As a practicing attorney since 1994 I have frequently seen clients have to scale back their lifestyle dramatically after the divorce. To a certain extent this is to be expected anytime you take the same amount of income and you go from one household to two. This type of situation requires a bit of belt-tightening for both parties and is very common.
What is not so common that creates a bit of a parenting challenge is when one parent becomes very wealthy post-divorce while the other parent struggles financially. This can happen for a variety of reasons such as one of the ex’s marrying into wealth, having some newfound career success, receiving a substantial inheritance, or just a large disparity in household incomes. The situation can be very challenging for the non-rich parent. Below are some tips on how to best deal it.
Get Excited for Your Child
When your child has the opportunity to have unique and exciting experiences that are provided by your ex, resist the temptation to feel jealous and wish that you could be the one providing that experience. More than once I’ve heard clients complain that their ex was taking the kids to Disney World and that they would never be able to afford such an extravagant vacation. Even if you can’t shake that feeling of jealousy my suggestion is that you suppress that emotion for the sake of your children. Get excited for the wonderful experience they will have and let them see your excitement. Have them tell you all the details of the trip and share in the experience by letting them tell you all about it. The last thing you want to do is to be the person that makes them feel guilty over something that they should be thrilled about.
Show Your Children That Money Does Not Equal Happiness
We’ve all heard the old expression “money can’t buy happiness.” While it sounds trite it turns out that it is scientifically accurate. Studies have shown that while large unexpected financial windfalls can make a person happier initially, the increased happiness is short-lived and the person will revert to their previous level of happiness surprisingly quickly. For a fascinating read on the science of happiness check out Sonja Lyubomirsky’s excellent book “The How of Happiness.” Dr. Lyubomirsky is a research psychologist who has spent her career studying happiness. Her research has found many concrete ways to improve your happiness level, none of which require wealth.
So if you are feeling sorry for yourself because you are not wealthy like your ex, you can take a certain amount of solace in the fact that their wealth alone doesn’t make them any happier than you. But what is more significant is that you can make the situation a learning experience for your children. You can teach them the priceless lesson that material things, social status, and wealth are not required in order to be happy. This lesson can be taught by the way you live your life as well as actual discussions on the topic. Be careful not to bash your ex for their wealth, this will only make you seem jealous. Instead teach that a happy, joy-filled and fulfilling life is the birth right of everyone, both rich and poor.
Remember Your Own Childhood
Unless you are one of those rare people who had the “perfect” childhood, you likely could fill in the blank in this sentence: I wish my parents had _. Almost everyone can point to something about their childhood that they would change if they could, but I suspect very few people would answer that question by saying that they wish their parents had been wealthier.
In fact, many people from very economically disadvantaged backgrounds whose families struggled to make ends meet will comment on how those tough times really made their family pull together. A few years ago, when former pro football player Arian Foster signed a multi-million dollar contract he began sobbing when telling the childhood story of his divorced mother working two jobs and struggling to pay the utility bills and buy groceries for her children. The bond and admiration he felt towards her was palpable.
Fun Experiences to Be Had, No Money Required
Whenever you find yourself bothered by the unfairness of the situation, take that as a signal to get creative. Remember, there is no price of admission for fun. Spend your free time with your child doing something they like, whatever that may be. Play dolls with them, go to the park and climb on the jungle gym with them, play sports with them, cook with them, whatever you think they would be excited about. The greatest gift you can give your children is your time and your engagement. Teach them the great lesson that you can always make your own fun.
While being the “poor” parent has its own set of challenges, there are certainly a lot of things you can do to make sure that you fulfill your obligation as a parent and have fun along the way.
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