Is Every Woman One Divorce Away from Financial Disaster?

Is Every Woman One Divorce Away from Financial Disaster?

by Phyllis Chesler

She had a hard time getting up on those days when she had to appear in court on her petition for child support. She knew the court system rarely worked. Judges had staggering caseloads, archaic methods of case management, and limited power to wield against a male citizenry that neither feared nor respected the law. Fathers with money routinely hid their assets or paid a lawyer to appeal every order of child support. Appeals, trials, motions — these could go on for 5, 10, 15 years. A child could become a man, his mother a ghost, before her motion for half the summer camp tuition was ever heard.

Summer camp? Is that what her battle was about? Every day in America, she knew, electricity and heat are turned off, apartments padlocked, homes foreclosed on, and women and children fatally impoverished because women can’t afford a lawyer/their lawyer is incompetent/their lawyer is incomparable, a jewel, but can’t get a judge to make or enforce a decision. The truth: It’s almost impossible to collect money from a father who doesn’t have any, or who doesn’t want to pay.

Nevertheless, she had decided to fight for her own — and her son’s — economic rights, not on principle, but because they needed the money for her son’s necessities. She hoped that, in her case, justice might prevail. Sometimes, it did.

My ex was soft-spoken,
easygoing. It was years
before I understood
that his abandonment
of our son was a
supremely violent act.

Her mistake — her crime? — was not that she’d married the wrong man or had chosen to become a mother. In fact, her ex-husband had once been a very decent human being. Her crime was that, five years ago she became ill, could no longer work her usual four jobs, had cashed in her life insurance policy, borrowed heavily against her home, and now faced mounting medical bills with no savings to “run through.” How could she save? For 14 years, she had been her son’s sole support. She had paid for his food, clothing, shelter, education, entertainment, doctors, dentists, orthodontists, vacations, birthday parties, religious training, rites of passage, and for all the baby-sitters and live-in housekeepers without which she could not have worked or led her life.

I am that woman. My case is typical, almost humdrum. I have been in court for nearly four years now. I may very well still be there four years from now. And that’s the good news. Most women can’t economically afford to turn to the courts.

It’s important that those of us who can fight for our economic rights do so. Women usually compare themselves, guiltily, to other women, not to men. Any woman (me too) can be easily shamed into settling for “less” and not complaining about it because other women have it “even worse.” It is important that each woman compare herself with the men in the class above her, not just with the women in the class below her.

The class below middle class is abysmal. For years, below-poverty levels of welfare set the standard for what mothers — and the judges who sometimes decided their cases — viewed as what could be “worse.” Now, “going under,” i.e., going on welfare, has just been closed out as an unlimited option in America.

Let me be clear: Not all mothers are saints; many men are “good enough” fathers. Upon divorce, not all fathers desert their children. But many do. And although my case is hardly the neediest case of the week — chances are, I won’t starve — what’s at issue is my own and my son’s right versus my ex-husband’s right to remain in the middle class.

We all know at least one professional-class tale of outrage: the millionaire father who, without warning, closes out the brokerage accounts, turns off the electricity, sells the house, packs up all the furniture and disappears, leaving his stay-at-home wife and three young kids literally stranded in the snow — and who is never heard from again.

These days, my ex-husband, like so many, simply cannot conceive of having to sacrifice, even slightly, his own steadily escalating standard of spending in order to “do right” by his firstborn. Many otherwise perfectly nice men are like this. They tend to support a child as long as that child’s mother is performing wifely services for them. Not otherwise. Men tend to sacrifice the children of their first wives when they remarry. Men are not legally prohibited from fathering more children simply because they do not — or cannot — support the children they already have.

And no, mothers do not “win” custody unfairly; more often, they are stuck with it, whether they want it or not. When fathers really do want custody, they tend to win it anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the time. However, most fathers still do not want custody. Many use the threat of a custody battle as an economic bargaining chip.

My ex-husband tried that early on, then backed off — but since then, has never been forced to pay a dime. For years, I didn’t press him. Then, when I became ill with chronic fatigue/immune-dysfunction syndrome in 1991, I had to. Since November of 1992, I have had a supremely skilled lawyer whom I can absolutely trust. We sued. On January 26, 1994, after 13 months, four motions, and four days in court, Brooklyn Family Court Judge Richard Spegele ruled that my ex did not have to pay any child support. The judge did not care that my ex was earning far more money than I or that I was living on disability. In his view, I was better off than most of the women whose cases he heard. He refused to believe that I couldn’t support our son by myself, at some acceptable level of poverty. He was comparing me with the women in the class below me.

Wearily, we went to Manhattan Supreme Court. After only four months, Judge David Saxe ordered my ex to pay $250 a week in temporary child support, all the medical insurance, half the private school tuition, and all our son’s unreimbursed health expenses. (Dear Judge: Thank you.) I am now owed approximately $30,000 in court-ordered temporary child support and $10,000 in legal fees for the period from June of 1995 to November of 1996. My lawyer hired detectives, obtained a court order to examine portions of my ex’s financial records, served 150 restraining orders, and at least 50 income-execution orders. To date, I owe her more than $75,000 in fees and expenses. To date, she has been able to collect approximately $10,000 in child support, which my ex did not voluntarily turn over.

I can afford to keep fighting only because my lawyer took my case for no fee up front. (Susan Bender, counselor extraordinaire: Thank you.) Without such a resource, I, like most women, could not have gotten so far. Believe it or not, I am “winning” simply because I am able to keep fighting. Most mothers can’t. While they and their lawyers wait for court dates, furniture is repossessed, electricity turned off, homes foreclosed.

My ex-husband, who in one recent year reported earning more than a quarter of a million dollars, refuses to pay court-ordered child support. He continues to refuse to turn over documents, appear for depositions, explain financial inconsistencies, or prove that, as he claims, he is unable to support our son. On February 22, 1996, 17 months after temporary child support was first ordered, Referee Frank Lewis recommended that the court find my ex in contempt of court. As of October 1996, 8 months later, I am still waiting for the judge of record to certify Referee Lewis’s recommendation.

When you read this, my ex might well be on his way to jail. I would rather have had the money; I would have liked a “good enough” father too.

Then again, our son has turned out rather splendidly without one.

Lesson 1: My son’s father is no one special, i.e., he has no special connections in the courts. Nevertheless, simply because he’s a man, he has felt entitled and been allowed to get away without paying child support and without being an involved, responsible parent. He didn’t always have a large income, but in recent years he has; my lawyer discovered that he had numerous bank and brokerage accounts, investments in the Cayman Islands, a recently purchased expensive home. He assumed monthly mortgage payments far in excess of his court-ordered child-support payments. Once Judge Saxe rendered his order, my ex quickly emptied his accounts. He claims that he is “broke” and “disabled” too.

Lesson 2: Even ill, I have more leverage, more resources, than most women in America. If this is what can happen to me, just think about the women with no or fewer resources. I want Everywoman who gets no (or minimal and sporadic) child support to know that she’s not alone; that even if she has done everything “right” (earns a “male” salary, chooses to be an unsalaried stay-at-home mother), she/we cannot easily, or even close to equally, hold our own against a man in court: that our achieved status and blameless records as “good enough” mothers are still not equivalent to having a penis.

I had married a “gentle” man. He attended natural childbirth classes, remained by my side when I was in labor, roomed in with me at the hospital. He was more expert than I at snappy diaper-changing, calmer in emergencies. I was nine years his senior and earned most of the money. Over the years, a number of newspapers had profiled us as a New Age/European kind of Older Woman, Younger Man couple.

Maybe I thought that my seniority, both economically and in terms of age, might balance out our gender differences. I was wrong.

After our son’s birth, my husband refused to work or resume his studies, even part time. OK: Maybe he really did want to be a primary caregiver, right? Wrong. He conceived of his role as that of my overseer and “helper.” Although I was breast-feeding, I had to return to work to support us. That meant traveling-and weaning too soon, against my will. I employed a live-in baby nurse and a housekeeper. My husband kept them company. OK: Maybe the man was suffering from postpartum depression; maybe he couldn’t handle the bottom-line responsibility for such low-status “female” work. (I jest.) In 1978, everyone in our building and all the women in the park thought the man was a saint whenever he turned up during the day, alone, for an hour or two, with an infant, whom he fed, changed, and expertly calmed. Back then, few white middle-class men did this.

After a year, my husband started having affairs, openly, with girls literally half my age. OK: He was freaking out. I loved him, I’d wait until he came to his senses. Fat chance. My husband moved out. He began demanding money he knew I didn’t have, perhaps for having married me or for having provided the sperm. When he demanded that his name be put on the deed of any house I might purchase in the future, I quickly moved for divorce.

He, in turn, moved for sole custody, alimony, child support, and all the marital assets on the basis that I was a totally unfit mother given my firebrand commitment to feminism. In his court papers, my husband also charged that I was an opium addict. An opium addict? No more ridiculous than his charge that I was a well-known lesbian man-hater. At the time, I was well-known for having remained hopelessly, even “rabidly,” heterosexual. My husband then threatened to kidnap my son so that I’d never see him again. I believed him.

In fear, I settled with him privately. And then he tried to do me out of my half of that financial agreement. We ended up in court and in the newspapers too. Eventually, he walked away with $40,000, which bought him his chiropractic education. I persuaded the judge to set aside one seventh of my ex’s financial settlement for our son, to be doled out at the rate of $500 a year for 12 years. I settled for vague but legally real language about his paying child support “in the future as best he can.”

I know: I could have fought for stronger language but I was a busy woman. Like so many mothers, I did not want to further alienate the father my son didn’t but might yet have if only I was “nice,” demanded nothing. I tried to persuade my ex to live near us so that we could have joint custody. “I don’t want to be your baby-sitter,” said he.

My ex was soft-spoken, easygoing. It was years before I understood that his abandonment of our son was a supremely violent act.

Over the years, my ex-husband saw our son whenever he wanted to, whenever it was convenient for him. He saw him every other weekend, overnight, for nearly three years. (See how good he was?) True, he’d pick him up two to four hours late, return him wearing dirty clothes and wet diapers, his undone laundry rolled up in a smelly snarl. Sometimes he’d return him hungry, or with a fever. I was shocked. Outraged. This was a father who knew the drill. Over the years, he did not feel obliged to meet with our son’s teachers, attend school, sports, or music events, transport our son to Hebrew School or to doctors and dentists. He never once invited our son to join him for any national or religious holidays. No matter what I said, I could not get this man to take any bottom-line parenting responsibility.

However, after nine years, I was exhausted and desperate for a break. In the summer of 1987, I dropped our son off at his father’s for an overnight and took a brief sabbatical. I called, said he had to keep our son for awhile, there was no alternative. This arrangement only lasted a few months, and was incredibly harried and labor-intensive. (Ex: “You have to be here to pick him for the weekend by 5 p.m. or I’ll leave him on the street; you haven’t given me enough money for his food; he needs a new pair of sneakers.”) I missed my son more than I prized my time off from being overwhelmed by single-parenting responsibilities. Happily, I retrieved him. At the time, I remember feeling grateful that my ex “let” me have him back.

I faithfully invited my ex and his girlfriend-of-the-moment to every one of our son’s birthday parties. He often came late, and left early, but at least he came. I refused to risk even this little by turning to the courts.

When my ex opened a second office, remarried, and had a second child, even I had to realize that the man had moved on and was not taking our son along for the ride. Still, I figured: The man had to grow up someday, he’s not all bad. In 1992, after years of begging, I’d finally persuaded him to start contributing half to our son’s tuition at a private school. True: That left me also paying the other half and all the mounting costs of child support myself, but hey, I wanted a child, right?

Eventually, our son grew reluctant to visit his father overnight. He said that his dad went out to parties with his wife on the nights he was there, refused to spend time alone with him, give him a closet or a shelf of his own. Once a half-brother was born, my son was told he had to sleep on the couch and help the baby-sitters take care of his half-brother. Whenever my ex would slip his firstborn a five- or a ten-dollar bill, our son claimed that his father’s wife would burst into tears, argue, retreat to her bedroom, or storm out of the apartment.

When I became ill, I asked my ex to allow our then-13-year-old son to stay with him for one summer month until I could figure out what was wrong with me. He said, “No, it wasn’t convenient.” The only thing left to fight for, both for myself and my son, was money. There was nothing left to lose.

I was wrong. In 1992, when I turned to the courts, my ex stopped seeing our son almost entirely. He made dates, then canceled them at the last minute; sometimes he simply stood him up. He saw our son for an hour or two at most and, according to our son, spent most of that time haranguing him about the child-support lawsuit.

Most women are facing far more hardship than I am. A violent father can do more to destroy a mother and child than economically impoverish them. He can also beat, rape, kidnap, brainwash, or kill them. Most mothers consider themselves lucky if all that happens is that they “go under” economically, learn to live on the edge for the rest of their lives. .

However, economic crimes against mothers and children are deadly. Sooner or later, deprivation and constant worry about money kills. Lead on the wall, fatty junk foods, dangerous housing, no housing, living from hand to mouth, breaks the spirit and dulls the mind. Too much worry for too long, overwork, no paid work, the absence of hope, kills. Slow killing does not make the evening news: not dramatic enough, too ordinary, the plight of the poor is boring/their fault/not our problem. Impoverished American women and children are our “untouchables,” our national shame.

My son — not our son — is 18 and a half now and has just begun college. What happened — and continues to happen to me as a mother — happens to most divorced women, whether they are feminists or not. Until now, I have kept silent. I hereby add my name to the long, exceedingly honorable roster of women who are bringing children up alone, under siege, in poverty far more bone-crushing than my own.

Most women are used to fighting for others, not for themselves. Me too. This, finally, is a fight for my own rights, for tangible, not symbolic justice.

Editor-at-large PHYLLIS CHESLER is the author of eight books including Women and Madness and Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody.