It’s very hard to be grown up when we’re getting divorced. As parents, we’re expected to share nicely, act responsibly, be the bigger person, put the needs of our children at the centre of every decision. As angry, hurt, vulnerable human beings, that’s hard to achieve. We’ve gone from sharing resources to competing for assets.
First, there’s the finances. Divorce requires us to establish separate households. The more one parent gets, the less there is for the other. Running two households on the same resources as one costs more. So we both end up with less money than before.
Since we’re now living in separate households, we need to agree how much time our children will spend with each of us. Because children need us to support them, one of us usually needs to make a payment to the other, who has primary caring responsibilities. Now we both also have less time with our children than before.
All these things are decided via the same process. Intellectually we know that our children are not a marital asset. But it’s very easy for us both to start thinking of them as one more resource to be shared out in the zero-sum game of the ending of a marriage.
Time spent either with, or without, the children both become points of contention. Is time with the children a benefit or a cost? Are four fun-filled days a month more, or less, valuable than nagging them to get dressed and eat their breakfast every morning? If your ex-partner asks you to take the children for longer, are they ducking their responsibilities or giving you a gift? If you refuse, are you resisting your ex-partner’s manipulations or selfishly prioritising your own needs over your child?
It’s hard for us to separate access and money – especially when we both have less of both than we had before. The parent making the payments might think, “Why is the other person getting my money and my children? Why am I being pushed out of the family like this?” The parent caring for the children might think, “Why do I have less freedom and more responsibility and less money? Why am I doing all the hard work and they get to do the fun stuff at weekends?” The parent making the payments may reduce payments, or stop paying altogether. The parent caring for the children may restrict or withhold access to the children. These events may be in retaliation to each other and can come in either order.
Sometimes, one parent’s behaviour is so dangerous or violent that allowing them access to the children would be unsafe. Sometimes, one parent has abused the other. Should a person who has beaten, raped or mentally tortured another adult be allowed to spend unsupervised time with children? And what happens when the person accused of the abuse denies that it took place? Because all human systems are fallible, sometimes mistakes will be made. Parents who are not abusive will be denied access to their children. Parents who are abusive will be granted access.
I’ve been very careful in writing this not to assign gender, at any point. In practice, we all know how and where the dividing lines are drawn. When it comes to issues of residency, maintenance and access, we can draw the stereotypes (feckless wastrel Disney-parent versus bitter, money-grabbing control-freak) for ourselves. I still haven’t assigned a gender. But I bet you have.
That’s the stereotype. But that’s not how it has to be. There are thousands and thousands of couples who have made divorce work for them and their children. Some of us are divorced couples who co-parent in harmony. Some of us are re-married couples whose blended families are happy and successful. Some of us are single parents who are raising our children ably and well. These are the stories we should be telling. These are the examples we should be learning from. As a society, we need parents to get better at managing divorce.
That’s why the current high-profile battle between Mumsnet and Fathers 4 Justice is such a huge disappointment, and a wasted opportunity. In case you’ve missed it, Fathers 4 Justice are accusing Mumsnet of giving a platform to gender-based hate-speech, committed by women, against men. There are a number of theories about the motivation and timings for these accusations, which – since I have no evidence to either support or disprove them – I don’t intend to review here.
The point is, there was an opportunity here. There was a chance for two groups defined by their parenthood to talk to each other. We could have talked about our grievances, about how to manage divorce and separation better, about how to better draw the distinction between parents who have simply stopped loving each other, and parents who are actively dangerous to their ex-partners and their children. Instead, Fathers 4 Justice took out an advertisement accusing the Mumsnet community of promoting gender hatred against all men and boys as a group, and encouraging the boycotting of advertisers who promote on Mumsnet.
I am one two-millionth of the Mumsnet community, and I don’t speak on its behalf. I am even less qualified to speak for Fathers 4 Justice. But of one thing I am certain: mothers and fathers love their children, fiercely and without reservation, and even when they don’t love each other. This divisive and hateful campaign does nothing to help us work better together at protecting our children in the event of marital breakdown. Children are not a marital asset. They are the people we love the most. We all – men and women, mothers and fathers – need to get better at putting them first.
We could have done all of this. Instead, we’re trading insults. Shame on you, Fathers 4 Justice. Shame on you.
Buying a house is weird isn’t it? The whole system is unlike any other purchase you’ll make.
You get to see probably the biggest purchase of your life, about twice, for about half an hour, before committing hundreds of thousands of pounds to it. Half an hour? You spend a longer period of time deliberating over buying a puppy or trying on sunglasses (trying to hide that bloody tag behind one of the lenses so you don’t look mental). But 30 minutes for a house? Personally I’ve spent longer choosing pick’n’mix.
But if that’s weird then selling your house is a whole lot stranger. We really do just disengage our reason for that part of the process. Take, for example, the phenomenon of “dressing” your house for viewings. This normally involves two parts.
The first part is mainly just hiding all the shit. All the clutter of everyday life will be scooped up and concealed in cupboards or hidden guiltily in the car boot like a dead body. You’ll binbag the billions of shoes you’ve somehow accumulated in the porch. The post at the bottom of the stairs will be freed from the hump of coats that usually shroud it. The fridge will be stripped of magnets and kiddie art. Toys will be stacked into neat towers of plastic or dumped at your parent’s house. But you won’t bother trying to tidy the garage because let’s face it – life’s too short.
The second part is where you add things that aren’t normally there. You’ll set the dining table just in case potential buyers hadn’t figured out that this is where you eat food. Beds will overflow with carefully arranged scatter cushions. The coffee table will try it’s best to look natural with carefully fanned out magazines. You’ll buy flowers. Oh yes fresh cut flowers will spring up in your kitchen as if it’s perfectly normal. You might wait until the last moment before puncturing a few satsumas and let their aroma whisper “buy my zesty house you citrus-loving bastards!!”
But dressing is painfully transparent isn’t it? It’s a bit pointless unless you think that potential buyers have the following conversation after seeing your home.
“Darling, that house we viewed today was perfect wasn’t it”
“Yes, yes it was. A nice aspect in a beautiful area. I loved the kitchen/diner and those French windows onto the garden”
“And great schools nearby… ”
“and that third bedroom would make an adorable nursery”
“Oh yes such a lovely family home”
“What is it Darling?”
“Tell me Darling”
“Well it’s just the downstairs bathroom…”
“The downstairs bathroom?”
“Yes. It was fine and everything but it’s just that the vase on the window sill…”
“Well it didn’t have a single stem of Gerbera in it. I just don’t think I could bring myself to buy a house that didn’t have a single stem of Gerbera in the downstairs toilet”
“You’re right dear, now that I think about it. It just didn’t have a single stem of Gerbera in the downstairs toilet.”
“Oh well we have some more houses to view, we’ll just have to keep looking.”
“I quite agree. It’s better to be safe than sorry dear”
Clearly YOU don’t do that with houses you look at do you? YOU can see past the empty vases? Of course YOU can. And so can THEY. Because that’s not the house, that’s just the crap IN the house.
Then there are the awkward questions. The ones you happily lie about. Lets play multiple choice.
“Why are you moving?”
“Does the garden get the sun?”
“Are the local schools good?”
If you answered mostly Cs you are a liar (and a perfectly normal person trying to sell their house).
Employment and Support Allowance is the controversial replacement for Incapacity benefit, brought in by the Labour government in 2008 for new claimants, and gradually extended to all Incapacity Benefit claimants. After the first 13 weeks of the claim, the claimant is reassessed, usually involving a medical administered by an employee of ATOS, a private company that has won the government contract but is dogged by accusations of corruption and lack of care. The claimant is then put in one of three categories – fit for work (at which point they must find a job or migrate to jobseekers allowance), work related activity group (or WRA) and support group. Only 7% of claims are awarded support group status – ie judged completely incapable of work. This is an issue for another post, but all of these claimants started off with a sicknote from their own GP, yet an unfamiliar doctor or nurse has deemed the GPs opinion invalid. 36% of claims are abandoned before the 13 week point, mostly due to recovery from a short term illness, and 39% are judged fit for work. There is a high level of successful appeals to these decisions, but for now, let’s take the word of ATOS.
17% of ESA claimants are placed in the WRA group. This amounts to over 400,000 people who are judged to be fit for work if appropriate adjustments are made or in the near future. These people are required to attend work focused interviews where they will discuss how they will get back into work, and can have their benefits docked if they fail to attend. These are the people who were described as “workshy scroungers” in certain papers when the latest set of ESA claimant data was released. Yet they are not included in the latest unemployment statistics.
“Unemployed” people are jobless, have been actively seeking work in the past four weeks and are available to start work in the next two weeks; or they are out of work, have found a job, and are waiting to start it in the next two weeks. As ESA claimants in the work related activity group are not required to actively seek work, only prepare to seek work, they are not counted. Yet they are legally required to prepare for work. So, which are they? Are they incapable of work, and so not included in unemployment statistics, just the“economically inactive” group (more on which later), or are they able to prepare for work, as they are legally required to do? This may sound like a dry statistical question, but those 400,000 people in the WRA group are facing uncertainty about their lives – the status is causing confusion and anger amongst some of the most vulnerable sectors of society.
Economically inactive group is, by the most up to date statistics, 23% of the population. These are people who are without paid work, but are not classed as unemployed. They may be sick or disabled, carers or not seeking work for some other reason. This does not mean that they don’t wish to work, only that they are not counted as seeking work. They may in fact be looking for a job, but unable to start in the next two weeks due to other responsibilities. They may wish to work, but are prevented by disability or high costs of childcare. Or they may be stay at home parents or carers. Of course, some will be rich kids living off trust finds, but somehow I doubt that counts for 23% of the population.
Another group to consider is those who are in part time work, but are looking for full time work. This figure increased by 70,000 in three months to reach 1.28 million, the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992. Here are more people who are looking for work, but unable to find it, and are not included on the unemployment statistics. Workers on low wages are still entitled to many income related benefits, and can even sometimes receive more in welfare benefits than someone out of work. Many part time jobs are unreliable and low paid, yet the workers are not counted in the unemployment statistics. In many ways, these can be the most exposed to the twists and turns of the economy, as they face placing new or changed claims if they lose the jobs they do have, but are without the small security that having an established claim can provide. They find themselves without enough work, but not “unemployed enough” to become a target for the limited amount of work finding schemes that are available.
The unemployment statistics may be awful, but they hide an even more shocking truth. There are simply not enough jobs in this country, and the statistics show more than we are being led to believe.
Now, before we all get too excited (and by “we” I’m talking about the many thousands of lone parents who receive little or no child maintenance) a quick delve into the proposals and remit of this new agency reveal some worrying changes. More about that later.
I have a very personal interest in the way our society deals with parents who do not provide financial support for their children, mainly because I am one of the majority. Yes. Stop and read that last line again. It is estimated that three out of five resident parents receive no financial support from the non resident parent.
I have two children and I divorced my husband, due to unreasonable behaviour, back in 2005. I have never received a single, solitary penny in support. For years I decided that this was OK, and I didn’t want to “rock the boat”. The reasons that I didn’t turn to the CSA years ago are many and after speaking to other people, I find that my experience is not unusual.
“Much better to be poor but safe”
The fear of reprisals – either physical (Parents who have fled abusive relationships are often terrified of any contact with an abusive partner) or emotional (Refusal to maintain contact with the children after a claim has been lodged).
“I don’t want disagreements over everything from haircuts to holidays”
Fear of Control – There are many women (because, come on, let’s be honest, 90% of lone parents with residency are women) who suffer financial control within their relationships. Women are more likely to be primary care givers and therefore not working. During my conversations with other people in my situation the number of people who are relieved that they do not have to account for every pound they spend on their children to the non resident parent was shocking.
“What’s the point? All that hassle for £2.50 per week?”
The endless battle to force a non payer to actually face up to their responsibilities can drive many claimants to distraction. On a personal level I find it infuriating that the father of my children has refused to answer any of the letters sent out by the CSA and has, as usual, buried his head in the sand as far as this whole matter is concerned. I’m tired of phoning the agency, only to be told that he has not responded and that another letter will be sent. I am only 3 months into the process and I cannot imagine how it feels to be 3 years in and still without any financial benefit.
“They’re the ones missing out and Karma is a bitch”
This is the constant, heartbreaking, cry of many of us. We tell ourselves and one another, that there is a divine force at work, one that will settle our scores and make things equitable in the end. Of course, it’s a lie. A necessary one, a lie that helps us to cope with the day to day struggles, but is it a damaging one? I believe so – this belief weakens us and encourages passivity. Karma won’t pay that electricity bill this month will it?
The Children Will Know
“One day the children will know all that you did for them and all that he didn’t”
Well, no, actually. Thank you very much. I don’t want my children to hate their father – how damaging is that to their psyche? I want their father to be forced to pay. It is, after all, the very least he could do.
I finally batted away these fears and “reasons” in August of this year. Six years after my divorce and 8 years since my final separation.
I have now been awarded a payment of £40 per week for my two children. This works out at £2.85 per day, per child. Just about enough to provide them with an evening meal every day, however I am one of the lucky ones. The majority of awards are in the region of £5 per week. That’s a whole 71 pence per day. Of course, he hasn’t paid anything and is now £440.00 in arrears. When I contacted the CSA to find out the status of my claim, I was informed that they are unable to start further proceedings until the arrears total £500.00 or 13 weeks of non payment. That’s just great for those who are truly impoverished and are relying on child support just to pay for food.
There’s something very wrong here, and I’m starting to wonder why our society puts more effort and vigour in chasing parking fines than it does for non payment of child support. I’m starting to wonder why there is a blanket acceptance that this is “just the way it is”. I’m starting to wonder why there are high profile campaigns for fathers who want to fight to see their children (Fathers For Justice for example) but nothing for those women who are on their uppers trying to provide for their children.
I’m starting to wonder about it all.
Remember at the start of this post I mentioned that there are changes afoot?
One of the changes proposed is that, apart from survivors of domestic violence, the use of the CSA to set maintenance and chase the parent for payment will be chargeable. That’s right, going forward if the non resident parent refuses to pay child maintenance, the parent who is not receiving financial support, will be charged by the agency to force the issue.
You can read more here
So what can we do?
You can start by reading about the campaign by Gingerbread, the wonderful charity which campaigns and gives practical help to single parents and getting involved in anyway you can.