A blog by Claire Standen Coaching
In June or July of 2020, amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, I spoke these words to my ex-husband ‘I set you free, and I set me free- I don’t want any more child maintenance’. A couple of months later, I quit my only source of self-employed income. You could say it was a period of questionable financial decisions… except, it was actually very deliberate and I’m proud of myself for working through the inevitable fears that came up.
The decision was prompted by reading a book by Emma Johnson: The Kickass Single Mom. Now, I don’t identify as particularly ‘kick ass’ (maybe that’s just because I’m British), but she made a compelling case for ditching the reliance on what ultimately is a pittance, and instead working towards a more equal balance of parenting responsibilities, freeing you up to make your own money. As I was (and still am) self-employed, highly creative and very passionate about my work as a coach and therapist, putting the importance of time over money appealed to me greatly. Not only that, but I’m also aspirational, and have trained in a new field that holds high potential for making a lot more money. It takes time, energy and focus to build a business. I didn’t have much of any of those between 9.30 am and 2.30 pm and every other weekend. In short, the classic British set-up of the kids having an ‘every other weekend dad’ wasn’t working well for me.
It's been a while since I prescribed to the idea that ‘we’ll do what’s best for the kids’. That might sound a little callous, but I think it’s too often used as an excuse to discount the welfare of the woman involved in the separation. I strongly believe that when we take the welfare of mothers into account (or, God Forbid, make it a priority!), that children’s welfare naturally increases. I know the experience of being a stressed out and struggling single mum, and trust me, my kids suffered. So when men abuse women emotionally, financially and physically (and yes, it is mostly men who abuse mostly women), their children are also suffering, whether they want to admit it or not.
I decided to take a stand. I decided to back myself in the race and to believe in myself even more than ever before. It was about a year and a half of not taking any child maintenance before I moved to the same home town as my ex-husband, and set up the expectation that parenting would be on a 50:50 basis. This was a huge change, and it presented massive parenting issues for my ex-husband that simply hadn’t been an issue when he was a ‘weekend dad’. Who bought school uniform (both of us!), School shoes (we alternate), who took them to school (me on my days, him on his), how could he continue with full time hours (he employed a childminder). These issues (and resulting costs) had never occurred to him when he picked the kids up on Saturday and dropped them back on Sunday, and I think that’s actually a shame. Because along with the ‘costs’ come huge benefits. Actually knowing your kids, for one. Connection. Love. Involvement in their everyday lives. When we’ve spoken about our new set up since, my ex-husband has expressed how much more fulfilling life is now compared to before.
And do you know how much child maintentance was? Less than 50p/ hour. It was, quite frankly, an insult. Money that is grudgingly given and grudgingly received, apart from anything, has a very icky energy.
My relationship with my ex-husband has transformed beyond recognition since we first split up. In ways I’ve held the vision for, but not necessarily believed would ‘work’. I put it down, in part, to this shift in our financial situation, whereby our overall share of duties is now completely equal, and no money changes hands.
It is of course worth mentioning here that there are situations where partners (both male and female) are abusive and where shared parenting is genuinely not an option. However, to avoid the potential damage that ensues from parental alienation, where one parent denies the other the right to see the children, we must address these issues. In most situations, both parents are equally capable of parenting, even if not to the exact standards of the other parent… But as Johnsson expresses in her blogs, podcast appearances and books, instances of one parent being incapable are not as often as some mothers would have you believe. Often, minor discrepancies are cited as reasons, like ‘he can’t even do the washing up properly, how will he get three kids to school on time!’. When we look at these, they’re really subtle power plays and more about the feelings of the parent than the wellbeing of the child. In my case, even the tricky logistics of a co-parenting dad who works full time have been solved, and not by my sacrificing my working or free time, either.
There is a cultural shift required in order for our individual divorces to transform, and at the same time it’s true to say that in order to make a cultural shift happen, we need to transform the landscapes of our individual lives. My ex-husband’s workplace, for instance, calls itself a ‘life friendly employer’, but often these policies rely on someone in the employee’s life shouldering all the actual burdens of the ‘life’ they claim to be ‘friendly’ to. As a self employed person, I needed to take a stand to ensure my own employment was ‘life friendly’, as well as equal and fair.
So, for the second part of this blog, I’d like to speak to the issues that under-pin how this turns up for separating couples. Firstly, the idea that any amount of money can replace the presence of a parent, is a fundamentally flawed idea. There is no monetary value that can be ascribed to the physical presence, emotional support, selflessness and care-taking that is the role of parenting. To go full ‘feminist’ on this issue for a moment, the very idea that there could be points at the fundamental lack of respect there is societally for the work unpaid that is done worldwide by (primarily) women. Why am I being apologetic for being feminist about this? Because that is not a popular stance. We’re actually supposed to put up and shut up. Not voice our dissent. That the ‘welfare of the children’ I so often cited as of primary importance, and yet child maintenance is either a pittance, paid late, partially or not at all… well, as they say- put your money where your mouth is. There is often the question arising of what ‘she’ uses the money for… as if feeding, clothing, bathing, transporting, entertaining, educating and all the other activities of a parent don’t add up to more than a few hundred pounds a month (they do, and more). But beyond that, and if you’re still with me… that doesn’t mean the paying parent is necessarily able to pay. So what then? Apparently, 90 % of single parents are women. So where are all the fathers? There are those that pay. Those that pay more than they ‘should’ (yes, they do exist!), those that default and those that don’t declare their real earnings.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m fairly sure my ex-husband could afford the money he was giving me, but I do wonder whether he would have so happily taken the kids on days out, treated them to toys, and ultimately, whether we would have been able to build the fair, co-operative relationship we now have, if he’d have been handing over that money. There are, of course, also parents who struggle to pay child maintenance. I’ve worked with some of these while I was assisting veterans. I’ve also worked with women plunged into debt and financial insecurity because of inconsistent or absent payments from equally absent ‘fathers’. Let’s be clear, that doesn’t work for anyone. It’s no coincidence that separated parents is one of the ‘adverse childhood experiences’ that affect outcomes in adult life. It’s been my mission to mitigate that risk in my own children’s lives as much as possible, and I consider my mental, physical AND financial wellbeing to be a key part of that.
Honestly, there’s so much more to say about how the current system traps people in poverty, and I could write a whole article on that too, and maybe I will… But for now, I wonder if this has got you thinking about what that child maintenance is really worth, and whether true equality might be within reach.
Claire Standen - NLP Mind Coach
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