The Myth of Help and the Shame of Child Support

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“Does their father help at all?”

To help. It’s the punch of a word. Aid is a choice. A kindness. A helping hand when you’ve fallen in a ditch and can’t get out and then suddenly, suddenly, there stands your savior. Reach out to pick you up. Like he wasn’t the one who pushed you there in the first place.

When I left my husband with my four children and my empty bank account and the inside that was bruised and rotten and spoiled even though my outside was fine, my mother was the first to say so. To tell me not to expect “help” from my husband. She knew, of course. She also didn’t get much ‘help’, but that was in the 70s and 80s and things changed. Dads were “helping” now. How many stories did I hear when I was a bartender at a local pub about a man who was taken to the cleaners by his ex-wife for child support she used on spa vacation and the liposuction, dinner parties and new men. How many afternoons spent serving pint after pint of overpriced imported beer, sympathizing with those poor men who always seemed to have the time and money to hang out in pubs for long stretches of sunny Saturdays without the kids which, they told me, was their whole universe.

Help came with a smirk. Or a sigh. Or a reminder I needed to get my life back together.

I wouldn’t be one of those hateful women, no way. I would just expect my husband to “help” and moreover, I would be grateful to him. For everything he gave me, and in the beginning it came. Every other weekend I would ask him if he had anything to “help me out” and he would make jokes like “Oh oh there she is, show me the money!” or “Did you just get your hair done? Now I know where my money is going. and I laughed and acted like it was cute because I was so grateful. For the ‘help’.

I was in training, you see. We are all formed perhaps. To remind myself that I wanted these children and that they were mine first, always. Which yes, I’ll admit I probably wanted. I wanted them and I didn’t want their father and it was my choice. Just as if it was their choice to help. Or not.

Help came at first, thin $20 bills slowly counted beside the car window as I stared at the floor and just said to myself, “Electricity bill. Shoes. Two days of groceries. It came when I explained myself. I explained that yes, I worked as a waitress but my paycheck wasn’t going to be enough to cover their football expenses, so if you could cover this time around, I’d be so grateful. Help came with a smirk. Or a sigh. Or a reminder I needed to get my life back together. But it came.

Until it doesn’t. Until a new girlfriend, until a new boyfriend, until a bad weekend where the kids acted out. It stopped then, slow, horrible and silent. No words could bring him back and I tried.

If a man doesn’t want to help with his kids, that’s his choice. A cliche that’s embarrassing to talk about, because if you’re the one not getting help, you really should have known, right.

I did the things you’re supposed to do. I got a lawyer who cost me $10,000 and had a support order issued and yet help never came. Because he changed his mind about helping. Because it was her choice whether or not there was a support order. He could hide his money, he could work under the table, he could move in with his mom and have his paychecks deposited in his bank account.

The first time I found out help wasn’t coming, I stood in line at Walmart trying to buy diapers with my debit card. He had offered his “help” with an NSF check and I didn’t know it. I’m sitting here with a red face looking at all these years thinking about how I didn’t know. I didn’t have enough money in my account for my baby’s diapers. The cashier was horrible, my God, she was horrible. Humbled me even when I tried to explain what happened. My explanation made the situation worse. She called me “trash” under her breath. She called me trash. Not him. Me.

I am the one who chose to be a single mother of four children. I should have been better informed. I should have kept my man. I should have known what leaving meant. That my responsibility to my children would get harder, deeper, worse, months and years of disappointing them, no matter how hard I worked, and hers would become multiple-choice. Over the years, he would buy a brand new car while the kids and I went to the grocery store, to school, to the park. He would go on vacation, advance his career, have relationships, have more children, and then leave those children and the world would forget about it. Think nothing of it. If a man doesn’t want to help with his kids, that’s his choice. A cliche that’s embarrassing to talk about, because if you’re the one not getting help, you really should have known, right.

No one wants to hear about child support anymore. It’s an old story. It’s boring and there’s something slightly pathetic about it, isn’t there?

No one wants to hear about child support anymore. It’s an old story. It’s boring and there’s something slightly pathetic about it, isn’t there? Something pathetic to ask for help. I feel pathetic right now even writing about it. Pathetic. Something you don’t bring up in front of anyone, especially your kids, lest you look like the mean divorcee from an ’80s romantic comedy, bitterly poisoning her children with the truth.

Except. Except what do you tell your kids when you’re working two jobs and going away all the time and buying bulk bags of frozen veggies even though their dad has a new car, a new dog, a new house. How do you tell your children that they have to take care of their own children one day, whether they stay with their co-parent or not?

The truth is you tell them. You make them your little partners even if it’s not a good idea. You live in a cheap place. You leave without a car, you sometimes get your phone cut off, you put away Christmas presents and pray every night that your tips will cover them.

The truth is, you have no choice.

Jen McGuire’s book of essays, NEST, is available now.

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