Is there anything more explosive than that powder keg called child support? For some, it’s a right and reward, for others the monthly reminder of a biased legal system, or a bad attorney. If we open the hood on the common, and often intolerable, co-parenting relationship, looking for what makes the most noise, almost without exception, the loudest pinging comes from child support.
The necessity of it is absolutely incontestable. If you, and by you I’m speaking directly to fathers, question that reality you have far more to think on than what this essay is about. Children come into this world as beautiful bouncing bundles joy and emotional – and financial – anxiety. The end of marriage doesn’t mean those burdens are for suddenly one parent alone to carry.
So if we ignore those who purposely avoid their financial responsibilities – and for whom an especially hot corner of hell is waiting – and look more closely at the more righteous among us, we find that concerns on both sides about child support come down to really just one thing – expectations.
Every dollar of child support carries certain, and often unspoken, demands. It’s something like a check we write to the housekeeper or plumber. When I hand it over, there are assumptions that certain things will or did happen. My house is clean; my sink will get unclogged. If neither takes place, those demands are not met, and I become an unhappy customer believing I’ve been misled, bamboozled, or shamed. On the flip side, the plumber or maid doesn’t expect me to tell them how to do their job. Either I don’t know how or choose not to, but either way, they shouldn’t expect me to dictate how they go about their work.
Child support is quite similar.
The one who pays child support has certain expectations about that money and where it goes. While the same check is received with typically different expectations. But unlike the housekeeper who does, in fact, want to clean your house or the plumber who is intent on fixing the drain; making you happy and a repeat customer. When it comes to child support each’s viewpoint is rarely, if ever, aligned. The reason for this is they both consider it – my money.
If the father pays, he may believe that earning a paycheck makes it ‘his.’ While the divorce papers very clearly state that money is to be paid to the mother, making it ‘her money.’ This is a recipe for disaster. That sense of ownership routinely leads both believe the money should be used and spent according to their individuals priorities. When that doesn’t happen sparks often begin to fly. Rare, and I do mean rare, is the divorced father who hasn’t, at one time or another, believed with the conviction of the Ten Commandments that his ex-wife is irresponsible and spends more of the child support on herself instead than on his children. What divorced mother hasn’t dealt with the mind-numbing frustration of an ex-husband who tries to manage her checkbook?
But if that isn’t bad enough, it can all get far worse because this tension usually escalates once one or both parents get remarried. Suddenly new and different experiences enter in and lead to a whole set of new, and often biased, expectations. Remarriage rarely makes issues with child support better.
At first glance, it might be imagined that remarriage would help ease these tensions, especially if a new spouse pays or receives their own child support. We might look at our challenges with fresh eyes and through their separate experiences. This isn’t usually the case. Instead, we adopt our new spouse’s views on the topic, specifically as it relates to their ex.
Here’s what I mean, you’d be hard pressed to find a divorced father who thinks his ex-wife is irresponsible with the child support he pays, whose new wife doesn’t feel the same about her. She agrees with his assessment and he now has someone echoing the belief that he pays her too much, that she uses the money on herself, or little of it goes to his kids. Yet the new wife could never imagine the same being said about herself, nor that her new husband would ever be controlling about the child support he pays, though she routinely complains about how tyrannical her own ex-husband about the topic. Much of this has to do with whose interests are best served. Especially when it comes to money, remarriage turns ‘you’ and ‘me’, into ‘we’.
The Queen and I have fallen into this trap. Both of us have, for the most part, accepted as gospel what the other believes about their former spouses. She also thinks my ex doesn’t spend enough of it on my kids while I agree he is half-hearted about paying what is due the Queen. My ex isn’t meeting the Queen’s expectations about the child support I pay, because she isn’t meeting my own.
But we must recognize there is a very real danger in this because what may be a complaint today could become resentment tomorrow. What the Queen may ‘grin and bear’ right now she may ‘hate and disdain ‘as that money – now our money – continues going to a woman she believes is irresponsible. But here’s the real threat. Should these feelings escalate they will not get directed towards the ex, but to me. We begin to turn on each other. The Queen could start resenting me for paying money – our money – to a woman we both believe is irresponsible.
I knew of a wife who had a profound resentment for her husband because of the child support he paid. She believed it was too much and that his ex wife was responsible. Nothing about his financial arrangement had changed since they met, so why had his wife’s attitude changed? She didn’t understand early on in their relationship that what once had been his money would, after marriage, become her money; and that changes everything.
However, much of this can be avoided, but things must happen well before the marriage. Namely, the topic of child support should be discussed thoroughly and early in a dating relationship. It is critical this subject has full transparency between the couple. Nothing can be hidden. Once out in the open, it is for each to choose to accept or reject the situation, because marrying a divorced parent means marrying that person’s mess, which doesn’t magically get cleaned up after ‘I do!’
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