According to a 2001 study by The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, a woman’s standard of living following a divorce plummets an average of 27%, while a man’s increases by 10%. Let’s look at some reasons why that happens, some things that have changed, and some ideas for stabilizing income after divorce.
It is easy to forget, in the heat of emotions during divorce, that two parents who shared financial and caretaking responsibilities under one roof now need to restructure so they may continue to share financial and caretaking responsibilities under two roofs. Even though one spouse may have been thinking about divorce for some time before filing, it is common for divorce to cause disappointment, anger, worry and fear of what will happen to everyone. Such distracting thoughts make it difficult to think clearly and creatively about all the things that need to be addressed to ensure some sense of stability for the family.
Traditional divorce settlements gave physical custody of children to the mother the majority of the time, and left the father responsible for earning a living, visiting with the children on a schedule revolving around his job. Mothers who divorced in this traditional pattern still had to maintain a home large enough to house the children and themselves, purchase all the groceries and clothes and school supplies, take children to all their activities and medical appointments, stay home with children when they were ill, and provide all the caretaking. Essentially, mothers had to maintain the same lifestyle they had been living when married, while having a much smaller portion of the father’s income on which to base this lifestyle. This was especially true for women who chose not to work while raising children, many of whom had never even attended college or had any work experience outside the home prior to marriage.
There are still women today who prefer to be homemakers. Likewise there are men who believe in a traditional division of responsibilities within a marriage. The challenge to this model occurs when things happen like the drastic economic changes we have seen in the past few years. A divorcing woman who has not worked outside the home often has nothing to fall back on for her own security and support. Her standard of living, and thus her children’s, is jeopardized.
Today there is no longer an automatic assumption that men are the providers and women the caretakers. Our culture is more balanced when it comes to expectations and opportunities for both parents. Now the general expectation when it comes to raising children, especially following divorce, is that both the mother and father will be held responsible for caregiving and supporting the children. Joint custody arrangements are increasingly common.
Whatever arrangements are made, it’s important to build a sustainable plan when going through divorce. This plan needs to focus on creating a sense of stability for everyone involved. The stability must include both parents and all the children. The stability cannot be based solely upon finances, although it is clearly a large piece of the puzzle. The plan also cannot create more stability for one parent than the other. Children need both parents, and both parents need to be as stable as possible to continue to parent effectively.
One key in starting this conversation is remembering that often children do not actually care where they live, so much as they care that they are loved by both parents and can still see their friends, go to their old school, and stick to familiar routines. Most are more concerned with having a pillow that is theirs, eating on a regular schedule, and getting a warm hug whenever they need it, than in having trendy clothes or a big house. In the long run, children learn self-esteem from feeling loved and having parental structure and communication.
Here are some tips to plan ahead for financial bumps after your divorce:
- Figure out what you are going to do to earn income after divorce. This may mean getting an education, job training, or beefing up a resume to find a job with better pay and benefits.
- Find a realistic place to live where the expenses are lower for at least a couple years while you are re-establishing yourself as a single parent with children.
- Look closely at the spending patterns you have now and if necessary, get help from professionals to figure out which expenses can be reduced or eliminated.
This is not the time to be shy about asking for help. Sometimes divorcing parents are reluctant to look at the post-divorce bottom line realistically. Focus falls on monetary settlement negotiations rather than creating a stabilizing plan.
You will both most likely need to look at revising your lifestyles, and advance planning and action is what makes it possible to adequately support your children and yourselves after divorce.