Last May, the $3000 in child support I had received every month for the past eight years stopped. My ex-husband, who is independently wealthy and works sporadically, legally modified support so he no longer pays a dime. After years of worrying that this day might come ("How will I manage raising two kids on my piddly salary?!"), I surprised myself.
Instead of feeling angry, I felt relieved.
Yes, really. When child support evaporated, so did the psychic burden of being beholden to my ex. My ex deeply resented paying child support. So every month, I had to grovel for it. And endure the dog-ate-my-homework excuses for why it was late.
He was out of town.
He had to transfer money between accounts.
He disagreed with my accounting of our split of the kids' medical expenses.
He never got my e-mail reminding him that child support was due.
He got the e-mail, but he couldn't read the font.
The power play that had destroyed our marriage insinuated itself into our child-support arrangement. My ex tried to orchestrate everything that went on in my house, from what I packed in the kids' lunchboxes to how I cut their hair. When I reminded him that I was our children's mother, and not their au pair, and that it was unreasonable to demand, for instance, that I redecorate our son's room according to his wishes, he would bellow via e-mail: "That's what I pay you for!"
When I asserted myself, he turned the financial screws. He stopped paying me the additional $300 of court-ordered monthly childcare costs. He chiseled small amounts -- $20 here, $50 there -- off the monthly support figure.
So I often acquiesced to his demands because I was afraid he would withhold money. When he refused to pay the monthly $300 in childcare costs, I didn't take him to court. His income was erratic and his lifestyle was subsidized by a family trust. If I pushed the childcare issue, I knew he could try to modify support and I could end up with nothing. He knew I knew this, so he felt free to toy with our financial judgment.
Being on the receiving end of his fiduciary hi-jinks left me feeling exhausted, bitter, and disempowered.
Last summer, it became clear that my teenage son needed to live with his dad full-time. I expected child support to drop to reflect the change in physical custody. But I still had my daughter the majority of the time so I also expected to receive something.
Long story short: My ex's five-figure monthly distribution from his family trust "mysteriously" vanished, as did the income from his rental properties. A vocational exam imputed him with roughly the same earning potential that I was making from my full-time job. I knew he was hiding money, but I couldn't afford to prove it in court. So I settled.
I agreed to zero child support.
Before I signed off on the current financial settlement, however, I was consumed with the unfairness of it all. It was unfair that my ex had been able to keep both our houses when we split up!
It was unfair that he now could claim he had no money -- yet simultaneously put a pool in his backyard and take a trip to the French Riviera when my current husband and I were struggling to cover our monthly nut!
It was unfair that he sued me for our son's private-school expenses when I had told him I could not, and would not, pay for private school!
Well, you know what? Life is unfair, but family law is a zillion times more unfair. It is ambiguous and full of loopholes. Every judge is different, and you are massively screwed if you end up with one who is biased. The only thing that is certain in family court is that the ex with the deepest pockets and the least quenchable thirst for battle wins.
But when the ultimate in unfairness happened, and child support vanished, so did my feelings of disempowerment. The emotional weight of fighting for child support was lifted off my shoulders. I was no longer hemorrhaging mental energy feeling bitter and angry. After eight years of being psychologically entangled with my ex, I had unknotted myself. Finally, I started to feel divorced.
Let me be clear: I believe it is the ethical obligation of the wealthier spouse to pay child support. I am in no way advocating that divorced moms -- or in some cases, dads -- merrily forgo those payments. Many single parents are neck-deep in debt, and for them, losing monthly support invites despair, not relief.
I'm fortunate to have a full-time job and to be remarried to someone with a strong work ethic. Even so, my husband's business has been hammered by the economy this year. I'm nervous enough about paying the mortgage, never mind coughing up dough for my daughter's braces and tutoring. I sometimes catch myself feeling wistful for those years when I received child support.
So I remind myself that those were years I spent groveling for child support.
And then I feel grateful when the first of the month rolls around ... and the check doesn't arrive in the mail.
An earlier version of this piece ran on Lee Block's Post-Divorce Chronicles.