I don’t look like a deadbeat.
I am a white, middle-class mother who lives in the suburbs. I have 3 children, who spend 50% of their time with me and 50% with their dad. I live in a modest 3-bedroom home and roam the world of suburban moms, who wear J Crew and Vineyard Vines and spend their days making their yards look beautiful and their evenings hosting fancy wine-drinking Zoom Happy Hours. I just have that look- you know, the suburban, middle-aged, sports mom who has all of her shit tied very nicely together? Most who walk by me would never look at me think deadbeat- but the truth is, by societies definition- that is exactly what I am- or what I was, anyways.
My story is long and full of heartache and defeat and failure. There was a time when I did not have custody of my children, nor should I have. There were years when the first thing I did in the morning and the last thing I did at night was drink vodka straight out of the bottle. I was not a very good mother during these years; I was a terrible mother, actually. I lied more than I told the truth. I broke promises and I was unreliable. Instead of offering my children safety and comfort, I handed them a life of fear and insecurity. And with those years, came great loss— loss for me and loss for them; loss of freedom and jobs and relationships; loss of memories and loss of time; loss of smiles and laughter and loss of trust and love. I was hopeless and lost and spiritually bankrupt. I so badly wanted to be better— to be normal (whatever that is) but I didn’t know how to be; I didn’t believe sobriety would ever be within reach for me. I woke up each day and drank away my pain and fear and anxiety. I drank to feel whole and I drank to feel numb. I drank to love myself and I drank to find peace. I drank to silence the sounds and to find comfort. I drank to get out of bed and I drank to get into bed. I drank when I was happy and I drank when I was sad. I drank to bury the self-hate and I drank to be the carefree person I dreamed of being sober. I loved the way alcohol made me feel more than I have ever loved anything in my entire life. But time and time again, alcohol let me down, causing more and more problems, while blinding me of its role in my downward spiral.
It was during these years that I experienced life as a deadbeat. As the result of a divorce-related, court order, I was a non-custodial parent. I was court-ordered to pay child support that I did not pay. I couldn’t pay it: I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have any money. I was in and out of rehabs and detoxes and outpatients and emergency rooms for years and all the while, my child support balance was quickly increasing.
All too often, I experienced the discrimination of our family court system- a system that sets up people like me for failure every day. A system who observed me in court intoxicated time and time again, yet never once said let’s get you some help; a system that never advised me to get sober before finalizing my divorce and signing the court order that would rule my life (financial and otherwise) forever. A system that based the child support I would pay each week on my "potential earnings" and not what I actually was earning. A system that encouraged me not to seek alimony but rather suggested that I sell my car and my wedding ring for money to survive. A system who knew I was in rehab for 6 months addressing my addiction, but still let that child support balance collect (as if I could rightfully work while in inpatient rehab). A system whose judges and lawyers and customer service reps and clerks looked at me and decided I was a lost cause. She will never get sober they thought.
I knew they were thinking it and I was thinking it, too. I was hopeless— a lost cause and I was smart enough to see that is exactly how I was being treated. Any phone calls into Child Support Enforcement were met with rude customer service associates, who dismissed everything I said. They spoke over me. They spoke down to me. They judged me. No one offered help or guidance or answers to my many questions. I was a deadbeat to them. They didn’t look any further; they didn’t see my humanness or my potential or my heart and soul. I was simply another parent who abandoned her kids in their eyes—and they reminded me of that every chance they got.
The current system sets non-custodial parents up for financial failure. We are often responsible for paying child support even if we are without work, which often leads to large sums of back child support. Back child support comes with garnishments, penalties with the credit bureaus, arrest warrants, tax refund interceptions and the inability to travel out of the country. It is akin to criminal behavior. But when you are unemployed and ordered to pay X amount of dollars each week,, it sure seems like they are setting us up to fail. And many times, that is exactly what we do-- we fail.
Why not get a second job to pay the child support? If we decide we want to work our butts off and sacrifice everything else in our lives and get a second or third job, those extra finances are simply used to increase the child support amount owed each week; we simply can’t get ahead by working harder or making more money. It is often near-impossible to pay the court-ordered child support while maintaining your own financial responsibilities and caring for your children whenever they are in your care- which is often several times a week. We are expected to provide food and clothing and all the basic needs for our children while they are in our care and also to contribute to their needs while they are not in our care. Financial failure leads to career failure (why work harder when you’re still going to be broke and pinching pennies) and parental failure (it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy- everyone thinks you’re a worthless deadbeat and you start to believe it yourself). It’s no wonder some walk away altogether— it is a defeating, exhausting and demoralizing place to be and it is not only harmful to the non-custodial parent, but also the children.
Lucky for me and my kids, my story is also full of hope and faith and success. I am one of the few who have risen above the adversity of being in our flawed, family court system. I have successfully paid my full balance of over $10,000 in back child support. You see, despite the tight hold that addiction had on me, I kept trying. I kept trying to get sober. I kept trying to find God. I kept trying Alcoholics Anonymous. I kept trying rehabs and outpatient facilities. I tried and I failed and I tried and failed and I tried and I failed until finally- by the Grace of God, I tried and I succeeded. On February 3rd of 2021, I joyfully and gratefully celebrated 7 years of continuous sobriety and I am so thankful to God, AA, my family, my sponsor and my children for their love, support, guidance and unconditional love. I rejoice in the fact that some very special people believed in me when most (including myself) did not. I thank God for sending me people who saw the best in me when all I showed was my worst.
I know there are many out there struggling with the injustices of the system, the discrimination against non-custodial parents and the complete and total lack of hope of being beat down financially and emotionally by the judicial system. I have been there. I hope and pray that my story offers comfort to those who walk where I once did and I hope that somehow, some day I can be a part of change on a deeper level. I have so much to be grateful for today and everyday— but the family court system is not one of those things.
Most non-custodial parents are struggling with heavy, painful stuff—with the loss of a marriage and/or their kids, unemployment and financial struggles, addiction and mental health issues and what they need more than anything else is love, compassion, help and a little bit of hope. They deserve it and so do their kids.