By Barbara Barry
Is It Possible to Raise Healthy, Well-Balanced Torah-Observant Children as A Single Parent?
When I was seven, my life suddenly turned upside down. My dad, whom I loved and was very close to, died suddenly of a massive heart attack in the early hours of a Shabbat morning. How do you feel when the anchor of your life is ripped away without warning? The shock, the loss, was unbelievable; I was bereft. Having been a sensitive child before, I felt extremely vulnerable. I buried myself in music, as I had no words for the heartbreak. I became very organized, focused and a high achiever in spite of the adversity.
By my mid-twenties I had earned a master’s degree in music and was teaching at two of London’s most prestigious music colleges, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and University of London Goldsmiths’ College, while at the same time working on my PhD. It was during this time that I also started to have the first intimation of what an authentic Jewish life should be. Not long after, I became religious and met Uriel Garritano, the man I would marry.
Fast forward eleven years. My husband and I were living in Brighton, a neighborhood in Boston. We had two children: Netanya, nine, a smart, feisty, beautiful girl and Avi, seven, my easy-going boy. Boston is a walkable city and we lived five minutes away from the T, Boston’s characterful and slightly antediluvian subway system, and fifteen minutes away from three shuls (two of which my husband, a staunch follower of Chabad, never dreamt of going to, but I liked a change of pace and meeting other people in the Jewish community). We both had good jobs, a community and friends who for us were like extended family. While obtaining a music position in Boston is comparable to finding a four-leaf clover—or so I was told—I managed to get a position teaching graduate theory at the New England Conservatory of Music and at the Radcliffe Seminars at Harvard, one of the most elite seminar programs in graduate education in the humanities. I was also head of music history at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge.
Then one day, we received the news that no one wants to hear: my husband’s lab tests were positive. In the world of biopsies, positive is bad news; he had cancer, and it was spreading rapidly. While my husband was in surgery to remove cancerous tissue, the attending physician quietly said to me, “It is a very aggressive cancer.” I nodded, and at that moment I knew.
Six weeks after the diagnosis, my husband passed away—a very aggressive cancer indeed. I sent the kids to day camp during those hot summer weeks prior to his death while I spent time in the hospital. Following the surgery, my husband never really recovered; he was very weak and drifted in and out of consciousness. After a few days, with his condition deteriorating, his oncologist said very gently, “There’s no point in distressing him further by taking him for chemo. It won’t help him anymore.” On Friday afternoon after camp, I took the kids home to make Shabbat so that we could be together as a family. My husband died in the early hours of Shabbat morning.
Ironically, my children were the same ages my sister and I were when our father died—nine and seven.
The first thing I did after my husband passed away was have a conversation with my children and reassure them that we were still a family and always would be, that this was our home and I was not going anywhere. When my father died, my mother never talked about what had happened. I was terrified by the silence and thought that she might disappear too. Reassurance was fundamental to re-establishing confidence in my children; they had to understand that despite the loss of their father, they were still part of a loving family.
I also told them that I could do most of the work in the house, but I would need them to help out. They were old enough to take some responsibility; this was going to be a team effort.
The hardest part was seeing my seven-year-old son walk by himself to shul. My daughter came to shul with me, but my son insisted on going early to be there at the beginning of davening. Fortunately, there were men in the community who became father figures and families who reached out to us. Moshe Rahmani and his wonderful wife, Shayna, warmly welcomed Avi to their home, which became a second home for him, and Leib Schaeffer, a young married man, was like a big brother to Avi. Extended family and good friends are two of the most important things for single parents raising observant kids, because they serve as additional role models and provide a safe place for kids to go aside from their own home.
Perhaps I would not have made certain decisions had I known what was to come. But, of course, I didn’t, and I made the best decisions I could at the time.
We also “adopted” a grandfather. When my beloved friend Fran Steinberg passed away after more than forty years of marriage, I asked her husband, Joe, if he would be a grandfather to my children. He agreed. He came to visit on Sundays as the kids grew up, and was at both of their high school graduations with tears of pride in his eyes. Grandpa Joe is part of all of our lives.
Raising a child costs money, what with clothes, food and providing a Jewish education. When I was still single and living in London, my mom said to me, “Get a skill; you never know what life will throw at you, and you may need to support yourself.” It was the best piece of advice and I took it seriously, ending up with five degrees! I strongly encourage young women to become as qualified as they can. I also recommend that women become informed—know where the bills are kept and how they are paid.
The biggest challenge facing a single parent—apart from the financial stress—is making all the decisions alone. I had to choose which schools to send my children to, and I tried to base the decision on what would be the best fit for each child.
When you are a single parent constantly making important decisions alone, it’s important to carve out some time for yourself; time when you are not parenting. Music was never more important to me than during those tough years.
I made a commitment to send my children to Jewish day schools. Jewish education was both a major priority and a huge financial drain. The forms for applying for financial aid were not only detailed but intrusive. No doubt there were—and are—people who ask for financial assistance who do not really need it, but on one income, I did. Being a single parent is excellent training in biting the bullet.
I felt that a very important part of being Jewish is respecting other people’s ways of serving Hashem. We were Chabad, which is one way of serving Hashem, but other people could—and do—do things differently. On Purim, my kids grumbled that I went first to give mishloach manot to two secular friends who lived in Cambridge, across the river from Boston. “We will probably get a lot of mishloach manot,” I told them; “they will not. These will probably be the only ones they will get, so they are the most important of all.”
Every yom tov was based upon building our family traditions; for Pesach the kids made their own Haggadahs, including extensive commentaries, and Avi performed a splendid “Ten Makkot” song at the Seders.
Paradoxically, one of the worst culprits in turning Jewish kids off from religious observance is the Jewish day school/yeshivah. In many schools, any child who is not the norm, rather than being helped and supported, is often marginalized. Avi did not have as much Gemara background as the rabbis’ sons in his class. One of his teachers in particular made him feel stupid when he simply needed help. At parent-teacher conferences, this rabbi only spoke to fathers, but in my case, he didn’t have a choice. Not even having the courtesy to look up while he was talking to me about my son, he said, “He’s not doing very well.” I responded, “Well, maybe you could take some time to help him. I mean, you are his teacher.”
Avi struggled with Gemara throughout mesivta. While I found a rabbi in the community who tutored him, it was only when he went to yeshivah in Israel after high school that he underwent a transformation. The boys there were enthusiastic about learning and Avi was caught up in the yeshivah’s warmth that had been lacking all those years in school. He made such progress in his studies and in his personal development that his rosh yeshivah called him a “ben Torah” and “a model for other boys.” If you want to raise an observant child, find a school that nurtures your individual child and addresses his or her abilities and challenges.
Over the years, I tried to be a good parent without having anyone to confide in and share the burden with, as so many other single parents do. At the same time that I wanted to give my children love, I wanted to set boundaries. From the time Netanya, a very strong-minded child, was about four, I used to give her choices: “Do you want to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt today?” At four, two shirts were enough choices to feel empowered and not overwhelmed. When she was in her early teens, I would drive her to the mall and sit outside with a book (preferably a long one) while she shopped, until finally she would call me in and try on the various skirts and tops she selected. She knew there was a budget, and she was very good about staying within it. If there was an outfit that I felt was not tzeniut, I used to say, “I don’t think that looks right on you. What do you think?” I tried to allow her to make the decision.
Make your child a partner from the beginning and give him or her responsibility for choosing well. There may be mistakes, but you hold the purse strings. If he or she persistently and deliberately buys the wrong kinds of clothing or racks up a huge bill, take the credit card away.
My children are now grown and I am blessed that they are wonderful, responsible people who are accomplished in the Jewish and the secular world and have excellent values. Netanya went to Israel for a year after high school and attended Hebrew University. She married a fine Israeli and they live in a yishuv near Jerusalem. Avi studied in yeshivah in Israel for two years and then attended Yeshiva University. He married a lovely girl and they have a baby, Uri Sholem, named after my late husband.
On the same day Avi left for yeshivah in Israel, I locked up the house in Boston (and subsequently sold it) and relocated to Boca Raton, Florida. Another stage in my life was over, and a new one about to begin.
So is it possible to raise fine, well-balanced Torah-observant children as a single parent? The answer is a resounding “yes,” but you need a network of father (or mother) figures and friends behind you, and a clear set of values. As I reflect back, perhaps I would not have made certain decisions had I known what was to come. But, of course, I didn’t, and I made the best decisions that I could at the time.
Far from being a depressing story, my story is about hope and resilience; the ability to hold on through tough times and to find courage in dark places. Hashem gave me resources to support my family financially, to develop a career as a teacher and writer (I have just finished my fifth book) and the ability to deal with the emotional challenges of my life. Hashem enabled me to help my two children adjust to life without their father and face the challenges of reconfiguring our family. Avi’s friends from high school still call our house “Hotel Garritano,” the place where they used to feel at home. While we do not have control over the challenges of life—emotional, health or financial—how we face those challenges is within our control.
Barbara Barry is a musicologist, teacher, writer and pianist. She has five degrees in music including a PhD from University of London Goldsmiths’ College. She is a professor of musicology in the Conservatory of Music at Lynn University in Florida.