I think I’m more conscious of my ‘kid of divorce’ identity more as an adult than I was as a child. Sure, my Dad leaving for someone else wasn’t my *favourite* part of my upbringing, but I think I spend more time thinking about it these days than I ever did then.
I guess you reach that point in adult life where you start to piece things together. You get to know yourself. You develop an ability to understand why you are the way you are, why you think certain things, why you have certain biases, behavioural traits and values.
One of those things I’ve been unpacking about myself is why I was always so terrible with money, despite growing up in an environment where there wasn’t all that much of it.
I recently asked on my Instagram story for insights from other kids of single parents – how did their experience impact their money mindset?
Unsurprisingly, my inbox was flooded with tales of superhero budgeters, who had seen the hardship and made it their mission to not end up in the same situation. They’d seen their single parent bootstrapping, diligently making ends meet, going through the complexities of transitioning from a double income family to a single income one, and emerged savvy savers with an ability to manage money far beyond their years.
But for me, the impact of growing up as a child of divorce manifested vastly differently in my money mindset. While a few responses mirrored my thoughts, it did seem as though the experience I’m about to tell is the less common outcome.
I’m going to try and articulate my experience as a child of divorce in a way that’s both authentic and honest, but without blurring the lines of privacy. This is not just my story to tell, and I need to respect that.
It was a winter’s evening in the UK. I was 11. I picked up the remote to flick from ITV to BBC to watch Eastenders, when my Mum said they had something to tell me. My dad had been seeing a woman from work and he was going to go and live with her.
I mean, look, I rather wanted to watch the domestic drama unfold on Albert Square (Eastenders reference, sorry), not actually live it in my own reality, but ok.
For some reason, the actual logistics of what happened over the next few months are a complete blur. I don’t remember if I went back to school straight away, though I remember my teachers looking at me with a weird sense of sadness. That sounds weird to say now, but believe me when I say people’s parents separating wasn’t as common back then as it is now – at least not in our little town. It was somewhat more unusual back then than it might be in 2020.
Anyway, back to the money stuff. Without spilling the tea on my parents’ life story, in short, my dad was in the police, and my mum worked a sales job that was far beneath her capabilities, but that afforded her the ability to actually work around the schedule of parenting while my dad worked shifts. We weren’t by any means wealthy, but we had enough. Problem is, the majority of that ‘enough-ness’ came from my dad’s job. Even at age 11, I’d clocked that if we had to live on my Mum’s salary alone, it would be tough.
I remember walking in on my mum crying. I remember her telling me she was scared. I remember it sinking in that maybe we’d have to move and that things might get tough. I remember telling my friends. I remember feeling lonely and confused.
But what I also remember was my mum trying to make up for what had happened. Doing everything she could to make sure I wasn’t missing out, and trying to keep things as normal as possible. I guess there’s a sense of keeping up appearances when you’re getting divorced and people know about it. I remember not wanting to appear like we were the ones who had lost out. It was my dad’s choice to leave, why should we suffer?
She wasn’t showering me with presents and trips to Disneyland, of course, but I always knew she was pushing our financial capacity to try to maintain a sense of control.
One day she bought me the Babyliss hair crimper that I wanted so badly and never thought I’d be allowed to have. Let’s not forget it was the year 2000. When I got it I couldn’t believe my luck. The reality was she’d bought me that because my dad was out with his new girlfriend that day, and she was softening the blow.
In terms of my money mindset, all of this manifested in what I now believe was a fear of money; an assumption that no matter how secure you are, something will come along that’s completely out of your control and take it from you. I also believe I adopted the idea that spending meant you were in control. I’d always associated spending with independence, and the second I had a single pound to spend, I’d be working out what I could spend it on.
As a child of divorce, you’re often told ‘no’ a lot. So when you get your own money, you’re in control; you don’t have to ask for a yes. To be honest,on some level I think I thought that if I didn’t keep anything, I’d have nothing to lose.
Growing up in a single income household also often demonstrates that money is hard, scarce, difficult and life-ruining. And it makes sense that it does, too. Going from a double income to a single income is hard. As a young, impressionable kid who’s working through their parents divorcing, it’s no wonder many of us adopt the assumption that being financially confident has to be hard.
Responses to my question on Instagram Stories included sentiments like “money made me feel empowered, and in order to feel empowered, I’d spend all my money.” Another said “It made me very conscious of spending… but I’m still not very good at saving. I think that’s because my Mum never saved because things were tight.” Another echoed my thought process of money leaving you, by saying “The thought that money is so finite and can disappear at any time really ruined my spending habits as a young adult.”
Despite my money disasters, as I’ve grown up and got a handle on my finances, I have noticed that I’ve consistently maintained a craving for independence and control. Now, of course, that manifests as saving better, investing, making sure I never surrender the financial management to a man, and always wanting to earn and manage my own money.
I’ve learned that it’s not too hard, that money doesn’t have to carry a negative connotation. But that’s required a whole lot of internal work.
The reality is, growing up as a child of divorce leaves a scar. For some of us that scar might cut deeper than others, but for me, my scar is forever seeing divorce as a possibility in my future – even in the happiest relationships.
Financially, that’s a great thing, really. That’s what fuels me to remain independent with my money, to make plans with contingencies in place. Seeing my mum go through it showed me I could truly do anything, and now one of my big money goals is to be able to support her financially as she gets older.
But from a relationship perspective, I often wonder if I let my fear of ending up separated tarnish my love for my partner.
For me, it’s an ongoing battle with my ‘kid of divorce’ scar. To let it support me, drive me, empower me to look after myself and know that I’m capable of anything; but not let it take away from my heart’s capacity for lasting love, for shared financial responsibility, for a forever without significant domestic adversities.
I’ll end this heart dump (the deep version of a brain dump) with an almighty shout out to all my fellow kids of divorce. Extra special fist bumps go out to my fellow only children of divorce. It’s lonely at times, but we’ve got superpowers others can only dream of. Remember that.