Whether you were married to your kids' dad, were in a couple or your encounter was a hookup, this post is for you.
Family court is the single most powerful institution in the United States when it comes to gender equality.
Think about it: When families with kids separate, most go through family court to sort out financial and logistical burden of raising children. A judge decides how to divvy up money and time. Money and time are the very crux of the gender pay, wealth and earning gap:
Equality at home, and equality with work/money.
Unfortunately, family courts, divorce law, and our culture around separated families is stuck in the 1960s, the beginning of the divorce boom.
Typically, when parents separate, the situation still defaults to this ancient, sexist model:
- Kids stay primarily with the mother (because, you know, mothers are by default the superior parent, and their greatest fulfillment comes from hearth and home).
- Dads get “visits” with the kids. That's right, half of parents are allowed to visit their own children.
- Dad pays mom child support and / or alimony. Even though women in the Western world have more education / career/ legal / financial rights than any other time or place in modern history, we presume a model in which women are financially dependent on men, and still disproportionately burdened with childcare responsibilities.
Thankfully, family courts are slowly turning this around, with lifetime alimony all but gone, judges (especially female judges, who fought their assess off for their own professional success, and have little sympathy for women who chose to perpetuate this sexist model) increasingly expect both parties to be responsible for both the financial and time cost of child rearing, as shared parenting is moving through state legislatures around the United States.
But, like all social movements, the movement for gender equality in family courts is far too slow, and still, women and families are stuck behind the times.
The good news is that we can all work against this patriarchy, and women who are navigating a separation or divorce is in a powerful position to not only create a powerful new life for herself, but also riot against the system. When you divorce like a feminist, you send a powerful message to your children on what is expected for gender equality. When you navigate the legal system as an empowered woman, you send a message to judges, attorneys, lawmakers and all parties that true gender equality is indeed possible, and the legal system has an important role to make it a reality.
In short: Your divorce / separation is a powerful moment of activism.
If both parents have equal responsibility for raising the children in terms of time spent with the kids, and logistical and emotional burden of keeping the kids alive (and hopefully thriving) then both parents have equal opportunity to work, earn, save and invest.
In short, when parents separate, there is an opportunity for equality at both home and at work, which is great for all parties involved — as well as for gender equality.
Split parenting time equally
The good news is that equality at home — and in the case of the 12 million separated families in the United States, that means approximately equal time between two homes — has been proven to be best for children.
Thankfully, we no longer have to default to dated, sexist notions that moms should be majority responsible for childrearing. There are 54 (and counting) peer-reviewed studies that find that shared parenting is best for children. Kids do best with approximately equal time between their parents. This model torpedoes the current family court norm, in which to deviate from the every-other-weekend visits with dad requires parents to duke it out in court over who is the “better” parent — causing anxiety, conflict, expense and drama, while divorce lawyers laugh all the way to the bank. Science kills that notion, starts the conversation at 50-50, and removes any need to argue about much at all.
Not only is shared parenting great for child development, it is great for gender equality. Now that you don't have to worry about the kids half the time, you are free to build your career and devote to self-care items, like health, read, date, therapy (including online therapy).
What does this mean for divorcing moms? In the absence of abuse, start the time sharing conversation at 50-50. Don't negotiate down to shared time. Start there. It makes sense, since we know that both men and women are equally competent parents.
No child support, split extras fairly
One of the horrible negatives of the current family court norm is that it creates financial incentive for parents to fight for unequal parenting time. In many states, the more time a parent has with the kids, the less the payor (usually the dad) has to pay, and the more the receiving parent (typically the mom) receives. Also, the greater discrepancy between the parents' income means that again, the payor (usually: dad) must pay more to the payee (typically: mom).
What a sexist mess.
What happens when money and parenting time are tied is that everyone is then motivated to hide income, under-earn, and engage in other unseemly behavior. When women chose to under-earn so that they receive more money from a man, the pay gap widens. When a woman passes up a promotion, or doesn't go for that higher-earning career, or starts the side gig or business that she dreams of because she worries it will lower payments from her kids' dad, women everywhere are held back.
In short: when money is changed hands between exes, conflict ensues. And studies find that conflict between parents is the #1 indicator of negative outcomes in children of divorce.
However, when parenting time is split approximately equally, there is no reason that any child support should be paid. Think about it: Even in the every-other-weekend model, both parents need enough real estate to house the kids, keep the lights on. That is what child support is for. Why would any one have to pay the other for these parenting basics?
Now, in family court, there is also the management of “extras” — out-0f-pocket expenses for the kids, including child care, insurance, sports, music, orthodontia and camp. There is typically a formula on how parents will split these expenses based on each parent's income.
Splitting up? Here is how a feminist handles this:
You're already sharing parenting time, so there isn't much room to argue for child support. If you've made the mistake of letting your career go, or otherwise have no immediate way of supporting yourself at all, express to your now-ex that your acceptance of child support is temporary, and that you are making all efforts to get back on your feet. That is reasonable, and we will hope he will recognize that (and his attorney will help him see that), and you will all have a smoother transition to this new phase. Which is great for the kids.
When it comes to extras, default to your state calculator for divvying up these expenses, or make a reasonable offer to make it easy and fair.
Focus on earning and financial independence
Keep reading … to get out of the trap of being financially dependent on a man, it is now on you to work and earn. It won't always be easy, but there is no other way. You can't fight for gender equality and also build your life around a man's income. Even though that is just plain-old sexist, it is also financially unwise. He could become unemployed, disabled, die, go MIA or any other reasons that child support won't show up. You can't control that. You can, however, control:
- How much you earn
- How much you spend
- Whether you live frugally, and minimally
- How much you save and invest
When you split with your kids' other parent, you may decide together that one or the other of you will pay a sum of support for a period. But express explicitly that this is temporary so that you can each get on your feet, and move forward as two separate adults.
If you found that you were financially dependent on this man, dig into that. Why did you chose that route? What norms did you adhere to? Because if you were like me, and 45% of Americans (according to Pew researchers), you blindly assumed that the stay-at-home mom is the better mom, even though all the research shows that kids, women, the economy and even marriages benefit when moms work outside the home for pay. More on the perils of working-mom guilt here.
Say no to alimony
Maybe your lawyer is urging you to fight for alimony (attorneys love alimony, because it is a never-ending court battle that is typically revisited for years, in each case. Highly lucrative for the lawyers). Maybe you're broke and just can't envision a path forward without his money. Maybe you live in a community or come from a family where that is the norm.
Regardless, resist. Alimony was a feminist coup in the 1960s and 1970s when women had scant financial opportunities or security, and no-fault divorce left women and children high and dry. Thankfully, that was a half-century ago and things are different now. Here are all the reasons alimony is a big no-no for gender equality.
Interesting aside: It is women are going to be the ones who end alimony. Often, the most vocal anti-alimony activists are women married to or in relationships with men who pay ungodly sums to exes: educated women who chose to be un- or underemployed, co-habiting (but not married to, because that would render alimony null) with educated men. The loudest alimony reformers, however, are successful women who are ordered to pay alimony and child support to men. Hell hath no fury like a woman paying alimony.
Don't even think about turning the kids against their dad
Parental alienation is stunningly common, as researchers have found that between 11 and 13 percent of separated families have cases when one parent systematically turns the kids against the other — a syndrome that is considered child abuse, and I will affirm is a symptom of the patriarchy. You are telling the kids that as the mother, you know best. As the mother, you are the better parent. As the person in power, you tell the weaklings (kids) what is what.
After all, when the message is that one parent is better than the other, and that the rejected parent is unworthy of love and respect, that is a classic symptom of the dichotomy that is perpetuated by sexist white men. Feminism celebrates inclusiveness As the good folks at Everyday Feminism explain:
And women aren’t the only ones who suffer under this everyday patriarchy. Everyone does. Because patriarchy demands that those in power conform to a specific set of rules — ones that require the suppression of feelings, and include a lack of empathy.
Patriarchy demands that those being ruled play by a certain set of rules as well: They are the controlled ones. While they are allowed to show emotion, they cannot step outside of their prescribed boxes. They are not allowed to act assertive or attempt to gain authority.
The problem is: by not allowing people to both simultaneously express their emotions and assert themselves, we limit their range of experiences and diminish their worth as humans.
Learn more: Parental alienation resource center
While we're at it, stop positioning a lesser-involved dad as reason why you are the dad. Stuff like claiming you, the mom, get to celebrate Father's Day. Not a good look.
Aim for a low-conflict divorce
When I urge women to let go of their earlier ideas about motherhood and move forward with independence, I hear pushbacks that sound like like time-machine throwbacks:
He owes me alimony/child support / the house because we agreed I'd give up my career and stay at home. [Reality: You made decisions that didn't work out in your favor. Also: Pillow talk is not enforceable.]
He cheated, so I need to make him pay. [Reality: There is no retribution for hurt feelings.]
It is my job to hold him accountable. [Reality: You are not his mommy, and you are not Boss Hog.]
Here are the facts: Half of marriages have ended in divorce in the United States for the past 50 years, and fewer and fewer young people are getting married. If he cheated, that has nothing to do with your co-parenting or family life or financial future. While the end of your relationship is certainly valuable for your personal development, your future relationships, and your family narrative, none of the dirty between you and your ex are relevant in the divorce.
There is an excellent documentary you can rent on Amazon for $3.99 called Divorce Corp., that explains how the courts are designed to create conflict for the profit of attorneys, states, courts, judges and custodial evaluators — who are a bunch of white rich men, of course.
It is on you and me and other women navigating this shit show to rise above it. Aim for a low-conflict divorce. DIY online divorces can be a good, affordable, low-cost option, especially if the program partners with actual human attorneys who can take the process all the way home. Here is my list of basic financial and logistical items you should seek in your divorce.
But again, the best thing you can do for yourself, your kids, your relationship with their dad (because, unlike pretty much everyone else in your whole life, this guy is the one person you cannot just erase — you are stuck with him!), and for the rise of women, is to focus on moving forward — not getting stuck on fighting with this guy you are not in a romantic relationship with.
Prioritize your romantic life
If you are new to single motherhood you will likely be on the receiving end of explicit and passive-aggressive messages about what you should do with your romantic life/heart/pussy. Messages along the lines of:
- Your kids should always come first. It is selfish to spend time away from your children in order to date.
- Good mothers are chaste. If your children sense any hint of your sexuality outside of your relationship with their dad, they will be forever scarred and on a one-way path to a meth den.
- Hurry up and get married while you are still young and cute and can snag a rich guy who can take care of you and your poor kids who are now from a broken home.
Of course, all those messages are stuck in a sexist age not even our Grandmothers remember. GAH. Moving on!
I understand that you are newly out of a relationship and vulnerable. Nursing a tender heart, contending with your new life and place in the world, and you are unsure of what dating and romance may mean for you.
Take your time. And when you are ready (within a year or so), get out there, and have zero shame about it.
You are an adult, human and sexual woman. You have normal, healthy needs: for companionship, sex, romance, love. You don't know what this phase of your life will look like, and you likely won't receive many positive messages about dating as a single mom (though you can find several chapters on how much I have loved dating and sex since my divorce, in my bestseller The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin).
Shame-free dating as a single mom does three things:
- Honors your true essence as a woman
- Creates a great opportunity for you to be a positive role model for dating for your children — especially if you date casually and don't settle down with the first dude who matches with you on Tindr. After all, our kids are statistically likely to be in sexual relationships with multiple people in their lives, co-habit without marriage, and are less likely than any other generation to never marry, including when they have kids of their own. Why in the world are single moms desperately trying to uphold some image of sexual saintliness while also giving our kids frank discussions on the importance of pleasure and respect when it comes to their sexuality?
- Bucks the patriarchy. Don't let old, white men keep your orgasm down!
When you're ready, check out my list of best online dating sites for single moms (and tips on how to use them).
Own your single mom title
First, do you need to change back to your maiden name? Here is how.
The argument about who is, and who is not a single mom is one of white privilege.
One of the tireless discussions in the single mom community is, “Who gets to call themselves a single mom?” This conversation has long enraged me, because it is solely designed to promote infighting among women and elevating the shame attached to the term “single mom.” After all, if you insist you are not a ‘single mom,' but a ‘divorced mom' because you were once married (64% of Millennial moms are unmarried, according to Census data), the subtext of that designation is:
“I am better because my child was conceived inside of a socially sanctioned partnership, which presumes the kid was wanted and planned for, and presumes I have an active co-parent now that marriage ended — none of which apply to babies born to unmarried mothers.”
Of course, none of these perceived privileges are necessarily true — nor are the presumed hardships of moms who never married, many of whom do plan their families and do have healthy co-parenting relationships.
The key word here, however, is PRIVILEGE. I cannot remember hearing these hair-splitting arguments made by anyone but white, privileged women, and angry, white men — the latter of whom are usually bitter dads paying a lot of alimony/child support with little access to their children. I want to challenge the white women who go out of their way to distance themselves from calling themselves a “single mother.”
If you are doing socioeconomic gymnastics to get around calling yourself a single mom, you are really trying to get around a social stigma that has for centuries been attached to mostly poor, women of color.
Historically and to this day, households headed by unmarried mothers have been majority African American, and more recently, Hispanic women, both groups of which are statistically poorer than white people, and continue to experience higher rates of giving birth outside of marriage than white women. For a very long time, we have called these women single moms, without much debate at all. Unfortunately, for a very long time, single moms have been considered social pariahs, derided by politicians and religious leaders as the blame for most social ills.
That is how stigmas are institutionalized.
Today, thanks to the amazing work of feminists before us, women now have many wonderful choices on how to build our families. Financial, career, reproductive and legal rights and opportunities mean that women can now afford to chose have children without committed partners, are less likely to marry, and are more likely to initiate divorce. White, educated women benefit disproportionately from these strides in gender equality, and the numbers of white women having babies outside of marriage and divorcing are skyrocketing.
Again, it is white, educated women who scramble to distance themselves from the term “single mom” — even though we all check the same “single” box when we file our taxes (though “head of household” is no more, thanks for nothing tax reform!), apply for health or life insurance, or are counted by the Census.So, even if you are divorced, you are a single mom — no matter how much you want to distance yourself from THOSE PEOPLE who never married. If you enjoy a handsome sum of child support and co-parenting from your kid's dad, or have a helpful boyfriend or high-paying job, you are a single mom — even if your family or financial situation does not look like what you associate happens inside the families or bank accounts of THOSE PEOPLE.
This is call for unity for gender equality, for race equality, and for just being a decent person. When you own your life and family and relationship status (because this is a conversation about STATUS) with acceptance instead of shame, you elevate all single moms, all families — and women everywhere.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.