When Duane had been out of the house a little more than a year, he stopped by to make an announcement. Well, actually he had a couple things to say. The announcement was he was going to be moving in with his girlfriend of several months.
We were still married at the time, but whatever. The problem I had with this plan was I didn’t think he should be moving so fast on this new relationship when Laurel was struggling just to process the whole situation. Our daughter’s therapist asked Duane please to limit his time with the girlfriend and her son during Laurel’s visitation periods. Duane understood. He is a sensitive and caring man. But he kept right on doing as he pleased.
Listening to him at my kitchen table that day, I knew that any objections I made would look like irrational attacks and be discounted. In fact, telling Duane my fears was the best way to make something risky or misguided happen.
Instead, I heard him out as he described his plan to move into the girlfriend’s dilapidated rental house and rent out the perfectly good three bedroom house he’s just bought six months ago. This was pitched to me as a clever way to save money.
All I could think, listening to him, was there Duane sat, almost fifty years old, and here was I, the woman who had woven a cloak of reliability and maturity for him out of figments of my imagination. Now he wanted to play grownup with someone younger and economically unsettled. She would never know the difference, and that was the reason he’d chosen her.
Meanwhile, Duane had something else to tell me.
I got a job offer in back East, and they are going to pay me $250,000 a year. Would you consider moving back East if I took the job? I would support you financially.
Five months after this conversation, Duane’s attorney would slap a geographical restriction on the divorce decree ordering that I stay in Travis County. This represented a significant loss in the unofficial negotiation between our attorneys, but I had to accept it. I wanted to stay out of court because I had seen what high-conflict divorce does to people, and I knew what it would do to me. Duane was highly competitive and important in the community, while I had nothing going for me but a lot of fear and reactivity. I didn’t stand a chance.
A Judgment of Solomon
Geographical restrictions are rules that limit where the custodial parent is allowed to live so that the child, as the Texas statute states, “will have frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in [her] best interest.” A typical restriction is to the county where the non-custodial parent lives, or that county and the contiguous ones.
Geographical restrictions are admirable in theory. When the divorced parents live within a short drive of each other, it facilitates visitation and allows both parents to attend school and extracurricular events.
But like many rules that look good on paper, the reality is that geographical restrictions are only equitable when the divorced parents enjoy economic parity. Where do divorced moms stand? Here are some interesting statistics:
- The majority of custodial parents in the United States are women; they outnumber men six to one, according to the 2010 Census.
- Child support constitutes 45 percent of these women’s income.
- In Texas, nearly one half of the men ordered to pay child support are at least one month delinquent in their payments. Texans owe over 11 billion dollars in child support payments.
- 20 percent of Texan men make no support payments at all.
- 61 percent of women-led households in Texas are low income in 2014, up from 59 percent in 2007. (For comparison, the total number of low-income families in Texas in 2011 was 38 percent.)
These figures paint a picture of staggering economic inequality. Divorce is a big part of the equation.
In order for geographical restrictions not to be punitive, there would have to be language in the restriction ordering the non-custodial parent to pay extra support so that staying in the restricted zone would not create an undue economic hardship on the custodial parent. To my knowledge, there is none.
Instead, women are asked to make a sacrifice for their children that may lead to their long-term impoverishment. There is a lot of scorn heaped on women who protest this reality. They are accused of wanting to punish the father by moving away or of being selfish. The economic facts do not seem to resonate. The fact that non-custodial fathers have the option themselves to move or to pay more seems to occur to no one.
The Economic Facts in My Case
I have been pleasantly surprised by my ability to earn money following the divorce. Nevertheless, I am in the middle of the statistical bell curve — Duane’s support constitutes about half of the money I use to live on. I would probably earn more at one full-time job instead of the part-time jobs I’ve cobbled together, but I want to be there for Laurel while she is still young. That is ultimately what matters.
I live in a city where the price of real estate has gone through the roof, and though I dream and scheme about moving to a better neighborhood once Laurel goes to middle school, it seems unlikely that will happen. I cannot stay in Travis County and live in neighborhood with good public schools. It is up to her to qualify for one of the city’s magnate programs.
If she doesn’t, I may have to go to court to modify the restriction so that we can move to a contiguous county. The fact that I need a judge’s permission to move one mile from the county line flies in the face of good sense. It’s not the judge I’m worried about, however. I’m worried about Duane’s reaction.
Duane never did move in with his girlfriend. And as for the job offer back East — that never materialized, either. In retrospect, neither announcement was what it seemed at face value. Instead, they conveyed a powerful symbolic message: Duane is able to move wherever he wants without restriction. Unlike me, he is free.