It’s All Kosher (No. 11): Escaping Fatherhood
I got married when I was 19, and got divorced 6 months later. In that short time, we managed to make a baby boy. I left the Chasidish world soon after. I’m now 23 and my son is 3. I’ve seen him a few times over the years but I don’t feel like his father. I know this sounds horrible but I would rather not be in his life. I feel like I’m a child myself, and every time I see him there’s always some kind of problem (like last time, his mother got angry that I picked him up wearing a small leather yarmulke instead of the big velvet one). I also feel like I need to figure out my life for myself first. Am I being selfish? (I don’t think I am, but people say that I am and I wonder if they’re right.)
People say you’re selfish. That’s the crux of your problem. Are they right, you now ask? You figured out everything else: your child, your ex-wife, your family, your chassidish community and your transition out of it… but The People are saying things you don’t like to hear. You see, it’s not about caring for your child, it’s all about caring about what people say. “Are they right or am I right?” is your pressing question. Your problem, that you are being judged by others in the case of The People vs. You, has not been addressed by the divorce courts (surely it should have been), so you ask the Posek to assuage your feelings of guilt.
It’s hardly a question that I can answer without bias. I am – you may be surprised to learn – also of The People. As such, I am also occasionally guilty of reacting strongly when a regular twenty-something guy turns out to be the willfully estranged father of a three year old boy with a skullcap bigger than a baseball cap and little side curls stiff with Dippity-Do.
“Do you see your kid?” the interrogation would begin. “Why not, what’s this, why are you being selfish?”
The People are committing the usual crime of being presumptuous. It’s what people do. You just have to grow up, toughen up and accept that.
One thing you can do in order to deflect The People’s criticism is to stop mulling over how valid their opinions are and try to ignore them. Remember that judgment comes from a place of ignorance, not moral superiority. It’s up to you to remind yourself that your situation is unique and that it’s hard for others to understand it. People don’t know the place you come from, even when they think they do. They don’t understand and they judge you based on what’s right and wrong in their own situation.
I would also encourage you to remember why you left your child. In times of doubt, remind yourself what led to the pregnancy and to the divorce. You’ll remember that at your age and in your position, this was probably the best course of action. The reality is that your situation is unusual, since you became a father not by independently choosing it, but by being instructed by a looming rabbi to “be fruitful and multiply.” You didn’t choose to become a father and you didn’t choose not to stay in your child’s life. The Chasidic community has made those choices for you. I am also well aware of the powerful sway mothers have in family courts as well as the emotional manipulation often wielded against young fathers in order to lock them out of their children’s lives.
You were out of your child’s life before he was born. With that, your title as the child’s father is more legal than actual. I strongly believe fathers are made of emotional ties, not biological ones. Your child is growing up in a society in which he is taught explicitly not to be able to tolerate diversity, the same diversity that you, his biological father, now represent. It’s hard to call such an arrangement a meaningful relationship with the child, the kind of relationship that fatherhood is made of. The Chasidic system is also quick to replace stray fathers with new ones through remarriage. The child is taught to accept a step-father as de facto father.
You sign yourself “dad,” but I’m not very sure you are one. It would be good if you could stay involved to some degree, even if only as an uncle-type figure, but that too could be challenging. For a Chasidic boy living in a cloistered environment, such a “visitor” could upset the child’s world. The emotional expressiveness among Chasidic children is also very contained and they often have a harder time dealing with chaotic feelings. Visits with non-custodial fathers are often court ordered, and the custodial parent might emphatically discourage bonding with the absent parent.
Whatever degree of contact you choose to maintain, always strive to be a good role model in the child’s life, even if you are not the father figure. Start by making peace with your choices and having confidence in them. Start by looking to yourself and those you trust for guidance, and stop looking for approval from others. That’s what you set out to do!
The People you meet won’t understand the sociological factors of being a Chasidic parent. Maybe they are right and you are selfish to have split from your young pregnant wife to go find yourself. Maybe selfish, but it was the best you could do. And there is nothing The People can do about it.
So gavel to desk, I say you win. But it’s up to you to recognize that my vote isn’t what matters.