Child Support Isn’t Karma; Nor Is It A Replacement For Physical Parenting
Growing up, I learned two things about being a parent: (1) the job required a large salary; (2) it required a lot of sacrifice. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever stomached a pitch on parenthood that didn’t center around funds or fun, one of which you could never have too much of, the other you’d probably never have again.
I grew up seeing my mother and father split the funds fairly equally –the fun, not so much. Overtime, I accepted that two parent homes were about the appearance of partnership more so than actual partnership. Most of the married mothers I knew were overworked, overlooked and under appreciated, sacrificing most of their fun in order to appease a partner-in-funds. This honestly sounded like a super shitty deal to me, but apparently if I could find a man with more funds, living a life devoid of fun wouldn’t be all that bad. Instead, I found one unwilling to devote either. Guilted by the threat of the bitter black woman byname, I refused to pursue child support as it came with the threat of incarceration for him. So I reluctantly prepared for single-parenthood from a single pocket, fearing the financial strain of my circumstances the most, only to discover that his absence would create a much bigger void than child support could fill.
Just to set the record straight, child support is not karma, it is a parental duty. Oh, how I wish someone had told me that sooner. Child support isn’t about being vindictive, or being an “extension of the system,” or contributing to the systemic bondage of men, particularly Black men. The obligation to provide financial support for a biological child is just one of the many responsibilities that accompany parenthood and there is no need to overstate it’s significance or commend it more than is due. Unless parental rights have been legally terminated, according to the United States Department of Health & Human Services, every parent in the United States must contribute financially to the welfare of his or her child. There simply are no exceptions, and for one very good reason: raising a child costs money. According to a study published in USA Today, the cost of raising a child from birth to age 18, not accounting for post-high school education and expenses, is a staggering $233,610. This number would intimidate the most well-prepared soon-to-be-parents, but we know most couples don’t prepare for parenthood, neither do most remain couples, that’s where child support comes in.
Child support is intended to be a monetary supplement for the forfeited financial contribution of a physically absent parent. Granted, according to the United States Census, the average noncustodial parent pays only $430 a month in child support, which is just $110.76 shy of the $540.76 it would take to reach the halfway mark of what constitutes a child’s estimated monthly expenses, but $430 is still $430 more than nothing. By law, custodial parents are to use that money to provide for the basic needs of the child, as well as a standard of living on par with the standard of living both parents maintain. What child support is is a financial contribution in the form of ongoing monetary payments made from a non-custodial parent to a custodial parent or guardian on behalf of a biological child. What child support is not is everything else. There’s a rumor going around that parenting begins and ends at the wallet. Not so. Instrumental support, which child support technically is, is defined as any kind of support that is tangible, including financial assistance and the provision of material goods and services. This kind of support, albeit the easiest to document, is hardly the most impactful. The role of a parent is far more demanding than that and therein lies the dilemma.
There are just some things child support doesn’t do. Like explain coming of age to a young boy and the physical changes that accompany it, or guide him through the very real, very intense emotional and hormonal challenges that affect his every day during adolescence. Nope, that would require Instructional Support, the provision of mentorship, guidance, and valuable information from a trusted source. And child support can’t affirm a preteen girl of her differences or build her confidence should she struggle with low self-esteem. Nope, that would require Appraisal Support, the provision of social and emotional encouragement and assistance. And child support can’t sit up late night with a frantic fifth grader gluing cotton balls to poster board for a last minute science fair, nor can it cheer him on at his first soccer match. No, that would require Companionship Support, the kind of support that makes a child feel a sense of belonging. Child support is the least a non-custodial parent can provide. It’s like getting in the car and driving to work in the morning; it’s an obvious first step, probably the most basic expectation an employer can have for you as an employee to show up. But eventually you have to get out of the car, walk into the building, clock in and get to work, because that’s how the things actually get done.
There is no replacement for the physical presence of a parent. None. In fact, research says there is literally nothing more impactful to a child’s development than just that, the present of their parent. Children need things, granted many of those things cost, but a lot of them don’t. Like our influence, our example, our wisdom, our kindness, our generosity, our problem solving, our anger management, etc. This isn’t about whether or not the child support system has issues, of course it does, as does every arm of the American judicial system, especially as it pertains to minority populations. This is about addressing and accepting the fullness of our parental responsibilities, something we don’t do often enough. To cut to the chase, child support alone simply doesn’t cut it. And no parent is owed praise for paying what they owe, both morally and legally. Children need more from us than money, to be honest, we have no shortage of well-dressed, poorly parented children. But we can’t blame them for not growing up with the things we don’t instill in them. That is as much our responsibility as is food, shelter and clothing. Better parenting starts with a better understanding of what the job requires from us, first as obligated parents, and then as accountable people.