Family breadwinner comes at a cost

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April 14, 2012

The Times-When being the family breadwinner can cost everything

Women who earn more than their husbands could be in for a shock if they divorce. They face losing their home, assets — even custody of their children, says Lucy Cavendish.
I am sitting opposite Anna in a coffee shop. I have known her for a few years — not that well but I’ve always noticed her. She was the one rushing here and there, dropping her children off, dashing them in through the school gates, giving a wave to all the other mothers. The one thing I always knew about Anna was that she worked. She was always glamorous in her expensively-cut suit and high heels. Yet, today, she looks exhausted — thin, worn down, fed up.

“It was two years ago,” she says. “I have had two years of hell.” As Anna, who works as a managing director for a busy advertising company, tells it, she has inadvertently become a statistic.

According to a new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, women today are more likely to “marry down”. This makes sense — women are highly employable, many of them are immensely successful in their own right, and the pressure to marry a man for financial or social security becomes less important when you can earn enough money yourself. Instead, women marry for many other reasons — the desire to settle down, procreate and, of course, falling in love. However, the breadwinning wife is taking more risks than she realises when it comes to what happens when this type of marriage breaks down.

She faces the prospect of losing a large chunk of her income, her home and worst of all, her children.

This is precisely what has happened to Anna. She and her now ex-husband decided to split up just over two years ago. “I have always worked. I have always earned money. I am good at what I do and I enjoy it. I took maternity leave with my children but always went back to work.”

She says that she went back to work partially because she likes her job and partially because her husband didn’t work. “He doesn’t not work,” she says, “but he owns a business which is run by someone else. He doesn’t actually work there.”

So, at some point during their relationship, Anna and her husband agreed that he would, essentially, be a house husband and look after their young children while she earned her high salary as well as her yearly bonus.

“We had a nice life; lovely house, nice cars, great holidays. I didn’t see my children as much as I would have liked, but they seemed happy and it was a compromise, a hard one, but it worked in its own way.”

Then the marriage came to an end. “We grew apart. It fizzled out. No one else was involved,” she says. Anna expected it all to be simple. They would get divorced, split the assets, work out the childcare. “When it all began I didn’t expect to end up in court arguing about everything,” she says.

But as time went on, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be the case, and her husband was going to argue about absolutely everything. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “My ex-husband has dragged me back through court so many times, in the end I just gave in. I have given him a ton of money. He lives in the big house. I now live in a tiny flat.”

She says she doesn’t care about the money. It’s the children she really cares about. It’s at this point she starts crying. “I’ve lost my children,” she says. “It never occurred to me that, because I was working and working so hard, that my husband would, essentially, get the majority of the custody of the children but that’s how it has turned out.”

The couple agreed to have joint custody but as Anna works so hard, her ex-husband has the children the majority of the time, with Anna limited to every other weekend and, supposedly, one night in the week. Recently, however, her ex-husband took her back to court claiming that the children were too tired because she picked them up late and had to take them to the school breakfast club.

“I’ve given up fighting him,” she says. She feels she is in a double bind. “The courts just want the parents to agree on a custody arrangement and we did, but then he took me back. The judge told us to go and bang our heads together and find a workable agreement and I feel I keep giving in to his demands because I need to keep my job.”

I ask her how it has turned out this way. She says the main problem, in her eyes, is that the courts separate the finances and childcare arrangements. A court will settle financial disputes and issues, but childcare orders are an entirely separate process. “For me to be able to pay my husband off, buy a house and continue maintenance, I have to keep working,” she says. “My husband then argued that I could really only see the children every other weekend and parts of holidays, which led to our current arrangement. It was devastating but this is where we have ended up.”

Her point is, if she had known what was going to happen beforehand — if, all those years ago, someone had told her that by working hard, she’d essentially lose hundred of thousands of pounds to her husband as well as main custody of her children — she would have downed tools right there and then.

“I’m their mother,” she says. “Their mother. I love them and I miss them and it’s truly appalling and shocking to me that I can’t see them or be with them. I cannot tell you how awful it is, words just don’t get anywhere near it.”

Every mother will understand this. Every working mother will probably be shocked by it.

This is where Anna started out; a confident, active, positive mother who worked hard but yet was still at every assembly, every fete, every Christmas concert .

This is where she is now. “I see them when I am allowed to by the court ruling. I couldn’t even give them Christmas presents on Christmas Day as it wasn’t ‘my day’. I’ve been reduced to seeing them every other weekend. My ex-husband complains and threatens me with legal action if I turn up to their school on a day that isn’t a designated ‘me’ day.”

It’s also the stigma she finds hard. “I’ve lost my children, everyone knows that. They gossip. They think I must have done something heinous, but all I’ve done is work.”

Divorce lawyer Marilyn Stowe points out that the majority of divorcing couples reach amicable arrangements about childcare and the issue never reaches court. She adds: “It’s only when this fails that the court will decide. The court could make a joint residence order (shared custody) which means the children will live with both parents and the court will determine how much time the children spend with each parent, based on what’s best for the child. If the higher earner works longer hours and is often away, they can find their parenting timelimited. So the courts might decide to give residence just to one parent, with contact (access) to the other parent.

“The court will only consider the situation in the best interest of the child and will order accordingly. By far the best situation is that parents agree what will happen without the intervention of a court.’

Anna agrees with this. “My ex and I did put together an agreement of shared custody but since then, he has taken me back to court endless times over the smallest of things, like them being too tired if they spend a long weekend with me. It’s tiring and ridiculous.”

Yet Anna believes that there was some element of punishing her in the eyes of the court. “I think working women get absolutely pummelled in this legal system,especially when it comes to finances,” she says. “The court had an expectation of my earning power and yet last year was an exceptionally good year. This year it is going to be such a struggle.”

But Stowe says: “well, I’m not sure I buy this argument. Women need to realise it is now getting far more common for them to earn more than their husbands. I see countless women who work hard and earn a lot of money and they have become contemptuous of their stay-at-home partner.

“Sex and respect go out of the window and they file for divorce and then they are amazed and stunned when their partner wants 50:50 of pretty much everything. This, in turn, amazes and stuns me. Of course this happens. It’s the law of the land.”

Her point is — working women be warned. This rise in the new politics of divorce is here to stay.

Stowe feels that these high awards are justified. “Women said they wanted equal rights and now they are complaining about it. Men have been in this system for years, many of them complaining that their wives don’t deserve their high payouts either.”

Stowe believes that now high-earning women are finally realising the prohibitive costs of getting divorced, many of them will probably look at what is happening to those around them and choose to remain in a marriage, however disastrous it may be.

Amelia, a high-flying banker, has chosen to do just that. “My marriage is a disaster,” she says. “About three years ago, I decided I’d had enough. I asked my husband for a divorce. He told me that a) he’d refuse to move out of the family home and b) he’d go for custody of the children. He basically was saying if you want out, then you have to leave.”

She went to get legal advice. “My solicitor told me I would have to pay him maintenance, he’d probably get shared custody of the children and that, if I was working so hard, family courts might agree to the children staying with him. It was too devastating to contemplate.”

Like Anna, she also feels that the system is unfair. “I’m actually very angry about it,” she says. “It’s not my fault my husband can’t be bothered to work. I feel I have acted responsibly and yet it would be me who would suffer because of that.

“I would have liked to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, but he didn’t really want to work. I felt someone had to work, someone had to provide for our family and if it wasn’t going to be him then it had to be me. Would the court take in to account the history of our marriage and our working patterns? I don’t think it would.”

Yet Stowe says “many men feel exactly the same way when they get divorced. If I were to play devil’s advocate, what’s the difference?”.

But Amelia also points out, as far as she is concerned, that there is very little parity between working women and men and their behaviour towards their children. “I leave my office on the dot,” she says. “I rush back to see the kids, put them to bed. I get up at least an hour before my husband to get them to school.

“I do loads of organising during my lunch hour, constantly on my Blackberry arranging piano lessons, play dates. I do at least 80 per cent of everything. I do the shopping orders, the laundry and lots of the cooking. My husband sees his job as just doing the children.

“By contrast, all the men in my office, most of them fathers, go for a drink after work. They do dinners and business travel and it’s not the same.

“I think the legal process devalues the role of the working mother. Why should I lose my children? I haven’t been a bad mother. I have met their needs as much as I can. Why should I have to pay my possible ex-spouse so much maintenance when he has refused to work? It seems very unfair.”

Stowe agrees. She points out that the Law Commission has been asked by the government to look at whether there should be some amendment to the law to further define the meaning of financial needs.

“Really, it’s a case of how to compute the needs of the family now that circumstances have changed. With so many women working, it’s difficult to priortitise needs so both parents can provide the best parenting arrangements for their children.”

Yet should women have some divine “right” over their children? It’s a question Rachel Cusk asked in her controversial book Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation about the break down of her marriage.

Even though she and her husband had agreed that he would stay at home and look after the children she still felt, on divorcing, that the children should stay with her. “I am their mother,” she writes.

Legally, though, this doesn’t wash. Margaret found this out when she and her husband of 25 years got divorced. They have one son, aged 17, about to leave school and head off to university. They didn’t feel they needed to argue over custody as their son was happy to move back and forth between his two parents. They agreed to split the house. The four bedroom house was sold off, Margaret moved to a smaller place. “I thought it was all fine, until my husband started demanding half of my pension and my bonus,” she says. “That’s when I started to feel aggrieved.”

Her view is that her husband didn’t deserve 50 per cent of what she had spent years putting aside. “I’ve worked in IT for 25 years,” she says. “I have slogged away doing a job I’ve never particularly enjoyed in order to keep our house going and keep us afloat.”

Meanwhile, as she puts it, her husband was off getting involved in a range of creative projects. “He was a writer for a bit, then an artist. Then he opened a restaurant and I backed him. I bailed him out when it folded four years later.’

Eventually her husband trained to become an accountant and eventually found a job.

“My problem is that my husband now stands to eventually earn more than me,” Margaret says. “He has a good job, great prospects. My prospects are not as good and I’ve always known that. I have budgeted within my pension, not realising I stand to lose half of it.”

Stowe feels that high-earning working women need a wake-up call. “These women need to take advice before any legal proceedings start. They need to consider their priorities and how they think the divorce will pan out. They need to be practical, to work out what is appropriate and, if they have to, find a way around it.”