Planning a Bar/Bat Mitzvah When the Parents Are Divorced
Divorced parents must rise above their own differences and make the day special for the child.
This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times. Reprinted with permission from JewishFamily.com.
Planning what should be a joyous occasion when parents are divorced can be no laughing matter. "If I have to make one point, I'd make this in big, bold letters," says child psychologist Dr. Richard Ottenstein. "It's that this is a special occasion for the child." It's important that both parents support their child. "Be flexible," he advises, "and set your differences aside so that you can set up the system in the way that works best for everyone involved."
"There are so many variables," Ottenstein continues. "Do both parents want the occasion equally; is one paying the entire cost or are the expenses being shared; can both parents invite family and friends or is one dominating the event?"
"Planning for this long-awaited bar or bat mitzvah brings with it much anxiety and panic," says Joan Kristall, director of the Baltimore Jewish Family Services' Program for Families of Separation, Divorce, and Remarriage. "Old anger is fueled; sadness reawakened; and the battle is once again staged with the adolescent being pulled and forced to stand loyal with one or the other parent."
In addition to the nervousness felt at being able to competently chant their Torah portion, teenagers often feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety regarding their parents' ability to "behave themselves" in public.
To make this special occasion a joyous one--and as stress-free as possible--for all concerned, Kristall offers these following tips:
- Recognize that this simcha (joy) belongs to your child. All planning needs to be made in the very best interests of the child.
- Rise above your differences and remember your child loves both of you. Do not put him or her in a position of choosing.
- You, as parents, may experience intense feelings of sadness or anger as you plan this event; do not use your child as a confidante. He or she is too emotionally involved. Reach out to close friends or family or seek professional support.
- Involve your child in the planning; take his or her ideas into consideration.
- When deciding upon the giving of synagogue honors, do so with your child's interests in mind. Do not make your decision based upon legal or emotional criteria. Ask your rabbi for help.
- Above all, be a mensch (kind and generous person) and behave in a way that reflects the traits you want your son or daughter to emulate. Remember, you're in charge of yourself.
- Create a day of true simcha as a gift of love to your family, your child, and yourself.
To that end, Tom, a divorced dad, and his ex-wife will divide the cost of the upcoming celebration, and they have worked together to plan the event, from choosing the invitations, to selecting the menu, to deciding on the musical entertainment at the reception following the service.
"If we're not in wholehearted agreement," says Tom, "then we at least have an understanding of what's going on and just what this occasion means for our child."
That's the kind of attitude that would gladden the heart of Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. "The overriding point I try to get across to divorced parents who are acting in less than mature ways is, 'This is the child's day.'"
"Sometimes I have to be very blunt about it," continues Weiner, "but there are times when parents really need to be straightened out."
Weiner reminds parents that their child has ties to each of them and needs to feel that both parents are invested in this occasion, which has both symbolic and public meaning.
"It's important in this situation," says Weiner, "for both parents to have the proper perspective. The essence of a bar or bat mitzvah is the coming of age of the child, his or her debut as a Jewish adult, and the parents play an integral role in that debut...they are indispensable."
Susan (not her real name) is hoping that she can make that point to her ex-husband; if she can't do it by herself, she's prepared to enlist the aid of a counselor or her rabbi. Though she realizes she may have to pay for the event herself, she hopes that she and her ex-husband will be able to communicate so that they can have a smooth-running celebration. But she's already considering the alternative, "If he doesn't want to be involved, I'll do it on my own."
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