In My Humble Opinion...

Take Off the Baby Sling and Put on Your Thinking Cap! (Advice for the Stay-at-Home Parent Whose Marriage is on the Rocks)

3/31/2016

Are you are a stay at home parent? Are you worried about the stability of your marriage? There are two things you need right now: some reassurance and a plan. This article has you covered on both fronts.

Let’s tackle the reassurance first. First and foremost, know this: You are not alone. Lots of people are currently in your situation—many more than you realize. In fact, I’m willing to bet that more than a few of the stay at home parents in your circle are in your exact same shoes. You don’t know it because they don’t talk about it. Like you, they don’t want their business on the street. Plus, the topic is terrifying.

Realizing that you are not the only one plagued by the fear and uncertainty of what the future will hold for you and your children if your marriage ends will make you feel less isolated. There is a sisterhood and (a smaller but growing) brotherhood out there—and there is comfort in community.

But perhaps even more reassuring is this: Your divorce will most likely end up being the best “worst” thing that ever happened to you. Plenty of single parents who are happy, healthy and economically self-sufficient were once in your situation. Yes, really.

Divorce may seem like the worst thing in the world to you right now. But if that is your fate, take solace in this: A few years after your divorce, you will almost certainly look back on it and wonder why you dreaded it so much. While the process itself is, of course, no fun at all, the results are definitely worth it. Very few things in life are worse than living in a bad marriage—especially when you feel like you have little power and no options.

Now let’s move on to the “getting a plan” part.

Get access to funds. There are costs associated with splitting up and getting a divorce. One of you will be moving out—and moving costs money. There will be a security deposit, utility deposits, rent and household furnishings in somebody's future. Even if you’re not the one moving out, that money has to come from somewhere. That means the same paycheck that was previously dedicated to supporting only one household now has to be stretched to support two. There will be less to go around for everyone.

You might also need therapy for you and possibly even the children while you navigate through this. Whether and how much of that therapy is covered by insurance depends on the therapist and your plan. Also, you’ll need to hire a lawyer and that will require paying a retainer. And there’s nothing like an impending divorce to make someone do something stupid and erratic like drain bank accounts or max out credit cards. (And that someone better not be you.) If your spouse does this, you could find yourself scrambling for cash.

All of this is to say that if you are not the breadwinning spouse and/or you don’t have access to funds, you need to make arrangements so that you can easily get your hands on some money fast in the event of a marital emergency. Maybe you can confide in a close friend or family member and line up an informal line of credit with them. And/or you can begin building a rainy day fund by setting aside money here and there as you go along. Or perhaps you can get a credit card in your name and not use it but rather just hang onto it in case your marriage implodes.

Knowing that you have access to funds when you need them will shore up your position, give you options, and provide tremendous peace of mind. That’s worth a lot right now.

Get your paperwork in order. If you’re like most couples, it’s easier to get your hands on things like your tax returns, house loan paperwork, car loan numbers, bank account statements and retirement account information when you’re still living together. Start gathering all the information you can about your finances and investments right now.

Knowing passwords isn’t enough, since passwords can be changed. Actually get copies of statements whenever you can. This doesn’t count as sneaking around, by the way; it counts as being responsible and informed. Both members of a couple should have their arms around their family finances whether a divorce is a possibility or not. That means you should have complete access to all of this information, regardless of who manages the money.

Having a complete picture of your finances will give you and your lawyer a head start, and that will save time and money. But if you’re in a relationship where your spouse controls the financial information and you have no way of accessing it, don’t sweat it. Your lawyer can get the information through formal or informal discovery once the divorce is underway.

Get a career plan. The vast majority of stay-at-home parents whose marriages come to an end will need to get a job post-separation. The sooner you accept this reality, the better. If you had a career before, it’s time to start reconnecting with friends who are still in the business. Schedule coffees and lunches with former colleagues and bosses. Get up to speed with what is happening in your industry or profession. Take any continuing education that may be required. Reactivate licenses you had put on hold.

If you were in the kind of business where there are free-lance jobs to be had, consider putting your hat in the ring for some of those starting now. The more you’re on people’s radar screen, the more likely it is that they will think about you when an opportunity comes along.

But just because you worked in a certain industry before doesn’t mean you have to go back to that if it doesn’t interest you anymore. If you want to change careers—or you didn’t have a career to begin with—figure out what interests you now and start taking the necessary steps to get qualified to work in that field.

I realize your first choice may still be to stay at home with your children. Unfortunately, unless you want to be a nanny, there’s really not much of a market for oatmeal making, temper tantrum management, and nap whispering. And besides, you really need a job that pays a living wage.

If you need to go back to school, begin the process as soon as possible. Don’t worry about whether you can finish before your marriage falls apart; the important thing is to get started. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s possible that going back to school could have a positive impact on your marriage, or at least slow the decline. Stranger things have happened.

If you are in the process of getting the credentials you need to get a job that will enable you to support yourself, you and your spouse might be able to pace yourselves and postpone the split until then. Even if you don’t make it all the way to the finish line, if you’ve already begun working on your degree, you’ll be in a better position to get a divorce settlement that is structured in a way that enables you to keep working toward your goal after divorce.

Set your children up for success. One of the things we try to do as parents is minimize or manage the risks that confront our children. We put them in car seats. We make them wear bike helmets. Approximately half of all marriages end in divorce. That means if your children decide to follow in your footsteps and be stay at home parents when they grow up, there is a significant risk that they could end up in the same position that you’re in now.

Do what you can to minimize that risk. Raise them with an awareness of the importance of having credentials and a career to fall back on before electing to stay home to raise children. Explain to them that having a career in their back pocket will not only help to make their marriage more balanced during the years that they stay at home, it can also help their family navigate unexpected hardships like serious illness or loss of a job by the family breadwinner. Finally, explain to them the importance of having a complete picture of the family finances, and equal access to account information, financial records and family funds—not just in the event of a divorce, but for any family emergency.

Being a stay at home parent is a phenomenal gift to give one’s children. And it can be incredibly rewarding for the parent who stays at home, too. But that fact that it is rewarding doesn’t mean it’s not a sacrifice that can put you at a disadvantage. There are steps you can take to shore up your position—and that’s good for everyone in your family. No matter how shaky (or how solid) your marriage is, it’s not too late (or too early) to get started. And doing something to manage a very real risk is always better than doing nothing.