1 Rich Parent, Less Rich Parent: Squaring Up After Divorce | The Billfold

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.


14 Comments / Post A Comment

Weasley (#1,419)

I don’t understand why you think having your parents give you things and take you vacations means you owe them. It sounds like even your father, while making less money than your mother, still lives comfortably. So it’s not really like you’re putting them out and it seems voluntary on their part.

DON (#706)

@Weasley I totally understand this. I remember feeling guilty about asking my mom for doctor copays. She would remind me about specifics in the divorce agreement when I did. I just avoid the doctor now.

ThatJenn (#916)

@Weasley @DON Yeah, this made sense to me, too, having dealt with divorced parents with very different economic realities (despite also having similar wages). My dad stopped paying child support to my mom when he fell on hard times (they agreed to this so he could stay in a big enough place to host me, and my mom didn’t really bitch about it), and despite very little discussion that I heard and extremely civil behavior from my parents about the whole thing, I ended up feeling guilty if I took money from EITHER of them. My mom, because she was forgoing child support and just paying for my whole life. My dad, because he apparently couldn’t pay child support. I still have a hard time accepting stuff from them. It’s easier when it’s my mom because I know she’s better off (and better with money, so she knows she can afford to give me gifts), but then I try not to let my dad find out.

BornSecular (#2,245)

@ThatJenn/DON Yeah, I experienced some of this with my divorced parents as well. However, not with anyone else. The author mentions being acutely aware of any debt they have to anyone. I guess I’m a money grubber, because if people offer me a gift or money I take it. I won’t ask (that’s where my pride gets me) but if something is offered, I will accept it and say thanks.

ThatJenn (#916)

@BornSecular Although I have a lot of anxiety about accepting gifts/having debt, I was told very clearly at a young age that refusing a gift is more burdensome/annoying than just taking it and saying thanks (same goes for a compliment), so I am the same way, in general. (It was good advice!)

null (#1,101)

My daughter and I were talking about this the other day! In the situation with her dad and I, I’m the one that struggles more financially. He recently bought a house in a trendy neighborhood with furnishings straight out of pottery barn catalog while I just moved into a small two bedroom apartment in a lame area with hodgepodge furnishings. Her dad and I work hard to be supportive of whatever is going on with the other house and that hopefully reduces any inherited tension on her end, but there’s no getting around the guilt you feel as a parent when you’re in the lesser situation. I try not to let that seep out, but no one is ever 100% on their game. Even if I were, she’s old enough now to jump to her own conclusions. I’ve had direct conversations with her about my financial situation versus his, but there’s a big difference between transferring guilt and providing an opportunity to learn. There’s a lot of responsibility to give your kids these essential tools or whatever to survive on their own, but (if you’re like me) you’re still figuring this shit out yourself! Plus, there’s not a whole lot of time between when they can really grasp these concepts and when they have to start applying them. Not even factoring in the period they’re going to tune out whatever you say anyway.

It seems like the author turned out more empathetic as a result of growing up this way, which is not a terrible outcome. I also have a hard time owing anyone anything, but I attribute that to the environment I grew up in culturally.

null (#1,101)

Basically what I am saying is that I just imagined my kid anonymously venting to strangers on the internet 10 years into the future about the complexes I’ve given her on a myriad of subjects AND I AM TELLING HER FROM THE PAST THAT I AM SORRY.

@klaus I read your post and wanted you to know that I share your sentiment. I had TOTALLY projected 10 years into the future as well and wondered about how my two children will navigate the waters between their Mother and I.
Just when I thought things were settling down…must keep so much in mind as time moves forward.

goldstar (#1,819)

“I found myself growing a budding sense that every exchange has a dollar value, and everything has to be evened up.”

THIS. Only, for me, the calculation was always re: dad and the kid from his second marriage. Because when he bitches over child support, and your mom’s cleaning toilets for a living, and then he’s lavishing gifts and vacations on the new family, there’s no way not to turn love into a dollar calculation, and always come up short.

The OPs post is interesting, because from what I’ve seen (and the stats), it’s mainly women who fare far, far worse in divorce. They’ve usually lost years in the workforce due to childrearing, so have a large wage gap to overcome, and that’s only if they’re able to go back to work. With two kids under 5 and outdated qualifications, it made no sense for my mom to put us in expensive childcare, so she stayed home and raised us on state benefits. Meanwhile, my dad was off getting married, rising at work, combining two healthy household income, and acting like child support was a privilege, not a right. Flash forwards 20 years, and he has a pension and savings, and mom is barely scraping by on a state pension, which I’m doing my best to supplement.

Me, bitter and mercenary? However did you guess. *hollow laughter*

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@goldstar Your third paragraph is extremely relevant to my interests.
No-one else in my family has been through a divorce, and only one was a single parent, too, so there’s was not a lot of love/support/understanding for her and her lack of money, and all anyone could mention was how unfair it was on me that I had to try to supplement my mum’s income as much as possible when I was old enough.
No-one ever understands that things were hugely unfair on her a good 17 years ago when she lost everything in a divorce except her expensive-to-raise-on-a-single-income child.

AlliNYC (#1,725)

This post went from the financial inequalities, to a feeling that all relationships are tit-for-tat… I think that’s unhealthy. Sure, maybe my friend can’t give me an exact-dollar-amount gift to “repay” the expensive concert I took her to last night, but (1) I wanted to take her, (2) she does a lot for me friendship-wise that does not involve money at all – involving me in her art projects, reading my palm, laughter – and I don’t care if she never spends $100 on me.

My mother keeps a tit-for-tat record in all her friendships and I view this attitude as being very business-like and not from a generous heart. (She can’t even accept that her neighbors LIKE watching her dog from time to time, without needing to give them an elaborate “Thiiiiiiis dinner is for watching the dooooooooog!!” gift. Very strange indeed.)

All I’m saying is, “giving” is not all about dollar amounts – take full value of what someone brings to the relationship, not just what they spend vs. what you spend. It is a relief to stop needing to worry about keeping track.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@AlliNYC Do you see that the attitude you’re able to have is a privilege? That’s exactly the point of this piece.

gyip (#4,192)

@AlliNYC I think this is put in a specific context though … those of parent v. parent. She becomes aware that while her mom and dad are both giving as they want, the dollar value becomes a burden on the dad.

I think it’s weird to call your mom’s attitude as “tit for tat.” That’s a much more mercenary term than what you describe — more suited to a situation where she’s giving dinners only so people would be pressured later to do her favours like dog-watching.

What I took away from this article is understanding that your personal generosity can become a person’s burden, through no particular intended fault on your own. At that point, it might be valuable to reconsider whether your generosity is about your friend/relative, or yourself.

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