When marriage goes wrong, it's mothers who suffer most

Divorce. It’s a word that divides – and I don’t mean just the parents and children

A boy reacts as his parents attend their community wedding organized by Coracao Solidario (Solidarity Heart) at the male prison Lemos de Brito at Bangu, largest prison complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

“I’m angry. There is no justice.”

The court case hadn’t gone as expected. Her life, and that of her children, was being financially downgraded. She was paying the price for motherhood.

The message was from someone I know. Her stepdaughter had just become a statistic - one more divorced mother headed for a financial hole. Except she is one of the lucky ones – her father can afford to help her out.

Divorce. It’s often expected that mothers rise above things that will bring about a split. The greater good – the wellbeing of children specifically – is cited, and can be used to emotionally blackmail her into putting up, and shutting up.

In this case, staying together was no longer an option. The husband had moved in with a new (old) love – someone he knew at university, and was having nothing to do with his children. Including financially. Which, when he was the breadwinner, is a huge issue.

Divorce. It’s a word that divides – and I don’t mean just the parents and children. Everyone wades in – an instant expert. Some offering support, others referring to headlines picked out online. Studies that find children of divorce struggle with maths and social skills, and therefore earn less and re-live divorce in their own marriages.

Stop. Fact-check time.

What’s damaging is being exposed to conflict and uncertainty about the future. What this father did is an example of that.

At least the court outcome means they know where they stand. Children included.

Part of what was discussed in court was what she, the mother, "needs". Her still husband had decided it’s a one-bedroom flat above a retail park. For the mother of his four children, the youngest of whom is still going to school, the others still studying at university. No family home for them anymore. Their mother had worked on and off, part-time, never to her full potential, because she looked after them with no home-help. She can’t afford to pay for a place of her own – ever.

This is what makes the children of divorce struggle. The downgrading of their life - socioeconomically. In other words: having less money, moving house, and all that entails – change of school and leaving social support systems most likely. These things affect children of divorce acutely. At the core is women’s ability to earn and fit into the financial system. Unfortunately women don’t at the best of times.


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Last week The Economist brought out a video that sets out why women earn less than men. Their take is that the 15 per cent gender wage-gap is brought about by the majority of women being in jobs that pay less. The economist found that, in Britain, 70 per cent of new mothers scaled back after having a child, compared to 11 per cent of fathers. Meaning they worked part-time, or chose less demanding jobs, if work at all, and earned significantly less, if at all.

When a mother goes back to work, her wage is lower than if she hadn’t had a child. You can never make up that sort of gap. With time, the discrepancy gets bigger – if your salary goes up as a percentage of what you’re on, you’ll always get less.

The point is: these women, mothers who’ve stepped off their career ladder and then find themselves divorced with no financial support, what happens to them? The banks won’t extend them a mortgage. They can never make up their lost earnings. They are considered too old for the corporate world/upskilling/new careers.

The odds are against them.

Last week a survey came out about working women in the Middle East. 88.5 per cent of those questioned state they find labour laws are fair to them. I question that. Not their feelings, but whether it is true.

Nowhere in the report does the issue of pay come up. When you read the very last page of the three-page document, it states “over half (52 per cent) of those surveyed believe their future marriage plans would affect their career choices, at least to some extent”

I will read it as a reference to the motherhood penalty – that, should they have children, they’ll be on a different path – salary-wise if not total career change.

The comments about The Economist video include a criticism that it doesn't offer a solution. I think a solution is universal pay for mothers. Whether they work or not.

However, it’s one thing to implement something like this when you’re on your home-turf. Another when you are an expat wife. In which case, I say negotiate a "salary" with your spouse, and make it a legally binding document.

Sorry if I come across as cynical. I am not. No one gets married to get divorced – not that I know of anyway. But it happens. And even if it doesn’t, don’t let motherhood break you.

Financially that is.