different parenting styles are often a reason for divorce, so in the aftermath of separation try to make them less of a battleground than they might have been beforehand.
For example, when my kids visit their father in Italy for a week every summer, I know that any notion of bedtime vanishes and that their teeth make intermittent contact their toothbrushes. It has been hard, but I have now stopped sending self-righteous texts to Venice every August about what I see as his lazy parenting.
Sometimes, though, there is more at stake than tartare-free ivories. During and after separation it’s common for cultural and ideological differences between parents to be magnified.
What do you do, for example, if you think Friday night meals with the family are important, and your ex does not?
“It can be very hard when you are hurting, but do try to make a co-parenting plan,” advises Archer. “Try to respect your ex simply because he or she is your child’s other parent. There’s a reason kids have two parents — they need two role models.”
When it comes to religious practice, Baginsky’s ex, who is Jewish, has certainly come good.
When the children stay with him, he and his new partner keeps the same level of kashrut as Baginsky does, and if he has them on a Friday he will make kiddush with them.
“I think it’s about him trying to do the best by the kids and accepting that their identity and practice is important to them. And by supporting them, it means they include him in that part of their lives rather than excluding him,”she says.
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, of Masorti’s New London Synagogue, doesn’t underestimate the difficulty of co-parenting “when you have said how awful the person is.” Yet it is, he says, certainly possible to divorce well, to consciously uncouple as Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin famously put it when they announced their separation after 10 years of marriage.
“It requires,” he says, “a conscious desire to be nice, to make sure the kids don’t feel your separation is their fault.”
He speaks from personal experience: the rabbi’s parents separated when he was 10.
“My parents got it right. They never bad-mouthed each other to me, and I never felt I was to blame for their break-up. And when I needed them both to be together at my barmitzvah and my wedding, for example, they were.”
Being together isn’t just something which exes need to learn to do, though. Divorced parents must also learn how to be “really present” with their children, says Archer.
“Even if it’s for 10 minutes walking the dog, or baking a cake together, carve out regular time to really get on your children’s wavelength. After divorce, children desperately need a sense of security about their place in the world, and that comes when they feel listened to and understood.”
In an increasingly globalised world that listening and understanding happens more and more when parent and child are not in the same country, let alone under the same roof. Luke certainly talks to his father more on Skype, than he does in the flesh.
“Technology can be a divorced parent’s friend, but remember that five minutes can feel a long time for a child on FaceTime,” says Archer. “Release the pressure by being proactive and tell your child what is going on in your life, rather than saying ‘how are you?’ or ‘what have you done today?’
“You can talk about what happening at work, or you can relay about something that happened in your childhood. Children love hearing stories, so store them up.”
Or, of course, you can read them an actual story. Particularly when the message in the book is that even though your child’s parents’ relationship may be broken, their love for him or her is not.