This story originally appeared on ELLE US
When my marriage ended more than a decade ago, all parties assumed my ex and I would adopt the standard-issue divorce package: The kids would stay with me to provide the stability of a primary home, while he got weekend visits and I received child support. That was what the attorneys laid out as the default divorce recipe, what friends and relatives urged, and what I’d seen modelled in my own parents’ divorce and in countless TV and movie plots. That is what was considered a divorce “win” for moms. Everyone in my circle agreed: I got a good deal.
Fast-forward a few months and it became very clear that being a majority-time mom was hardly a good deal at all. In fact, this common set-up is the legally sanctioned version of June and Ward Cleaver. The female parent is shoehorned by way of a family court order and culture to be the primary caregiver, while the male parent is most often expected to be the primary breadwinner. More than three-quarters of custodial single parents are mothers, who often—just like I did—consider primary time with their children a victory.
Like the majority of the 16 million single mothers in the U.S., I soon became the sole provider for my household, and carried the overwhelming brunt of the logistical, emotional, and time labor required of childrearing. Building a career, finding time to exercise, relax, hang out with friends or date is exponentially harder when child care is disproportionately on one parent’s shoulders. This reality has been exasperated by the pandemic, which has hit single mothers harder than other groups.
Realizing the gender-stereotype modeling my children were observing sent a chill up my feminist spine, right along with my feminist rage at having to do it all. How was formally tasking single mothers with all the responsibilities of child care any sort of victory for women? While child support is often considered the equalizer in this arrangement, no sum of money can make that equation fair. Instead, I have come to understand that a truly equal arrangement in which time and responsibility for children are split 50-50 has the potential to close gender gaps for separated and divorced families, and change parenting culture for everyone.
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