Raw Deal: The Unseen (And Unjust) Struggle Over Child Support

Editor’s Note: Recently on Sex In The Public Square I posted a critique of the criminalization of poor parents who fall behind on their child support. Today I’ve invited a dear friend, someone I’ve known since the 6th grade, to share a guest post that describes the frustration she experiences as a single mother denied child support by a system that allows her child’s father to avoid any responsibility. The problems faced by parents like Colleen are caused not only by individuals who refuse to share responsibility, but also by the systems of injustice and inequality that deny many adults the opportunities and wages required to support families. These stories are all connected. 

To keep up with Colleen, follow her new blog, “Living Out Loud” on WordPress.com.

-Elizabeth Wood

Raw Deal: The Unseen (And Unjust) Struggle Over Child Support

by Colleen Wilkenson

Hand grabbing a pile of moneyI don’t remember the specific thing that pissed me off that morning. I was most likely just feeling the usual panic over not having enough money to buy groceries and pay the bills, and my mind wandered to my son’s father who does have enough, but makes sure not to use what he has to provide for his child or to help me in that endeavor.

That morning, February 28th, I shared this post on FaceBook:

“I will not keep silent about this. THIS happens. And as long as people look away because it’s “none of their business,” or because it makes them uncomfortable, it will continue to be accepted. I can’t allow this to be accepted. It’s plain unacceptable.

So. I’m broke, again. Lost a week’s pay from my last paycheck for being out with a sick child, and just lost another two day’s recently, one for my car not starting and one from Alex being sick again. Know who isn’t broke? His father. Do you know his attitude about my not having enough to take care of our son? “Not my problem.” Shit, he’s gotta lease payment to make on that brand new second car, and his own guitar lessons to pay for. How could he possibly be concerned about making sure his own child has enough? He “can’t afford it.”

Words like, “Do you need anything,” NEVER cross his lips. But he tells his son to have lots of fun on the weekends. Fun? I don’t get to provide fun. I get to choose between groceries and laundry quarters. I get to worry that the electricity will get shut off because after rent and gas in the car (so I can get to work) there is nothing left except for holding onto enough for more gas and the essentials.

I don’t mind the food pantries. I mind that this man gets away with this harmful kind of selfishness and that this society allows it.

I ask that if you know him, hold him accountable. It doesn’t matter that he has no legal financial responsibility to his child. He is a father and has a MORAL responsibility to provide for his child. DOES ANYONE AGREE??? If you do, please share this, send it around so that you can help me raise awareness of this kind of cruel injustice allowed by our wonderful courts. If you are my friend, let me know by sharing this and letting at least one pathologically selfish man know that this is not okay. PLEASE.”

My friend Beth was the first of just a few people to share this post on FaceBook. When I posted my plea for support and recognition, very few others responded. It was largely “friends of friends” that shared it on their timeline. I was very hurt that no one else on my friends list acted in kind. Knowing that FaceBook is likely to play games with our posts, and that people check in at different times, I decided to re-share my post every day for a week, sometimes more than once a day, with the aim of maximizing exposure. By the end of that week, only three more people on my friends list shared my post on their timeline, with one of those friends sharing it twice. All of those that shared are women. Including the double-share, that is a 6% share-success. I don’t know how that would rate as a sales number, but I am still disappointed that more of my own friends, “friends,” weren’t willing to go out on a limb for me, or for the issue in general. It really augmented that frustrated feeling of being in it alone and that “no one” cares (even though those that do care count for way more.)

All told, eight women shared the post, including someone that must have seen it due to my making it “public,” so that it can be seen even by strangers. Most of these women have been in my shoes – they know the struggle and that feeling of futility when coming up against the kind of arrogant selfishness that it’s about and a system and society that looks the other way, or worse, rolls its eyes and chuckles, “Oh well, you know, what are you gonna do?” Well, you know, fuck you. I’m gonna call it out.

I recently saw a meme with a picture of Abraham Lincoln, and a statement he might or might not have actually made. The statement was “Just because something is legal, that doesn’t mean it’s right.” Whether or not he said it, it’s damned true. What I’m so angry about, and what is legal while seeming so very wrong, is that my son’s father has absolutely no financial responsibility toward our son. Nothing. Scott free. He got himself a disability claim and Bucks County Domestic Relations shut the whole support case down. Not only that, they allowed him to “recoup” child support that he paid, retroactive to the date he was found disabled. It still blows my mind. What parent, who loves their child(ren) and wants only the best for that/those child(ren), would say, “Okay, sweetheart, I know you don’t have much and you, being three years old (or any age) can’t even provide for yourself, much less get a meal out of the fridge without Mommy’s help, but as it turns out, I’ve provided for you too much, so I’m going to take it all back from you now.” And that’s what he did. Without having to face the ugly truth of saying those words or even looking his child in the face, he took it all back from us – his child and me. Three thousand dollars. And then sent his son a postcard from Cape May a week later. How thoughtful of him. (My dad took three thousand dollars of my money away…And all I got was this lousy postcard.)

I’m no expert on morals, but it does seem right and natural that parents should be expected to take care of their children, and that the state should help parents do that, and one important way we do that in a society where everything costs money is by providing financial support. Not only that, but it seems that neither parents, nor the state, should cause children harm, poverty or other forms of deprivation. There are plenty of hard working parents who are still poor, and who do their best by their children. Indeed, I count myself among them. There are plenty of disabled parents whose disability checks go largely to cover their children’s needs. But not my ex! I want us as a society to start holding parents like him accountable. My son’s father is by no means the only example of selfish, deadbeat parenting. During a FaceBook chat with another single-mom, a woman I befriended after she shared my post upon seeing it on Beth’s timeline, I learned about another. This single mom knows the struggle all too well. The father of her children has vacationed around the world, despite being delinquent on his support payments, and guess who doesn’t get to go along on his adventures? His own kids. I wonder now if they even get a postcard.

By the way, while my ex has two cars, both younger than our son (and one is a 2014), I drive a 1989 Ford Tempo that I was lucky to get for $1,500 in 2006, showing just 22,500 miles on the odometer. My various mechanics are all inclined to believe that those are the original miles. But it’s an old car and bleeding me dry on repairs. Last year, I was hoping to get a newer car, but all I had was $3,000. That doesn’t get you anything much younger. All the lots wanted to finance me for another used car. No, thank you, I don’t need another monthly bill. So a new transmission for the Old Brown Mare it was, and then in and out of the shop for other various needs for the rest of the year. Christmas was small last year. And while all the toys and gift cards from his father’s side of the family are very nice, my son is not allowed to to bring home or wear to school any of the clothes they give him. He lives here, with me. He visits there. But he has clothes he can only wear for two weekends each month. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, you’re not alone.

It really seems like something has broken when parents can get away with this kind of non-sensical selfishness. The level of injustice on an individual financial level, to me, parallels the same injustice occurring when tax-dodging multi-billion dollar corporations get million-dollar tax refunds, or another tax cut for the wealthy is passed while early education programs and nutrition programs see their funding get cut. It’s the children that end up getting hurt. My son’s father might think that it’s me that gets hurt when I see him drive up in his shiny new car. Make no mistake – I’m furious, but my anger about it will always be more about what I am or am not able to do for my son, than what I have for myself.

Why don’t I get a lawyer, I’m sure you’re asking. Why don’t I take him to court? It’s true, I could spend my pending tax refund on a lawyer. On the other hand, I could pay off bills to stop the calls from debt collectors. I could pay the long over-due electric bill. And the rent. And maybe we can take a small vacation next year with the next refund. Maybe. But money buys justice, and that’s true even in family court. Disgusting, but true. Go broke or you get what you pay for. Where does this leave broke mothers, who already make only seventy-eight cents on each dollar paid to their male counterparts? Those of us who make taking care of our kids a priority have so little to spend elsewhere. We barely spend anything on ourselves. The once-a-year underwear purchase to replace the holey ones – and not the sexy kind, I’m talking the Hanes 5-pack. Or the once a year clothing purchase at Walmart (just a top or two) so we can run errands in something other than rags. Utilitarian, functional, not fun. And even that leaves us short for the month. We’re supposed to then line some lawyer’s pockets in order to see any justice?

Play the game or get run over. Pay to play. I might have done better if this entry had the same angry fire that my FaceBook post has. It’s been a bit over a month and now I just feel resigned and defeated. I might get that fire again, but I don’t know when. Right now, I just feel beaten and lost.

The thing about my situation, though, is that I am not alone. Look around, if someone you know is a single parent, they could easily be having the same struggle I am. They are shouldering the whole lot of it alone, while the ex shows up for just the fun parts. Many are ashamed to speak about their struggles, while the rest of us turn a blind eye. It’s time we all stop looking the other way on those derelict parents and call them out. Hold them accountable. If you know and agree that it takes a tribe, then understand that we need our tribe to do this. We need our tribe to stand up, acknowledge our struggle, and tell those deadbeat parents that they are the ones who ought to be ashamed.

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