Rich Parent, Less Rich Parent: Squaring Up After Divorce

First of all, let’s get this out of the way—every divorce is its own deep-sea fissure, blooming with its own lantern-eyed fish and worm-plant things and vampire squids and whatever, and they can only live in that one place. We won’t pretend that the things that grew in my own parents’ divorce grow in all of them.

My own experience as a kid of parents who got divorced when I was 4 was a sort of blossoming cynical mercantilism, and I found myself growing a budding sense that every exchange has a dollar value, and everything has to be evened up. It’s a bit of a cliche that divorced parents can use their kid as a trophy, and I don’t want to make it sound like mine were explicitly challenging me to pick one to love more. But the reality is that my mom was wealthier than my dad, and that made visiting her on weekends like traveling to a wealthy friend’s house. 

I was too young to know a ton about money. I know we had a single family house with a step-down living room, and there was a play room just for me and toys. I think my parents basically made the same amount of money—my dad working for the county, my mom rising into management at a government contractor. Maybe not, though. But once they divorced and their finances were no longer mingled, their financial experiences diverged, as my mom moved up in the org chart faster while my dad was slowly shifting between fields, from construction to tech startups.

My dad was on the low end of wealthy (“upper middle class” if you’d like, although probably “lower upper class” is better). This may or may not be related to the decision my parents made to give him primary custody, with bi-weekly visits to my mom’s on weekends. He made enough that my stepmom could work from home and help get me to and from daycare and school. But he moved out of the house he and my mom had shared, and into a smaller townhouse in the same neighborhood (chosen so it’d keep me in my elementary school), and still lives there now.

My mom, on the other hand, was in a small apartment when she first got divorced, then upgraded to a bigger house nearby, then a huge one. (A pretty good example of The Sims theory of economic mobility.) As I grew older, she would go on more and more fancy vacations and cruises, she would buy nicer furniture and homes, and I would become more aware of how everything I did cost my parents money.

So I found myself learning to do things like guesstimate what a Christmas gift cost, and make sure I only told opposing parents about enough gifts to roughly balance out what they’d gotten me. I learned to play down the fanciness of meals I had with mom when talking to my dad, or to laugh at how stuffy they were, while at the same time playing up nice dinners out with my dad when talking to my mom.

Vacations were minefields—my mom would take me to San Francisco, to London, to St. Lucia, while my dad’s were to beach towns and family friends in upstate New York. I should be clear—at no point did anyone ever mention dollar costs or “showing off” or anything of the sort. But when you are telling one parent what the other does, protective instincts kick in. You want to make everything as smooth as possible.

This wasn’t always easy. My mom got us tickets to see Cal Ripken’s last game as an Oriole, and my dad was extremely unhappy that she got to have that moment with me. I can’t blame him, really, since baseball is and was his thing, and the Orioles were his team, and Ripken’s last game was a once in a lifetime (literally!) event—so I just didn’t talk to him about it. (I also tried not to wear my Ripken ball cap around him for a few months after.)

And sometimes there were things that I just wanted to turn down. My mom invited me to go to an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, and I spent weeks trying to figure out if there was a way to avoid it, because I didn’t want to have to tell my dad about it, or think about how much money it cost her, or basically engage in any way with the economic realities of vacations. I ended up going, of course, and I had a great time in an “all-you-can-drink bar” sort of way, but it was also something that made me confront how much I don’t like owing my parents.

Now that I’m 26, this sense that everything has a dollar value means that I’d rather be the person buying people drinks than the one receiving them. I have an estimate for how much, in dollars, I should get for every holiday gift from every member of my family, and I try to match up what I spend on their gifts too. It means I didn’t want my family paying for any of my wedding, because letting them pay meant giving them an emotional foothold in the experience. It means I still try to distract them from giving me out-of-season gifts, because I’d rather not have that deep-down-in-my-gut sense of unbalanced debt, even if it means getting a nice pair of sunglasses.

Most of it all, it means that I am extremely aware of what even marginal changes in income and socio-economic class can do. Slipping upstairs to the top 5 percent of household income every other weekend made me realize that lifestyles weren’t just things that you get because you earn them, they’re things you have to pay for. Everything has a cost.

 

The author writes sometimes, but not much, and remains divorce-phobic to this day, even with 3000 miles of distance between him and his parents.

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