The Child Support System is Broken
When will we stop with studies, anecdotal evidence, and “tweaks” to fix a broken Child Support System and go upstream and prevent people from falling into the broken system in the first place?
The current Child Support System perpetuates child poverty and trauma and leads to a never-ending cycle of people who rely on the system. I know I’m not the only one to know this. Just ask any single parent who relies on child support – they would tell you the same thing, but they don’t have a voice because they are busy trying to haul themselves and their children through their lives without breaking. Please do not ask the professionals who work in the system as they do not see it. Family Law Professionals are so busy trying to patch the cracks in Family Law and help the never-ending stream of those clamouring for help that they do not see people falling out the other side.
Let Me Tell You a Story
Once there was a girl, she was born sometime before 1995, but likely after 1946 (if she was born before then, she had minimal options to leave a marriage). She grew up when she was allowed to play and use her imagination. As she grew, she was taught to believe she was equal to boys and could live the life of her dreams. She was encouraged to get a good education, but she wasn’t always sure why because she was also told that someday she would get married and have children. She learned that motherhood, caring for children and others, was something to aspire to. In hindsight, she received a lot of conflicting messages. She did well in school and thought about what she would “do” in her life, but she also knew the ultimate goal was to find the one person to make her complete – that person who would complement her strengths and mitigate her weaknesses – the “One.” They would go on to be a happy family who would live the lives of their dreams together.
She worked her way through school and life with her two goals in mind – finding a career and finding her One. She assumed that everyone was operating under a similar roadmap – caring for themselves and using their skills to care for others, especially their One and then later, their children.
No one told her how hard it would be to figure out her career or identify the One. She had a very vague idea about how to do these two things and tended to listen to the role models in her life – her family, her teachers, and her friends. She focused on what she was good at as she was told that would lead to success (even though she didn’t always enjoy what others deemed she was good at), and she kept her eyes peeled for the One – when would they magically arrive in her life? She assumed it would be obvious.
Fairy Tale Madness
As time went along, the girl realized that finding the One wasn’t as easy as the books and fairy tales made it appear. “Oh,” she thought to herself, “right, I’m not a beautiful princess. I may have to adjust my expectations slightly.” And she got about doing that as best she could. But she was getting older, and time to meet her One and have her dreams live out according to the roadmap was running out. She started to wonder if she was being too picky – after all, no one is perfect. She knew that she had her issues as well. So, while the One didn’t exactly arrive on the scene the way she imagined (running up to her one day to tell her she was the girl of his dreams), he did come, and she and her One began a relationship together, and then they had children together.
Life with children was a lot tougher than she expected. Realistically, she knew that having children would be a challenge, but it was even more of a challenge than she had quite imagined. She loved her children, but they weren’t particularly compliant – “huh,” she realized, “I knew I’d have to care for them and change diapers and whatnot, but I assumed my One would help with this part?” Her life certainly did not seem like the happily ever after she had been led to believe would happen after she had married and had children. In the meantime, her One seemed to be having some issues of his own – she didn’t know, as they didn’t have time to talk. So, she carried on as best she could, caring for the children and her One. It was, frankly, exhausting. Her One also seemed to disappear, and she assumed he was carrying on with the plan, building the family of their dreams. She seemed to be doing more of the traditional “caregiver” stuff, and her career became non-existent, and that was OK, she decided – her One was building his career, so they had enough money.
And then one day, things were not OK any longer. It turns out; her One had a very different idea of what the perfect life meant. Her One had not gotten similar training about caring for others and had only received training about how to be the best he could be at his chosen career, with the ultimate goal of earning a bigger salary. “Huh,” she thought again, “well, that makes sense now; there was a lot of focus in school about being the best and winning the race – I understand now that my One internalized that message.”
It all became apparent to her as she was navigating her separation from her One, and he kept saying how he had done everything to get their family ahead, and she had not done much. Her One was convinced she could go out and earn a certain amount once she was back in the workforce, she did have a degree after all, and her One had no idea what it was like to care for children while working as he had never done it.
Yes, the lawyers did tell the One that they would have to pay child support, and her One grudgingly conceded, but, in reality, the One didn’t understand why this was so. After all, the One had worked extremely hard to get where he was, and so having to pay her child support for nothing was galling to the One. The One asked, “so, even though I will be parenting the children for more than 40% of the time, I still have to pay child support?” “Yes,” said the lawyers, “you earn more than her, so you pay her child support based on your income, and she pays you child support based on her income.” The lawyers then went on to add that over time, as her income increased, the One would not have to pay as much child support. Having no idea what it was like to care for children while working full-time, the One thought she would be back at her pre-income earning levels shortly and signed the separation agreement.
She and the One found new homes; this was challenging to do, as it was hard to manage in one house before, and now they had to pay for two, and she wasn’t earning anything more yet. She was having a tough time and was depressed. Her life dream was broken, and her children were not being cared for by the One – she thought to herself, “is he even remembering to feed them?” Her children came home to her with stories that she could not quite believe. She was so stressed. A broken life, and now her children were not OK.
The One then started grumbling about child support. After all, he cared for the children just as much as she was. They had fifty-fifty parenting. The One thought it grossly unjust that he had to pay her, and he was struggling financially too, so the One stopped paying child support.
“Oh,” she thought, “I guess I did see that coming.” She went to the agency that helped single parents enforce child support, but they couldn’t help her. While written to allow her and the One to get a divorce, her agreement was also written in a way that meant the agency could not make the One pay child support to her. “Huh,” she thought again, “I think this qualifies as the definition of irony: child support amounts must be reviewed annually to ensure the children are protected, but if we don’t agree to the new amounts, then child support is unenforceable. To enforce the new child support amounts, I have to take the One to court.”
Upon leaving the child support enforcement agency, she thought about her current situation for about a minute. “It cost me $20,000 to get a separation agreement, and that used every dime of my savings, and my child support is only $1,100 a month. My children are vulnerable, and they grow up so fast. I have learned through my separation that inter-parent conflict hurts children the most; I think I will figure out another way to make ends meet.”
She got on with it. Around this time, she began to appreciate the mixed messaging she had received as she grew up. That career she had never been much enamoured of became her lifeline to salvation. She thanked her lucky stars again that it had taken her some time to find the One which had allowed her to remain employable. “Phew,” she said to herself, “I can find work that will pay me.” She thought of those single parents who were less fortunate than her and had found their One right out of high school. Because, after all, while she could find work that paid her, she was still barely managing to put one foot in front of the other foot every day. She was running on fumes as she liked to joke (but it wasn’t really a joke) with her friends. She worried about her children, so she did bend over backwards to make sure they were OK. She worked at getting along with her One to decrease inter-parental conflict, and it started to work, but it was so hard, and this was clearly not the life of her dreams. It was an exhausting struggle, and most days, she broke down and usually ended up yelling at her children and would feel even more terrible.
She carried on as there was no alternative. She is earning more now yet still has lingering worries about running out of money every Christmas and Summer, when realizing she has nothing for the extras that come along at Christmas and vacation time. Even though she and the One have fifty-fifty parenting, she still does most of the heavy parenting lifting but has learned not to be resentful. She realized the resentment was killing her slowly and figured out how to develop compassion for the One. She is grateful that the One loves their kids and that they live with him for half the week because she doesn’t know how she could work full-time and care for them on a full-time basis. The One has become a better parent: either out of self-preservation (dysregulated kids are hard to manage), competition with her, or compassion for the kids. She thinks it’s likely a combination of the three things, and she is grateful that at least the Child Support System did encourage him to take on parenting (even if it was so he didn’t have to pay child support). Time has helped, but the One still hasn’t offered any additional child support despite his more stable and higher-paying job. She now realizes that she has more money and financial resources than the One, as he did not get the training about saving money, only how to earn it. “That makes sense,” she thinks to herself, “saving money for a rainy day is more of a caregiving role.”
She has more time now, which she doesn’t quite know what to do with, and does wonder if life has become all work and no play when she feels guilty doing things just for herself. She is a bit conflicted about what to do with her new time. She still gets messages from her friends, family and frankly everyone to find the new One, and she did try for a little while and found herself in a relationship where she became the caregiver again. She looked around and realized that she was still buying into a false dream and there is no “One” as she noticed that the new potential “Ones” were only interested in making money. These new relationships made her feel lonelier than when she was alone.
She has started to fill her time with the things that bring her joy and a feeling of purpose. What is needed? She comes back to this after being out in the world witnessing the single parents who have not made a successful go of it. She realizes that she is a rare breed, a financially independent, single mom (albeit part-time single mom) with the time to do what she wants. Her children seem steady and have demonstrated their remarkable resiliency, and she again is thankful that she did not have to rely on the current Child Support System to make it to this point in her life. She realizes her children are likely doing as well as they are because she didn’t have to keep the conflict going with the One through the Family Law System.
Nine years post-separation, she is finally at a point where she can begin to live her life according to her terms. But she doesn’t know what is next and feels like she has lost the plot. She spent the first part of her life aspiring to goals that backfired (though she loves her children), and she isn’t sure how to replace her former dreams. She has tried to help others navigate the Family Law System but feels defeated. Assisting others to navigate the Family Law System is like applying patches to a bicycle tire that is incredibly thin and refuses not to get holes (which seems to happen a lot with her bike tires). She considers stopping her attempts to patch those holes as it is exhausting and doesn’t seem to help.
She contemplates the idea of finding a way to help other women not to fall into the trap of the “One” as she did, ending up a single mom who had to restart her career at the age of forty-two with two vulnerable young children. Frankly, though, she fears the repercussions of speaking her truth and is wavering.
And then she remembers why she began writing her story in the first place – written from the depths of her despondency about the inability of the Family Law System to help families move forward successfully. She decides that if she can help just one woman live the life of her dreams instead of having to support that same woman to recreate her life from the ashes of her broken hope, she must try, despite her fear of challenging the status quo.
The New Dream and the New Child Support System
She will replace her old dream with a new vision. She dreams that more and more women will not fall into the false dream of the “One,” only to become trapped in a life of drudgery, barely getting by and unable to support their children to live the lives of their dreams. Instead, women will use their incredible strength to create a world where caring for others becomes the default training for everyone and one in which the caregivers are recognized for their contribution to the world.
“Imagine,” she thinks to herself, “there would be no need for a Child Support System at all if all parents and people in the world truly believed that caring for others was a worthy life goal.”
So, she is starting, right here and now, one blog post at a time.