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Emma Johnson wants divorced moms to be the wealthiest, best versions of themselves.
And as part of that work, she advocates for a solution that goes against some traditional aspects of modern divorce. She is a vocal champion for the assumption of 50/50 parenting, making appearances in the media and state capitols to share her evidence that joint custody can help support financial equality between parents.
In this installment of my monthly column “Closing the Gap,” we’re talking about the financial inequities divorced moms face after marriage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2018, moms lead 80% of single-parent households as primary custodians — and often bear the brunt of financial obligations.
As a financial expert and a divorced mom of two, Johnson, 44, has both personal and professional experience in this realm. The founder of Wealthy Single Mommy and author of the forthcoming book The 50/50 Solution: How Single Parents Can Blaze the Trail for Gender Equality is working to improve the financial lives of divorced moms by focusing on taking control of their careers, money, and earning capabilities.
One avenue to help address the many financial and opportunity gaps between men and women, Johnson argues, is equal shared parenting. Her study of over 2,300 single moms shows that moms with a 50/50 parenting schedule are more than three times likely to earn $100,000 annually than moms whose kids are with them most of the time with “visits” with the dad. Also from her survey, 9 in 10 single moms say they could earn more money if they had more equality in their parenting time.
Johnson is living out the experience of shared parenting in real time, as she and her ex-husband, while both in new relationships, have settled on a unique arrangement and will be moving to a new state together with their children. “My kids’ dad, their stepmom, my boyfriend and myself are relocating together,” she told me. “The discussions were not always easy, and we don’t always get along, but we focused on shared goals and what is best for the kids.” This plan might not be replicated by most families, but shows some of the sacrifices that can be involved in post-divorce life.
She has discovered that some moms resist the idea of shared parenting. They don’t want to give up time with their kids, they feel pressure to fulfill the role of primary parent, or they have a tense relationship with their ex. And there are, of course, cases where either partner isn’t fit to spend time with the kids or there is a history of abuse or addiction. Every family situation is individual and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Divorce can upend careers, physical locations and, of course, your bank accounts. Here is the best advice from Johnson and other policy activists for keeping an eye on both your personal and professional lives while navigating divorce, and setting yourself up for future financial success.
The Case for Shared Parenting
If it’s right for you, you might be surprised to hear that 50/50 parenting might have a positive outcome. When it comes to child custody, the courts and traditional thinking presume that children should be with their moms. That’s the legacy of “sexism and misunderstanding of child psychology,” says Johnson. “The norm has been for kids to stay with the mom and for dads to pay child support, leaving women dependent on men for money and dads becoming just satellite characters in their kids’ lives.”
Johnson says that with 50% custody, a divorced mom could have more time and energy to put into her own financial future. Both parents have to commit to taking truly equal responsibility. “This is not just about dads exercising their rights to more time with their children, but also taking full equal responsibility for sick days, coordinating appointments and activities and all the emotional labor that women have typically taken on,” says Johnson.
Financial equality between men and women is critical, and a move towards equal parenting time following a divorce could support that, experts say. Studies have found that maximizing time with both parents correlates to better physical and mental health for children. Dr. William Fabricius, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Arizona State University, began researching the impact of divorce on kids in the 1990s. One of his recent studies examining children’s post-divorce living arrangements helped to inform new child custody laws in Arizona. Only three states — Arizona, Arkansas and Kentucky — have updated their laws to explicitly say that shared parenting or joint custody is the “presumed” best scenario in a divorce.
“What we found in the very first study was that when the children of divorce reached college, they were highly consistent in expressing that they thought living equal time with each parent was the best arrangement,” he said. “About 70% of the 820 students [surveyed] said equal time was best.”
Matt Hale is a 54-year-old single father and board member of the National Parents Organization, which helped draft and pass Kentucky’s shared parenting bill a few years ago, creating the “rebuttable presumption” (i.e. an assumption presented as fact unless contested) that shared parenting is in the best interest of the child. There are exceptions made to shared custody if there is a history of domestic violence, and other factors are still taken into account, such as the proximity of the child to their school. The law also created a “friendly parent factor” that considers a parent’s likelihood to allow the child “frequent, meaningful and continuing contact with the other parent” as fitness for custody is being evaluated.
In any state, if a divorced couple wants shared parenting, they can arrange it themselves. But changing state laws, Hale says, legitimizes the narrative that equal involvement of both parents — provided they are fit and capable — is crucial and should be the norm. “Law creates expectations and when people expect that one person is going to be given primary custody and the other is going to get ‘visitation,’ that increases the chances that that will happen.”
It’s also a financial benefit to families to have a law like this in place, Hale says. “The law makes it more likely that parents who want to avoid the legal system or don’t have financial resources to hire an attorney can get equal time.”
Fully Engaged Fathers
In Los Angeles, Dr. Alan-Micheal Graves is focused on helping lift families out of poverty as the senior director of learning and capacity building at Good+Foundation, where he and his team provide dads with training they need to re-engage in their children’s lives. According to the foundation, children in father-absent homes are four times more likely to be poor than children in two-parent homes. Last year Good+Foundation, which was launched by author and philanthropist Jessica Seinfeld, served over 286,000 fathers in its mission to dismantle multi-generational poverty for low-income fathers, mothers and caregivers.
The mission, for Graves, is personal. “I am the product of a single mother, and while she was very supportive and did everything she could to provide for me, I am confident that if my father was involved in my life, I would have a different set of tools to navigate life as a man of color.”
Dr. Torri J. Evans-Barton was inspired to launch The Fatherless Generation Foundation in Atlanta, where the main purpose is to reunite fatherless children with their dads and give men the tools, attorney services, support, therapy, and confidence they need to move forward in fatherhood. To date, the organization has reunited over 8,200 fatherless children with their dads.
Fatherlessness can be a vicious cycle, Evans-Barton says, and her team’s effort is just one vehicle for giving dads a new path. “A majority of the dads we work with were raised without their fathers, or grew up with a father in the home who was emotionally distant. We help them learn to heal, recognize bad decision making and give them the tools they need.”
Emma Johnson’s Financial Advice for Divorced Moms
At the beginning stage of a divorce, it’s easy to be blinded. “You’re in a trauma making giant decisions that will impact the rest of your family’s future at a time when it is impossible to have clarity,” Johnson says. While it’s hard to see through the initial anger and hurt following a breakup, she encourages newly divorced moms to envision life a year from now. Establishing personal goals like starting a business, going back to school or buying a home can encourage more financial independence.
Make a Plan to Break Reliance on Child Support
Even if you earned less than your partner, begin to think about ways to earn more money in the years post-divorce and how to become less reliant on child support if you currently receive it. “Think big,” says Johnson. “The system is set up for you, as a woman, to be financially dependent on your [ex-husband]. You are better than that. And not to mention, compliance with child support is very low.” The average collection rate for child support from noncustodial parents was around 65% nationwide as of 2018.
Aim for Low Conflict with Your Ex
Trying to smooth over disputes may not seem like financial advice, but when there’s too much conflict it can sometimes lead to hiring lawyers, which can be a huge ongoing expense. Choose your battles wisely and be the bigger person, says Johnson. Ultimately, she says, conflicts should not be resolved with one parent “winning” and the other “losing.”