Single Mothers Struggle on Alone as Fathers Go Absent

Published in the Toronto Star on March 26, 1993.

Please note: Changes to the laws regarding the taxation of child support payments have occurred since the time of writing. 

As both the child of a single mother and, now, as a single mother myself, I have read and listened to attacks on divorced or unwed singles mother with great anger and much sorrow.

These attacks emphasize the marital status of the mother of a family rather than the real issues, which are the fatherlessness of her children and the near total lack of understanding or tolerance for her situation in the workplace.

Rather than refer to these families as “single parent”, why not be clear? If we called them “absent father families”, for example, we might start to think about our choices differently.

The prevailing myth is that the taxpayer supports the non-working mother mother of single-parent children. If we get her to work, we save money. Simple, right?

For the sake of discussion, I will describe my scenario. I am a self-employed writer. I also run my own cleaning/organizing service. I have sole custody of one child. I receive both child support and day-care subsidy.

Will and Me 1992
My son and me in 1992

My child’s father is also employed. He earns approximately four times what I do and has substantial expenses, including a house, car, and other children.

If my child’s father and I were living as a couple, the amount he spends on child support now would not even cover the cost of our son’s child care, let alone the costs of feeding him, clothing him, providing him with shelter, medical care, toys and books.

Clearly, taxpayers are subsidizing absent fathers, to the point of allowing child-support payments (for the fewer than 20 per cent of those who do make them) to be tax deductible.

Single mothers, on the other hand, have to claim their children’s support payments as “income,” rather than as reimbursement for for child-care expenses. If they are receiving welfare assistance, their child-support payments are deducted 100 per cent from their already insubstantial allowance, making the sometimes monumental struggle to get support from a potentially abusive ex-partner seem totally futile.

Furthermore, if the father starts a new family, his expenses go up and his legal liability to support his earlier born children is reduced. If the mother remarries, on the other hand, her new husband’s income may change the material circumstances of her family, thus enabling the biological father to pay less once more.

If we, as a society, really want to stop supporting absent-father households financially, then we face two options, neither of which is the simplistic solution retraining (retraining for what?) or forcing the single mother to work (outside the home).

We can reorganize the workplace to accommodate the realities of families headed by one person. This means allowing for the fact that a single parent may go without a complete night’s sleep for several years in a row. This means that a single-parent employee may be away from work for days at a time while tending to a child with the chickenpox, flu or ear infections. This means that a single parent may be called away from work at a moment’s notice when the daycare calls to say the child has been injured or is vomiting or has suddenly developed a fever.

(Since this option requires the provision of quality, affordable child-care options, it is debatable if it is a taxpayer savings.)

Our second choice involves forcing absent fathers to pay their share of the actual cost of caring for children.

Easier said than done. According to recent newspaper reports, just 25 per cent of Ontario’s more than 80,000 court orders for support are fully paid up. And, as pointed out above, child support rarely covers the actual costs.

Both of the above options add substantial strain to the already stressed existence of absent father families.

The first option is possible but improbable given that most workplaces still fail to consider the realities of two-parent families.

The second option is almost certainly a recipe for more threats, abuse, and violence by men who do not want to support their children. It will ensure that more men abandon their children or abduct them. It will ensure that taxpayers pay for increased legal services, health-care services, policing and correctional services. But at least no one will be “sitting at home.”

During the legal process that settled the details of my son’s support issues, my lawyers talked in terms of what was best for my son. Again and again, as intense emotions on both sides clouded the issues, the lawyers would remind us of the job we had to do: decide what was in our son’s best interest, and determine who, given our different resources, abilities, and limitations, was responsible for what.

This is what governments have to do, as well, since children are not possessions of individuals, but are genuinely innocent dependent members of (and eventual contributors to) an entire society.

The days of forced adoptions and illegal, life-threatening abortions are over. Let’s stop talking about the situation as if we haven’t made progress. We have. And progress is costly.