The “Mrs. Doubtfire” Philosophy to Divorce and Parenting

“Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren’t to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick.”

Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country – and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months… even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet, you’re going to be all right… bye-bye.

-Mrs. Doubtfire/Daniel Hillard (played by Robin Williams)
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)


Image: The Huffington Post

I watched this movie many times with my family when my kids were growing up. As adults, my kids were surprised at how much of the “adult humor” went completely over their heads when they were little.

I like the movie. It’s very entertaining. Robin Williams was an incredible talent, which is what makes the film so watchable, even decades later. Also, the rest of the cast, particularly Sally Field and Pierce Brosnan, are first-rate. There’s really not much to dislike about “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Admittedly, I was always a tad bothered by the sentiment I quoted above. It’s the final bit of dialog from the movie and, depending on how to read it or hear it. Williams could be saying that any possible family constellation is just as good as another.

That seems to devalue the traditional one Mom, one Dad, intact marriage family, and especially among religious people, that can chafe a bit.

I read something by celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach where he said he felt divorce to be a bigger problem to families than same-sex marriage.

In Judaism, it is believed that the Torah, the set of laws given to the Israelites by God through Moses, is composed of 613 individual commandments. It has also been said that Judaism isn’t an “all or nothing” religion, in spite of how Christianity sees it.

In homosexual relationships, I think about two of the 613 commandments are involved. How many are involved when parents divorce and what is the impact on the children?

Rabbi Boteach is the product of a divorced family and he believes that divorce is always bad, though sometimes necessary:

Once a friend who was in a very unhappy marriage called me up and told me she was making a party to celebrate her divorce. I told her that I could not attend as I would never celebrate divorce. She got angry at me and told me that she expected me to be happy for her. I proceeded to tell her that there are three areas of life: the good, the bad, and the necessary. Divorce is never good, it is usually bad, but it is sometimes necessary. It’s like war. You sometimes have to fight a war but it’s not something you celebrate. I was happy that she was no longer in pain. The marriage had to end. But something sacred had still been lost.

-Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
“How Divorce Scars Children”
The Huffington Post

I chose to participate in a discussion on the Malcolm the Cynic blogspot called “One of the Older Ghosts”, which takes to task the central message of the aforementioned film “Mrs. Doubtfire”.

The conversation became heated very quickly.

It used to be pretty difficult to get a divorce. Like a lot of laws, traditionally our laws about marriage and divorce are derived from the Bible:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.”

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NASB)

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9

The Bible’s view on divorce within the context of ancient Judaism is complex and requires a great deal of unpackaging. In Orthodox Judaism today, a woman is still at the mercy of her husband who must issue a “get” or a certificate of divorce. Otherwise, regardless of the woman’s feelings on the matter, she is not free of the marriage under Jewish law.

Although divorce is common in today’s social landscape – prevailing wisdom says that up to half of all marriages will end in divorce – it is still a heartbreaking way to end a marriage.

Unlike some religions, however, which do not permit divorce, Judaism recognizes the necessity under certain circumstances. Indeed, following the proper procedure for divorce is one of the 613 mitzvahs in the Torah.

What is the method of a Jewish divorce?

Just as marriage is a metaphysical reality – two souls fusing together to create one complete soul – so too divorce is a metaphysical reality. For a Jewish couple to become divorced, the man must give the woman a document called a “Get,” as prescribed in the Torah (Deut. 24:1-4). A Get terminates the Jewish marriage and certifies that the couple is now free to remarry according to Jewish law.

Aside from the legal considerations, a Get can provide a sense of emotional closure – just as the marriage began with a Jewish ceremony, it ends with one as well.

Without a proper Get, even though the man and woman have physically separated, they are still metaphysically bound together – and considered as if fully married. This is true to the extent that if a woman were to become “remarried” without having received a proper Get, the second marriage is null and void, and is considered adultery.

A secular divorce does not count for a Get.

-Rabbi Shraga Simmons
“Divorce in Judaism”

Historically in the United States and other western nations, divorce laws tended to follow a more Christian interpretation of scripture, limiting the reasons for legally granting divorce to a very few conditions, which needed to be proven in a court of law:

Prior to the latter decades of the 20th century, a spouse seeking divorce in most states had to show a “fault” such as abandonment, cruelty, incurable mental illness, or adultery. Even in such cases, a divorce was barred in cases such as the suing spouse’s procurement or connivance (contributing to the fault, such as by arranging for adultery), condonation (forgiving the fault either explicitly or by continuing to cohabit after knowing of it), or recrimination (the suing spouse also being guilty).

By the 1960s, however, the use of collusive or deceptive practices to bypass the fault system had become a widespread concern, if not actually a widespread practice, and there was widespread agreement that something had to change. The no-fault divorce “revolution” began in Oklahoma in 1953, but gained national impetus in 1969 in California.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that from 1975 to 1988 in the US, in families with children present, wives file for divorce in approximately two-thirds of cases. In 1975, 71.4% of the cases were filed by women, and in 1988, 65% were filed by women. The post divorce standard of living for women and children declines by 73% while the post divorce standard of living for men increases by 42%.


Of course, it’s not so simple to get a divorce these days, though it’s a lot less complicated than before no-fault divorce laws were put in place.

And today, couples often don’t get married at all, have children, separate, and still, the legal entity of parental rights exist, so the courts remain involved for the sake of ordering parental support of the children by the non-custodial parent.

I know people who want to get the government out of the marriage (and divorce) business, and my response to them is that the courts are sometimes the only thing that can ensure financial and other support for children should the parents divorce.

Yeah, it’s a mess. It would be much easier, at least for the children, if people got married, had kids, stayed married, and raised their kids into adulthood.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

As Rabbi Boteach said, divorce is always bad but depending on the circumstances, it is sometimes necessary.

So what do you do when it’s sometimes necessary? Pretend nothing is wrong and that divorced parenthood is morally and functionally equivalent to married parenthood? That’s not possible, at least in my opinion.

As the children get older, as they shuttle back and forth from Mom’s place to Dad’s and then back to Mom’s and then back to Dad’s, they have a tough time of it. How tough often depends on the adults involved.

If the parents choose to continue an adversarial relationship with each other and they allow that adversarial relationship to spill over into their parenting, it will always damage the children.

Often a parent’s pain and anger overwhelm their ability to act in the best interests of the children, and they believe they cannot contain that anger and hurt and unite with the other parent in how to raise their children. Even when parents are divorced, they can still potentially agree to raise their kids based on a single standard.

That doesn’t happen too often.

So what do you do?

As a grandpa, my answer is that you provide the grandkids with adults who are stable, who do have an unyielding standard of morality, who consistently show the children they are loved and worthy, even when their parents don’t always agree with each other, and even when they are raised with Mom’s standards vs. Dad’s standards.

Even when the parents are sane and stable and working together, the kids still take a hit. It’s inevitable.

Yes, divorce is bad. Yes, no-fault divorce has created the illusion that divorced parenting is the same as married parenting, and the ending message of the “Mrs. Doubtfire” movie seems to reinforce that message.

Or does it?

If you re-read the message at the top of the page, Williams is crafting his missive to a small child, attempting to help that child understand her situation now that her parents no longer live together.

This isn’t about normalizing divorce and making it acceptable and even desirable, it’s about helping children cope and not to blame themselves.

Here’s the key phrase:

And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you.

Can parents not love each other but still love their children? Yes. If parents divorce and don’t reunite, should their children blame themselves? Absolutely not.

That’s my point. I think that’s the movie’s point, too. It’s about teaching children of divorced parents that they are not damaged, unacceptable, lesser, or second-rate just because their parents are divorced. It’s about helping them accept themselves and giving those kids the age-appropriate coping skills they need to adapt to their circumstances.

Yes, it would be better if all parents stayed married and raised their children together, but that’s not the reality of the world we live in. We can’t pretend divorce doesn’t exist, and we can’t ignore the children of divorced parents and sweep them under the rug, just because we disagree with the concept of no-fault divorce.

If a child is hurt, you comfort that child. I think that’s why God made grandparents. Sometimes we can also talk to our children and help them be better parents as a divorced Mom or Dad.


Image: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show; Mr. Peabody and Sherman

If I were to take the “wayback machine” back to the year 1961 when I was seven-years-old, I’d rediscover that I had no idea what divorce was. I probably didn’t know any kids whose parents were divorced, and if I did, those kids never talked about it.

I never really heard of or encountered divorced couples and divorced parents until the 1970s. There was once a terrific stigma attached to divorce, both for the adults and for the kids.

The adults have to deal with their decisions as adults, but children don’t get a choice. And while adults don’t have to deal with much of a stigma about divorce these days, children do.

They shouldn’t be made to suffer because their parents made an adult decision that profoundly affected their little lives. And yet, the adults out there, religious and otherwise, who disapprove of the concept of divorce, will often inadvertently punish and even blame the children as well as the parents.

That has to end.

Children living in the shadow of their parents’ divorce is a far from ideal situation. In fact, it sucks. But it’s also a reality. If you have family members who are children and their parents are divorced, what are you going to do?

Hopefully, you are going to love those children, because they really need to be loved. Hopefully you will treat them as lovable, worthy, and terrific children and not as damaged goods.

What else are you supposed to do?

11 thoughts on “The “Mrs. Doubtfire” Philosophy to Divorce and Parenting

  1. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you.

    That’s not the key phrase, or at least not what I’m objecting to in any case. The key phrase is this:

    You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you.

    Obviously this is going to be the case *sometimes*. Most things are the case *sometimes*. But the reason I refer to that movie as “an older ghost” is because it fits my philosophy of ghostbusting: This is just another contributor to a culture that normalizes divorce.

    The key to that sentence is that the divorce was a good thing. Its point is that when the parents divorced, they were becoming better mommies and daddies.

    Now taken in isolation, you can probably stretch that in a way that makes it acceptable. But it’s a product, all part and parcel, with divorce propaganda. Like the “Mom is the boss” commercial. Sure, on its own, its funny and kind of cute, but its part and parcel of a culture dedicated to tearing down the father.

    I also object to the “all sorts of different families” phrase, but that’s a whooooooooole other kettle of fish.


    • The takeaway for me is actually what Rabbi Boteach said. Divorce is always bad and it is sometimes necessary. As far as whether Moms and Dads learn to become better people and thus better parents, that’s up to them.

      The other part for me, is regardless of the “divorce message” of the film or our culture, children of divorce exist and we (or me, in this case) as a responsible and caring grandpa, still love and care for these kids. Regardless of how my son and my ex-daughter-in-law feel about each other, they are still the parents of my grandchildren, so they’re part of my family. I didn’t make their decisions for them, but like my grandchildren, I have to deal with the consequences. So instead of dealing with a societal message, I’m choosing to deal with my family.


      • I never said you shouldn’t though.

        I think you’re taking what I’m saying about general societal problems and applying them to your own personal circumstances.

        I have no interest in telling you how to live your life. I’m not a counselor. I’m just saying that being fed this stuff in the form of movies like this is part of the problem.


      • Films and other forms of entertainment have long been used to indoctrinate the public. During World War II, when most able-bodied men were fighting overseas, women were encouraged to take on traditionally male-oriented jobs (think “Rosie the Riveter”). After the war, a lot of movies were produced showing women in more (then) traditional roles and being subservient to men (think Doris Day). Women who had gotten used to a greater sense of self-dependence and a wider access to job roles had to be convinced to return to their prior positions in our society.

        Today, comic books are a perfect example of social indoctrination. More traditional superheroes are being swapped out for more “relevant” personalities and “diverse characters”. Thor (the male) was replaced by a woman. An African-American became the new Captain America. One of the Green Lanterns (Alan Scott) became gay, and another GL is a Muslim.

        While there’s nothing wrong with creating heroes and villains that are more reflective of our societal demographics, it seems as if superheroes are being created for the express purpose of promoting acceptance of diversity, well beyond the actual statistical occurrences of such populations. On the one hand, heroes and villains used to be almost exclusively white (well, except for those like Fu Manchu, but that employs a racial stereotype) and male (except for the occasional femme fatale), so I agree, some adjustment is necessary. But I believe the changes being made in comic books are less about creating a more realistic social environment and more about promoting a particular politically correct mindset that is not reflective of the reality of our culture.

        So yes, movies and other forms of entertainment can and have been used to promote divorce and divorced parenting as the new normal.

        I’m choosing to take elements of that “indoctrination” in order to support the well-being of children who are victims of adult decisions they have absolutely no control over.


      • I’m choosing to take elements of that “indoctrination” in order to support the well-being of children who are victims of adult decisions they have absolutely no control over.

        Go ahead; that doesn’t mean the indoctrination is a good thing itself.

        You keep bringing up your family to make a point, then get annoyed that we’re not showing 100% approval for every decision you’re making. You don’t get it both ways. If you tell us what you’re doing, we’re not obligated to agree that you’re doing the right thing, and you have no call to get righteously offended because we don’t agree with you. If it’s really private, keep it private.

        Nobody here wants anything but the best for children, your grandchildren included. That’s the point of all of this. I’m not telling you what to do with your family, but I’m also not going to agree that specific things that might apply to your specific circumstances, or might not since I don’t know everything going on in your family, are good lessons for society as a whole.

        This movie wasn’t released to your family. It was released to the public.


      • I never said social indoctrination is a good thing. It’s the government and entertainment/news media attempting to control the thoughts and beliefs of the populace. I keep bringing up the fam because they represent reality to me. Movies like Mrs. Doubtfire are a fantasy. It’s fiction and as such, we can choose to disregard it as a guide for our lives.


  2. I just ran across the following quote, and relative to a conversation on divorce, it seemed quite appropriate:

    Maintaining love and respect when our spouse doesn’t talk to us the way we wish is difficult. Maintaining love and respect when we feel unloved or disrespected is exceedingly difficult.

    We all want to be loved and respected. This is a basic and universal need. Responding to a lack of love and respect with anger, resentment, animosity, and hatred is likely to increase these qualities in the other person. This will then increase the probability that you’ll be on the receiving end of more of what you don’t want!

    If, however, we can transcend ourselves and reflect sincere love and respect – even to someone who lacks these feelings towards us, we increase the chances of receiving what we do want. This wisdom is found in Proverbs 27:19: “As water reflects a face back to a face, so one’s heart is reflected back by another.”

    What would you like to see reflected back to you when you look in a pond? A smile or a frown? It’s your choice. Whatever you wish to see, that is the model of what you need to project. This is the secret of how to influence someone to feel more positive towards you.

    (From Rabbi Pliskin’s book entitled “Marriage” – ArtScroll Publications, 1998, Chapter Two, p.91)


    • Thanks. We already know various societal forces, including the entertainment industry, attempt to present a distorted view of our world and call it “reality,” but we can choose to use our judgment as adults, to craft a more reasonable perspective for our children.


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