I’ve always been good at finding ways to make extra cash. Whether it was teaching aerobics classes in college, writing the occasional article for dance magazines, or working at Starbucks on the weekends after I graduated college and had a full-time job, I’ve never been afraid of hard work. For a short time during my marriage, I only had one job, which felt strange after working two to three since I was sixteen. Leaving my ex was hard for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the knowledge that I faced a potential twenty-five percent decrease in my standard of living and the return to working multiple jobs.
Within hours of telling my ex that I wanted a divorce, he’d figured out how much he’d be paying in child support. He makes over twenty thousand dollars a year more than I do. “Do you know how much I’m going to have to pay you?” he shouted at me, waving his phone in my face. My state, Minnesota, provides a handy online calculator which calculates your obligation in a few easy steps. He was not happy with what it told him. Most men aren’t.
State rules vary as to whether or not both parents are required to work, if support is based on income, and how unpaid support can be collected. Current estimates place unpaid child support at $113 billion.
Of the amount quoted above, at least thirty percent of arrears is owed by parents who should, in theory, be able to support their children. The ex-husband of one woman I interviewed lives in a custom-built, five bedroom home with his new wife, yet owes his ex-wife over twenty thousand dollars in back child support. Many men go to creative lengths to avoid paying, like the ex of another woman I spoke with. He worked jobs that paid him under the table jobs in cash for over nineteen years solely to avoid having his wages garnished for child support. This isn’t uncommon.
A few years ago I hired a handyman to do some odd jobs around my house. When I handed him a check, made out to him, he tore it up and asked me to make it out to his girlfriend.
“Why?” I asked.
“Oh, if it’s made out to me my ex-wife will try to get some of it for child support,” he told me.
I wrote the check as he’d asked me to in order to get him out of my house and never hired him again. He was making money but he hid it so he wouldn’t have to give any of it to his ex-wife. Too many families and businesses enable this kind of behavior.
While I’m lucky enough to live in a state that garnishes my ex’s paycheck and deposits the money into my account, he refuses to cover any other expenses. Thus far he hasn’t reimbursed me for half of soccer, swimming, his late pick-up fees at daycare, or music classes. Lest this sound like I over-commit my son, none of these fees were concurrent — I only enroll him in one activity at a time. These are expenses incurred over two-plus years, approaching almost a thousand dollars.
According to the state of Minnesota, child support is meant to cover “costs for a child’s housing, food, clothing, transportation (and) education.” The idea is that the child will have the same standard of living at both houses and not suffer economically from a parent’s divorce. The amount is based on the income of both parents, pure and simple. It is not meant to cover extracurricular expenses, which according to my lawyer it’s assumed the parents will split. After all, my ex gets a break for forty-five minutes every other weekend when our kid’s in the pool, too.
But a lot of men don’t see it that way. Even if they’re paying child support, if he won’t help cover any other expenses, moms don’t have a lot of recourse. So we get creative.
I call it the “Single Mom Hustle." We’re all good at it. Financial expert Snowe Saxman, who has been featured on chase.com, US News & World Report, and has written two books on financial health, often works with women coming out of divorce. Most of her clients receive child support so sporadically that they don’t include it in their budgets, instead treating it like a bonus when it does arrive.
In the meantime, clothes go up for sale on Poshmark or in moms’ groups on Facebook. Toys, furniture, and larger items get listed on Craigslist. Babysitting for other moms, multi-level marketing sales, working part time jobs on our "off" weekends, we hustle to give our children what they would have had if we’d stayed with their fathers. Every one of my friends who is a single parent, and many of Saxman’s clients, have done all or a combination of the above. We shouldn’t have to hustle this hard.
Conservatives who are so quick to shout about welfare moms taking advantage of the system would be better served to look at the amount of past-due child support owed by men. During their text exchange about expenses one single mom, Lee’s (not her real name) ex accused her of being unable to “manage your kids without state aid,” and then told her to, “Kindly go to hell, you Democrat.” She does receive state support for her children. But what his texts ignored was that if he paid the over two thousand dollars in back child support he owes, she might not need that help. Blaming women is taking a one-sided view of the problem.
I think that the reason some men refuse to pay what they owe, or to split other expenses, boils down to a sexist and misogynistic view of child support. Look at the words my ex used to describe it – "I’m going to have to ‘give’ you," "you already ‘get.’" Lee’s ex said things like, “You’ll get your money.” In the exchange — in which he also accused her of being a welfare mom and used the “c” and “b” word — he referred to the children he voluntarily fathered as “your kids.” There was no ownership or personal responsibility in his words.
This is a feminist issue because it impacts women’s lives directly and speaks to how women and children are still viewed by men. The money may go into our accounts but women do not "get" it, and our exes are not "giving" it to us. It’s to make sure that our children are fed, have roofs over their heads and clothes to wear. Child support is not a gift.
Withholding it ultimately doesn’t punish the mom — who will make it happen somehow — it punishes the children. Sometimes I think men would have fewer problems paying it if they made the check out to them, instead.
Top photo: Gilmore Girls
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Dena Landon is a single mom who eats raw cookie dough, passionately debates intersectional feminism and frequently tangles herself in yarn. Her work has appeared on xojane.com and in Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. Her first novel was published by Dutton Children's Publishing in 2005. She blogs at femmefeminism.com, and can be found on Instagram or Facebook.