In my work writing about women, money and family in the United States, there are two prevailing issues:
- Dads who do not live with their kids are barely involved. (Just 22% of dads who live apart from their children see them more than once weekly, per Pew.)
- That pay gap will. not. close.
Here’s the answer:
Start all custody negotiations at a default 50-50 visitation and custody, with no child support or alimony.
While there is great movement towards equally shared visitation time in at least 30 states, the majority of family courts still default to some version of model that has prevailed in separated families for decades:
- Dad pays mom child support, and maybe alimony.
- Mom is primary custodian and dad gets “Friday night special” — every-other weekend, and Wednesday night dinners.
This antiquated arrangement only reinforces the sexist notions:
- Women are incapable of supporting themselves.
- Fathers are inferior parents.
Indeed, this outdated agreement holds women, men, families and the economy back.
I can tell you first-hand it is a heck of a lot harder to get ahead professionally and financially if you are the sole- or majority care provider for children. If we unburdened the 10 million single mothers in this country from this responsibility (64 percent of millennial moms have had at least one baby out of wedlock, according to Johns Hopkins), and forced fathers to be true co-parents, gender economics in this country would look very, very different.
For starters, unmarried moms would have so, so much more time to invest in their careers and businesses. They would not be the default caregiver when kids barf in the night and need to stay home from school. Moms would not automatically be the parent that must leave work early for teacher meetings, or systematically forgo career-advancing work travel or evening networking events. More shared visitation will also afford moms much-needed time to rest, exercise and develop relationships and interests outside of their kids that make women happier mothers and more productive citizens.
Two, fathers would be forced to make the hard work-life decisions that women have known for generations, leveling the workplace playing field.
Three, it would create a collective mindshift at home, work and in the bedroom.
Listen to my Like a Mother podcast episode on the topic:
If women know they can never rely on a man outside of marriage for income, we will make different, better decision about our careers, and money.
If men know they cannot skirt their parental responsibilities, they will be more thoughtful about bringing babies into the world.
When divorce courts force both sexes to participate in the workforce and with children in equal measure, that message trickles into all families — including married and single-people homes.
When both sexes are forced by court or social pressure to parent equally, men and women on corporate boards, in Congress, in C-suites, and on down make different, better policies for workers and families.
Plus, this presumed, equal and fair arrangement relieves courts of the endless bickering and petitions that distract from extreme cases — like actual abuse and neglect — for which deviation from this rule would be appropriate.
I know the pushback:
I am the better parent. I am the mother! I don’t want him to have more than 30% vistitation. It’s not good for the kids.
If he is safe to be with the kids 30% — or 10%, or 20% — he is safe to be with them 50%. There are 60 peer-reviewed studies that find that shared parenting is best for children in separated and divorced families. This is true even in cases where there is high conflict between the parents, or one is richer than the other. Just because the child lived in your uterus does not mean you get more say in how they are raised. Men will never step into their full father potential if we keep assuming they are the inferior parent.
We agreed I would give up my career to stay with the kids, and it is not fair that my standard of living is compromise because he wants to divorce!
You’re not a child, and he is not your father. You entered into marriage knowing the risks. You are an adult woman who as political and economic rights that you chose not to exercise. That was not a good decision, and I am sorry you made them, but it is not another person’s responsibility to pay for those decisions. If you want a higher standard of living, you are free to pursue a career that will afford you that. Now that he has the kids 50%, you have plenty of time to do that.
He is supposed to take the kids half the time but never shows up. I still shouldn’t pursue child support?
That is a decision that you have to make. Yes, if he doesn’t care for the kids half the time, he should step up and care for them financially. But keep in mind these things:
- He will always and forever resent giving you that money and it will be a wedge between you in any co-parenting.
- Psychologically, taking that money will likely hold you back. He is a man you are no longer tied to romantically, and from whom you are (or should be) striving to create a separate life. Money ties people together. You risk being dependent on him. Tread carefully.
My kids are so little! My baby is nursing! 50-50 doesn’t make sense!
I agree. This is about being reasonable and what is good for the greater sum, without abandoning the individuals. Nursing babies and their moms, temporarily, require certain circumstances. So do disabled adults, and deployed military. A move to default equal visitation and no support will not be painless. But they are necessary steps in an evolution towards financial and parental equity.
Please listen to Terry Brennan, of Leading Women for Shared Parenting, explain why default every-other-weekend visitation leads to absentee fathers. Note that in cases where ‘standard’ visitation is awarded — every-other-weekend — fathers become depressed and non-involved, and within 3 years, one study found, 40 percent of children in an unequal visitation arrangement had lost complete touch with their non-custodial parents, which are nearly always the father. Have a listen: