Lizzie, mum of twins, talks about her struggles accessing accurate and regular child maintenance, but it’s her children who end up losing out.
A few months into single motherhood, I cracked a semi-joke about preferring the term ‘lone wolf parent’, to the term ‘single mum’. I say semi-joke because, whilst I do dislike the term ‘single mum’, I’m not expecting anyone to seriously call me a lone wolf parent any time soon! One of the reasons I hate the term ‘single mum’ so much is we get a bad rap in the media. We are –apparently– lazy, not working, doing it for the benefits. I’m none of those things and even if I were, it misses the point: this isn’t about me; it’s about my children.
When I found out I was pregnant with twins, the father of my children soon made it clear that fatherhood wasn’t for him and disappeared off into the sunset (literally – he flew to Australia when I was 12 weeks pregnant!). I’m an organised type, and whilst I was pregnant, I decided to call the Child Support Agency (CSA) to see where I stood, given I had no Australian contact details for him. I was advised that it would be virtually impossible for me to do anything. I stood my ground and I was eventually told that, should I be able to get hold of his details, I might be able to get him to contribute financially, as Australia is a reciprocal country, so there were powers in place to make him pay. However, it was repeatedly emphasised to me that we should seek an amicable agreement between ourselves.
How does one seek an amicable agreement with someone who refuses to communicate with you? Well, through sheer bloody mindedness (and with a bit of help from friends and family), I eventually got his address. That, coupled with some slightly unwilling help from his friends, resulted in him getting in contact via a solicitor. It felt like progress was being made.
It didn’t take long though for me to realise that, in reality, I held no power. I was existing in a system that supported his attempts to avoid responsibility. He immediately demanded a paternity test. I agreed. He disappeared. He resurfaced (after several months), did the test, then disappeared again. The test confirmed his paternity, and I thought everything would be sorted. What followed instead were months of prolonged wrangling and negotiations and delays and accusations, where it felt like I was the one in the wrong.
My dad was very ill at the time (and has since sadly passed way). It all became too much for me – I was a new mum, I went back to work four days a week when they were six months old (although they were two months premature, so they were only four months corrected), my dad was dying and to top it all off, even though I had proof of paternity, even though I had his address, his work details, every detail you could possibly need – he still wasn’t paying maintenance. I didn’t understand how the system could allow this behaviour. I decided to give up.
Luckily for me, I have immensely supportive family and friends. My brother offered to deal with him for me and I gave power of attorney to him. A wonderful, wonderful friend (who would be wonderful even if she hadn’t done this) gave me financial support. My brother and this friend made some very dark days, very much lighter.
My brother took on the battling for me and eventually myself and the father of my children signed a family agreement. He would pay 16 per cent of his annual salary to contribute to the financial security of the twins. He would also backdate the maintenance payments – to the date of the paternity test. They were eight months old when we did the paternity test. We didn’t argue. We weren’t in control and some progress was better than none. The aim for me, was to gain a little more financial security for my children and to be able to tell them that he may not have felt he could be there emotionally, but he did support them financially.
That should have been it. But the problem is that the current system, as I’ve just explained, bases the non-resident parent’s contributions on their earnings. This in turn, relies on the non-resident parent being honest about their earnings. The father of my children earnt (I believe) roughly £50,000 p.a. when he lived in the UK. He now claims to earn £18,000 p.a. and has moved from being employed to self-employed.
Neither you nor I can prove anything from this financial shift. However, it highlights a massive problem with the current system: it relies on people being honest about their earnings. People who sometimes don’t want to meet their responsibilities. I genuinely don’t think the problem here is the father of my children. The problem is the system.
Not only does the system promote a culture that is inherently unsupportive, full of obstacles and unwilling to help, but even worse, the system seems to be designed to allow non-resident parents to openly dodge their responsibilities. Moreover, the way child maintenance is calculated is unfair. Surely a far fairer system would be to agree the cost of the basics of raising a child and split that monthly bill equally between the two parents?
I am immeasurably lucky. I am lucky because I have two wonderful, delightful, funny, kind, gentle, lovely children, who fill my world with love and light. I am lucky because my job is relatively well paid. I am lucky because I have a network of family, friends and colleagues who have supported us, both financially and emotionally. Not everyone is so lucky though, and that is not ok. It’s time that the government takes real action to hold non-paying parents to account, and it’s time to create a fair and just child maintenance system. I was wrong at the start: this isn’t just about my children; this is about any child from a lone wolf parent family. This is about our children.