Numbers Do Not Lie

We’d been at it for several hours, side by side, each of us on our laptops. Spread on the small ottoman pressing against my knees were stacks of old tax forms. On the chair beside me, two more folders with notes and figures.

We actually began the process days ago, but I couldn’t continue, and my son, seeing that, let it go.

Leading up to this, there have been arguments and charged silences. There were those long months on my part, paving the way with every financial document we needed going back many years.

It has been painful, but necessary.

Still, I was impressed at my son’s determination, his calm in the face of this difficult task that we had to get through. Together. So there we were — flipping through forms, running numbers on a small calculator, and transferring the results to the virtual page.

At one point, we came to what seemed like a simple question. It involved basic arithmetic: Figure A – Figure B = Figure C. My son blanched. Now he knows a certain truth. Truth as indisputable in the numbers. Numbers do not lie.

I saw the hurt on his face. I got up, went to the bathroom, closed the door and cried. Then I washed my face and returned to the sofa. We continued.

Sure, data is always open to interpretation, including financial data. And legalese leaves loopholes-a-plenty in many divorce and support agreements. It’s easy to justify certain things, particularly if you’re a master at obfuscating. Particularly if you’re talking to a child who wants desperately to believe in both parents, to love both parents.

At a certain point, it’s all right there. In black and white. On an unenforceable piece of paper. And in all the other documents that spell out the reality of a financial position with its offshoots and repercussions and the weight of it, the years of one parent bearing the burdens of the other’s disregard for what is legal or moral.

But I don’t believe in airing one’s dirty laundry on the Internet, and this is a dirty business. A despicable business. The story of enforcing support agreements, or rather, being unable to do so. The reality of our family court system, and the shameful manner in which attorneys strip their clients of every dollar, leave them in debt, and when there is no more to plunder, the recipient of their services is brought to as swift an end as possible and offered words like: “you can always go back to court in the future for a modification.”

Some attorneys are moral, responsible, compassionate. Some are not.

Some individuals are vindictive, not only during divorce, but for years afterward. Some are not.

Some of us are innocents, or naive. Too many of us are innocents, or naive.

When you are battle weary, when you are in an adversarial position with someone you loved – and may still love at the time – you accept words like “modify in the future” and “this is the best possible solution” and “it will be alright.” You want to believe that the legal profession is indeed in place for advocacy. For us. For our children. After all, we’re paying them tens of thousands of dollars to operate in our best interest, are we not?

But “you can always go back and modify” – depending upon your state and your situation – will necessitate more attorneys, more warfare, more years of your life, particularly if you are up against a clever opponent. And of course, more money. At some point, energy gives out. The need to parent is stronger as you weigh one sort of survival for yourself and your children against another: belief in what you were taught.

But bottom line survival requires that you earn money, not expend all your time preparing for court and depleting your credit. Life is the more vital pull, especially when you’re all but told it’s a losing battle without time and assets to fight, even if you’re in the right.

So you back off. You accept. You feel like a fool. You live with hatred and try to diffuse it so it will not consume you. You live with rage and try to numb it so it will not swallow you whole. You know yourself for a tiny voice in a crowd with stories more horrible than your own, so you withdraw from battle even if guerrilla warfare continues in the background and you hunker down, you protect your children, you give them bread crumbs; you tell them they are loved by both parents and you convince yourself it is not a lie.

There are different kinds of love, you tell yourself.

Until you mean it.

My son and I continued completing the forms to the best of our ability. Some items remain; we hope to finish today. The objective is that he may get a better rate on his college loans. And I will need all these figures as I reach out to every source I can think of, as soon as possible, trying to find scholarships for my child to who will begin his college applications in the next month or so. My beautiful 17-year old with all his talent and promise. My son who asked so naively the other night – Couldn’t we do some college visits?

“I don’t have the money,” I said. “Or the stamina. But maybe we can figure something out, for one or two.”

How do I tell him I’m counting down the months until every liquidated asset and borrowed dollar runs out? How do I explain the precarious nature of life as I know it – and cannot bear to share in its entirety? I’ve tried to elaborate on a measure of the whys and wherefores, and pulled back. The ups and downs are terrifying, but require a certain sanguine acceptance. His brother knows. His brother sees. His brother understands: numbers do not lie.


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  1. says

    I almost cried reading this…how you held it together I do not know. We all do what we can to make it appear like it’s working–financially–for our children so they don’t really know. I still think my ex should be paying much, much more in child support than he is…it barely covers groceries for a month but when you’re sharing physical custody the law (in my state) really doesn’t give a crap that he makes 5 times as much as me and not even a quarter of his salary in child support. It’s not right, it’s not fair. At least mine is a decent-enough man that if I say the kids need something he gets it for them or we work out a system to get it for them. But it’s still hard when medical bills, school stuff, etc., is expected to be split 50-50 (but I don’t even make 50% of his salary!). Some day kids learn the truth about their parents and I believe yours just learned the true strength of his mother.

  2. says

    I see my mother in you. Hunched over a table, long hours on the phone, resignation when the time came to sign the loan paperwork, guilt when she sees me paying back what she couldn’t afford.

    All I can say is that I am grateful to her, for everything. Despite how my father paid her nothing (ever, for 3 children and one so sick), despite how frustrating and overwhelming her life was, despite how we argued for and held up in honor a name that wasn’t hers. I am so grateful that she gave me the example of hard work and ethics and doing what it takes but never losing your integrity.

    It’s painful now, but one day your sons will treasure these gifts you’ve given them. They will be better people for it.

  3. says

    I recently read that money is business and men see it that way. Emotional and value do not play a role in their minds when it comes to money. This is a sat stunned realizing just how foolish I have been for the last nine years – allowing, diminishing, and accepting less stating – if you can’t… I will make it work.

    A piece of paper now exists – one that will not be modified without lawyers; one that lacks flexibility – one that states this is it – no more, no more ever. And what do I tell my daughter when she asks questions? When she sees that there exists inequality between families? And how do I help her to separate money from value and the “business” of it all when she sees the differing lifestyles and notes that support, in all forms, flows freely from me and is not reciprocated? How does a child look at support as a business – especially if all the profits are moving in other directions?

    I am challenged here as financial support of a child is not a business – a child is a responsibility and a gift. Supporting dreams to the extent financially possible (by both parents) and fully emotionally is a gift that we give our children. We can find the system and hope for what is needed or we can let go and allow life to take its course. I continually have said “I trust you to pay what is fair…” and that is done. Can I ask anything more; expect anything more; and is it right for another to force something not genuine?

    And I don’t know the answer except that we each have to do what we can and what is best in each case.

    My biological grandfather walked out of my dad’s life when my dad was 3. He never sent support and never looked back. My grandmother never forced the issue. Did my dad feel loved? No… but did he care? I don’t know. He turned out just fine and is a wonderful dad and grandfather. In my situation, now I know the money is definitely there, forcing it is not the path I will take for many reasons, it doesn’t give my daughter what she needs – which is love and support of her dreams.

    My heart is with you… and I am not sure you know just how much.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      If someone dies, or someone walks out and never returns – even if they never pay a dime – at least you are not tethered to another’s whims or machinations. After nearly a decade of exactly that, those who say “move on” or “make the best of things” (I don’t mean you) simply fail to see the reality: I could not move to a place I could have been more marketable, a place I could have given myself more chances at a life and my children, more opportunities to know other relatives. My schedule has never been my own. I’ve lived looking over my shoulder, waiting for whatever would come next, never knowing what it would be or when, and all the while doing my best (which wasn’t always great) at still making a living, at still being both parents, at still keeping up illusions.

      My ex long ago moved on with his life (and his version of the “truth”) – new marriage, new home, great job, tons of friends, vacations. I never wished him ill. Clearly, he couldn’t say the same. Would my sons have been better off if their father had simply disappeared? Honestly – I can’t say. For me? I can say with certainty. I would have been better off.

  4. Michele says

    I feel your pain. I feel like a broken record to my kids…”I don’t have the money..I can’t afford it.” This is not the life I wanted for them. My ex and I are professionals and so I never thought I’d be at this place. Well since my divorce my ex has not worked, so therefore has not paid a dime of his child support. Oh he has given me a few bucks when I’ve asked out of desparation. Its hard to stay positive when they continually violate their agreement. I know he cant pay right now. I get that. But he hasn’t once mentioned it to me or made any effort to get the support adjusted. How can he care so little? Or not be able to cope with even addressing it? So weak… Avoiding it and pretending it doesn’t exist, has been his M.O. the past several years. Anyway, I am sorry you are in a similar situation. I try not to judge, as I feel God is their judge. Its a hard thing though. Hang in there. God bless.

  5. says

    I imagine this is what it must have been like for my mother when my dad lost our fortune while I was here in the midst of my college education that he was paying for, and she had to step up to the plate. And boy did she ever. She gave me whatever she could from her little paycheck and the money that she had saved for her retirement just so I could complete my degree. I can never thank her enough for the sacrifices she made – living lean all those years – just so she could give me the biggest gift I can think of: a better future. Your story reminds me of her. While there were no divorce attorneys in the mix, my dad was enough to ruin things for us and she supported me on her own. I admire her strength, her tenacity and I am humbled and forever grateful for the ferocity of her love for me.

    Today I am her sole financial support and soon, she will come to stay with us for good. As an only child, it’s the least I can do for all that she’s done for me. She makes me strive to be a better person because I don’t want her to feel that she wasted any of her sacrifices/time/energy on me.

    I know this does not alleviate your troubles. But I hope you will somehow find a glimmer somewhere in there that illuminates these dark times. Although I wish I could do more. But what I really wish is that we had a better legal system that doesn’t bankrupt us to want to live our lives simply and honestly.

  6. says

    For all the laws that have been created, you’d think there’d be one that prioritized the child’s well being without a loophole. But no and this is a sad fact we live with daily in a culture that has no good reason to behave this way.
    Thinking of you today.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you – Belinda, Justine, Rudri, Michelle, Kelly, Molly, Katybeth, Soccer Mom, TE, Kitch – everyone. Your listening helps. For those who go through this, I wonder if we aren’t stronger collectively than feeling so alone and beaten down. I am not saying that fathers don’t face some of these same issues, but I do believe that it is overwhelmingly the women in this country who face them. And we have so much more we could give and be, if things were only a little different.

  7. says

    My heart aches for you. My “babies” are grown-up, but we endured some tough times. I fantasized more often that I care to say about being a widow … I would have been better off. Ironically, my ex died recently leaving his “new wife” and “his new (very young) kids” to fend for themselves.

  8. says

    Sorry for your pain, BLW. This is awful and unfair. Torn between being despondent that your kid has to “do the numbers” (and draw the requisite conclusions) and heartened that you do this together. There’s got to be something positive there, I think, even when the rest of it just really stinks.

    Delia Lloyd

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You make a good point, Delia. Despite everything, he’s a solid kid. Like every parent who loves their child, I just wish I could have spared him the pain that has rippled through half his young life. And the guilt he carries for things which are not his doing, nor his responsibility.

  9. says

    Warfare is the right choice of words here. As you know I share a very similar experience. My ex has successfully STOLEN from me everything I have with his malicious litigiousness but it seems that’s not enough and he is now going for blood. At this point I feel like I have nothing left to lose so why not keep fighting? I do hope someday my kids know the truth – that it was their own father who robbed them and their mother of the home and neighborhood they love for no other reason than the pure sport of it.

    I hope that we both get some justice very soon.

  10. says

    Okay…I am going for glass half-full right now. You never know how difficult experiences in his young life will motivate him to future successes. You don’t yet know the gifts that he will get from this. You don’t yet see the beautiful, strong, extraordinary man that he will become. But it will happen because you loved him.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      And I see that Molly. I do. And I am grateful beyond belief, and I see wonderful qualities in both my sons. But what I also see is my life literally coming to a full stop in X number of months. No health care. No money. No job. No partner. No family. And no home.

      Where do I put that terror? Where do I put the anger of looking for work for 23 months and being told I’m overqualified and overeducated or, underqualified and overeducated and then there is what remains unspoken – over 50? Where do I go with injuries from an accident 3 years ago, that slowly worsen?

      I am grateful, believe me. Including for the fact that I do know how many months remain, short of another medical emergency or unforeseen incident that hastens that full stop. And given that, I continue to persevere. But I do so, slowly winding down. I do so, carrying numbing fear in my gut from the moment I wake until I fall asleep. There will be no net when I fall. And my sons, even if they were willing to try to catch me, will be too young to do so.

      Raw truth. Yes, bitter. But far less so than you would imagine. I continue to believe there is good in the world. Kindness. Caring. Passion. Joy. I suppose in that I am grateful as well. I have not become someone I can no longer look at in the mirror.

      I try not to write of these things often. Partly for the audience of readers I would like, and the many subjects that interest me. Partly, because it is too painful. Partly, a matter of being a private person, despite everything. Partly, because I want to be my “full” self – at least through the written word – healthy, active, imaginative, funny (once upon a time), sexy (on a good day), curious, nurturing, exacting.

      I cannot be that woman if I am owned by fear. I cannot be that woman if I write from anger. Now and then, yes. More often – regardless of who I am when I wake and who I am when I finally sleep and who I am during the long hours in between – I will be the woman who writes of all the worlds in my head and at my fingertips. At least in that, I will be my selves. All of my selves.

  11. says

    Oh, this story makes me so sad. I am not in the same situation – my son’s father pays his child support (though not as much as he’s supposed to) on time every month. And he’s around. He coaches my son’s soccer team; he takes him to guitar lessons. He’s a terrible soccer coach and even worse at helping with guitar, but he’s *around* and I count my blessings for that. I’m saving every penny I can for my son’s college days, but I can’t afford much and his dad doesn’t help. I don’t know what those years will bring.

    On the flip side, my boy friend gladly pays well over the mandated support amount for his kids. His checks go out on time, and for more than the requested amount. He always pitches in (usually covering in full) any additional requests from his ex. She is getting enough money from him that she doesn’t have to work (and he’s not paying spousal support). He’s dying to spend more time with his daughters, and yet… She keeps asking for more money but makes it as difficult as possible for him to see his girls. It’s so sad to me, with so many dads (and some moms too) who are so happy to shirk any and all responsibility, that this man who is desperate to be that ideal father we all dream of is denied the opportunity.

    It can be so hard on both sides of the bridge, I suppose. I am in awe of all of us, doing the best we can for our kids, making do with whatever it is we’ve got.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You hit it, Martini Mom. I am in awe of all of us, doing the best we can for our kids.

      And I also remain appalled at the many facets of “the system” that penalize those of us who do, and allow those who don’t to slip away, without accountability.

  12. says

    Oh, you are strong. Amazing to choose to see the brightness in life through this. Wonderful to keep the fear off to the side to allow all your many selves to be.
    I don’t write about finances, because they are so tricky. But, I have been at the point of knowing we had X months. And we got lucky, oh so lucky. You are in my throughts. May luck find you too.

  13. Angela says

    I weep reading this, because you have touched a nerve, a sore point so deep within me, one which I refuse to let consume me, I just acknowledge it when it surfaces (this being one of those moments). Just as you did in the bathroom.

    My son is also starting college and I have had to look into my finances, with the realisation that in two years my daughter will also start college. Their father, believes that because we now live abroad he does not have to pay, his word ‘I didn’t think you could get support now that you are all out of the country’ and in the next breath ‘I’ll have to leave my job then’ familiar words over the years.

    I work, but I am always looking at ways in which to make extra, just to cover all costs, overtime at work, a second job, when will it end. But I do know that your boys will appreciate and cherish all that you have done from them, I know right now it seems hard to fathom. There are times with me, especially when I look back at my childhood and remember my loving dad, who would work so hard to give us what we needed, When I wonder how could I have ever loved someone so totally opposite?

    The legal systems is so far detached from what is really happening and it is not just here in the US but across the globe, when it comes to support for separated families. I know of the same stories back home in the UK.

    You are in my thoughts and hope that things will turn around for you and family –x-

  14. says

    I wish I could think of something to say. I know how everyday is a struggle, and the long-term goals seem nearly impossible, and all I can say is you keep finding ways to make it work.

  15. says

    I’m so worried about this same situation. My girls will start reaching college age in a few years and I just want them to have every opportunity. But I’m just starting to go through a divorce myself so I don’t even know what is going to happen. I can’t stand the thought of personal conflict between me and my husband interfering in their future.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I am so glad you wrote, Cindy. If you are still going through divorce, you may be able to benefit from my story.

      First, let me say that I am not a lawyer and I cannot give legal advice. However, I will make some suggestions from my own experience. When the non-custodial parent is out of state, things frequently become far more complex. The language pertaining to college costs in a support agreement may be very loose, but your attorney may say “this is standard.” Big mistake to accept that, and furthermore, you won’t know if it’s loose or not (until it’s too late). As it is, child support can be difficult to enforce under certain circumstances, even though we “follow the rules” and even though non-payment of support violates federal law. If there is non-payment, attorneys’ fees may well eat up every dollar you are due in unpaid support.

      Going to back to court can be time-consuming and extremely costly and still not achieve the best interests of the child(ren) if you have a clever opponent.

      Had I known (or been told by my attorneys) certain realities I would have insisted on very different payment options and wording in my divorce agreement, to protect my children and their future (college), not to mention my own situation.

  16. says

    I came back here after reading today’s post – and thank you for your honesty and for your words.

    I have no divorce agreement and my daughter is “not” in the system, making my situation probably a bit different than others. Our support agreement – he refused to include college saying this is not an obligation – and he refuses to pay anything that is “not” in the agreement itself. I made mistakes in signing the agreement; I trusted someone in denial and I now find that the agreement, and its limited support, probably furthers that denial. I find it intriguing that men can be more “parental” to some kids and not others (women likely can too) taking more responsibility for some than others. My daughter is her father’s youngest, yet she is the one he will stop supporting upon high school graduation; the one that may or may not be in his will; and the one who knows her dad only in the sense that the other kids don’t feel that she is being treated “special” so he is never alone with her etc.

    Such individual situations… kids are all different, relationships end differently, personalities are vastly different… and yet the court believes it is the best answer for these situations. The system is broken (if it ever worked) and yet I haven’t learned of any means of fixing it. I know that there are battles in my future to secure my daughter’s treated justly; I know that I could use PR to move mountains; and yet, I find myself war weary. I stayed here and spent nine years fighting to give my daughter as much of a dad as I could and now I find myself attempting to come to terms with the reality (I was in denial) that the man didn’t want to be a dad – and now he goes through the motions without putting any feeling into it, ringing insincere.

    My issue is probably like many other women – I trusted, I believed that we could be adults. I believed that logic, justice, and love would all come together with the priority being our daughter. Naive!!

    I want to do something to make a difference for kids; I want to make something better for them in this system. Fortunately my daughter has a strong sense of herself and a good relationship with other men; but what about the kids that don’t? What about the kids that are caught in their parents mess and don’t have parents like you, like me, like the women above? There has to be something we can do to help…

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I appreciate your openness sharing your story. These are hard stories to tell – even in part. For so many reasons. And I take some solace in the fact that you express so many of the things I feel – and so clearly. The state of weariness. The previous denial and finally coming to terms with what is and what isn’t and yet never truly being able to come to terms with it because it is there every day, and it impacts our children and us every day.

      We did nothing “wrong.” We trusted. We believed. As you said. Naive – for us. Though for some, it worked out. But what of the millions for whom it hasn’t, and for whom it won’t? What will our children learn when it comes to trust, to relationships, to what “succeeding in life” means?

      I keep coming back to the attorneys. Not just the ineffective structure of the court system, the variations state by state that make everything harder, but the attorneys who perpetuate terrible scenarios while racking up their billable hours. And if your situation changes? Try finding an attorney who will help for less than $350/hour. Or a $5,000 retainer. Then there is the fact that even if you “win” in court, enforcement is a whole other challenge.

  17. says

    Heartbreaking. Divorced I am not, but I still fear that when my kids are ready to move on to college (in three short years!), the question of how to pay is going to weigh heavily.

    However, I will also add that I grew up in difficult circumstances and my husband did as well. We both had to pay our own college tuition. It was hard. I had some resentment. We married young, packed everything we owned into a Chevy Van and moved 3,000 miles from home. We lived lean, but we did it. And now I feel very proud, as does my husband, that everything we have, we worked hard for. There were no handouts.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You make an excellent point, Cathy. The promise of a college education is no longer a simple matter for most families. I also went to college on scholarships and loans, and worked part time as well. Graduate school for me was all loans. I was paying off my education until I was nearly 40 years old.

      But when I went to college, my four years of a top school cost $20,000. That same education today costs $240,000. It’s one thing to leave college $10,000 in debt, and quite another, over $200,000. Sure, my kids could theoretically go to cheaper schools (and my younger likely will), but what of the years of their work their dreams, their talents? Especially with one parent who could contribute, but cannot be made to do so?

    • BigLittleWolf says

      And by the way, my elder has a combination of scholarship and loans and works part-time. The kid knows what it is to earn what he’s got.

  18. says

    BLW, you seem nothing like a woman who lives in fear. But your story makes readers fearful (that’s good writing). I admire you, and I feel fear and anger about your situation. The context I do share, though not yet out of concern for my own child, is the cost of college. It is so sad for me to see students’ faces fall when they see, too, that the numbers don’t – can’t – lie. Those, and yours, are heartbreaking truths.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you for your comment, Leslie. You raise more issues than (I think) you realize. I am not looking to make readers fearful – I would hope, by speaking about things I generally do not, to encourage women who are divorcing to not put all their eggs in the hands of attorneys, or make assumptions about how things will flow in the future. Bad luck can happen anytime, anywhere. Financial circumstances have changed for millions in this country. As families, most of us band together, support each other, suck up what we must, and go on. But I’m talking about situations that may be exacerbated by the economy (my layoffs from two full-time contracting/freelance jobs), but that have everything to do with one parent’s knowing, long-term deflection of financial accountability.

      But yes – it’s wrenching – for all of us who see our children facing difficult compromises about their own futures. It’s a plight shared by millions, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

      As for fear, it’s very real. Funny how when one is articulate (or perhaps I operate in my own land of positive denial in most of my writing?) – no one knows the reality of our inner lives. The public face, the private self. But these issues are too important to not speak up.


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