Mum’s true worth in a case of separation

Nima Abu Wardeh is exploring the issue of financial support a mother should receive post-divorce, regardless of whether she is looking after children on a daily basis or whether they have flown the nest.
Illustration by Gary Clement for The National
Illustration by Gary Clement for The National
“I took less so they could have more.”

This is how a soon-to-be-divorced mother put her case when negotiating a settlement with her husband. He was challenging and refuting various figures being put forward, claiming that the wealth he had built up was his and not to be shared – at least not equitably.

Today I’m exploring the issue of financial support a mother should receive post-divorce, regardless of whether she is looking after children on a daily basis or whether they have flown the nest.

This is about redefining, if not defining, certain social contracts.

This is about equality.

It’s about being fair.

Mothers are usually their children’s primary carers. They literally take less; work less, if at all, and/or hold their careers and earning power back, so their little ones can have more stability, security, family memories and time with at least one parent. These women should have equal options, lifestyles, and futures where they are not second-class citizens or in need – especially if they end up divorced.

And this means that they should not bear anywhere near an equal financial responsibility as the father.

There is real value, including monetary value, in the multitude of often seamless and invisible daily functions that mothers carry out – and that are key to a child’s well-being. This appears to be missing in many payout or alimony equations.

Of course circumstances must be taken into account, earning ability and so on.

The friend I refer to is highly educated, to post-grad level, highly intelligent, and a worker bee. She chose to take more than a decade off work to be there for the children while her then husband travelled the world building up a solid and expansive wealth base. It was a joint decision, made with the best interest of their family in mind.

Her children are at university and living abroad – so she no longer has to make daily provision for their care, homework, balanced meals or ferrying them around. She has no financial responsibility towards them. Her ambition is to afford to take them on holiday in future.

She now has to work full time to make ends meet for herself. She is concerned about her later years. There’s a lot of catching up to do – financially and professionally. She was given a lump sum to put towards her future – that is nowhere near what she helped build during the marriage.

She’s struggling to survive. But she is one of the lucky ones.

Another friend who recently divorced has much younger charges. Not only is she the primary carer, which includes being the first, if not only, port of call for doctor’s visits or cancelled work trips if they are unwell, she is also paying half of everything, including school fees, and rent. Thankfully she is enjoying her first job in years – taken so that she can afford to live. But the hours are long and the work can be draining.

Her former husband’s career is unscathed.

Not all men focus on careers, however.

Here’s another divorce story: the woman has a demanding career. She is the main earner. She works many nights. Travels. Her former husband has chosen to work for himself and holds himself back so that he can do school drop-offs and pickups, ferry the children to activities and appointments, and is able to tuck them into bed every night their mother is away.

He pays for the school fees, she pays for everything else.

It seems to boil down to one parent taking less. They are holding back careers, ambition and more. And this has a giant financial component.

Working out what former life partners should be responsible for is not just about money – it’s also about time taken out to nurture, nurse and give nourishment. Add to this that parents need to be able to have a dignified life now, and until their dying day – not end up dependent on their current dependents.

Of course this is assuming that the parent who is not the first port of call to deal with a child-related issue can afford to pay most of their offspring’s expenses.

I don’t have a magical money formula that works out what should be paid. And yes, there is a massive emotional dividend for the primary carer. But working out financial responsibilities towards children must take into account the whole of everyday life, not just the expense that is involved in bringing up children.

Yes to taking marriage more seriously, but when it doesn’t work out, then a big yes to divorced mothers – or carers – being relieved of the financial outgoings of their children. If not all, then most of them.

Nima Abu Wardeh is the founder of the personal finance website cashy.me. You can reach her at nima@cashy.me.

Follow us on Twitter @TheNationalPF

Published: December 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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