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May 26, 2009

My Divorce Recession

Recession In truth, my own personal recession began over five years ago, with my divorce.  I had not worked for one year of our brief 2 1/2 year marriage, and had been forced post-9/11 to take a temp job earning only about 1/3 of what I had made as a partner at a major law firm, because few companies would take me seriously as a still-nursing mother looking to re-enter the workforce.  Neverthless, in my divorce, I was the "Moneyed Spouse."  While that didn't entitle my ex to the half of everything he was hoping for, it meant I bore far more than what I felt then (and still feel now) was my fair share of the divorce expenses.  I had to pay for part of his legal fees, plus my own legal fees, the cost of the forensic psychologist who evaluated our relative fitness to be the full custodial parents of our two minor children, and countless other expenses that quickly added up. 

Coincidentally, throughout the eight years we lived together before we got married, a week before our son was born -- we had kept our financial lives completely separate.  The fact that there had never been any co-mingling of funds, either before or during the marriage, made the property settlement a great deal easier to manage.  My house and the earnings from my law firm partnership -- all purchased or earned well in advance of the marriage -- remained mine.  But, although I didn't have to give him half, the cost of the divorce ate it all up, anyway. 

Someone once told me, years before I ever knew I would be going through my own divorce, that it takes at least five years for a person to recover financially from the economic effects of a divorce.  In my own case, the current economic climate has extended that recovery period by several years.  Just as I was starting to find my own financial footing again -- to restore retirement accounts I'd had to liquidate (at a substantial tax loss) to help pay off my divorce expenses, and to rebuild a savings nest egg that I'd hoped to use to purchase a new home to replace the Harlem brownstone I had to sell to pay off the remainder of those divorce expenses, plus back taxes -- the economic downturn wiped out the value of my company stock options, halved the value of my 401K, and made it impossible to immediately rebuild what I lost financially in the divorce. 

Accordingly, I have found the current global recession to be a very convenient excuse for saying "no" to the children, to all sorts of things I might otherwise be embarrassed to admit I still can't afford.  Last year, I took out a loan on my 401K so my daughter could go to sleep-away camp, at a cost of $4,000 for one month, plus the expense of buying everything she needed to go to sleep-away camp.  This year, I decided that was foolish, and explained that since Mommy may not get a bonus this year (which is true, but irrelevant), we can't do sleep-away camp. 

I expected much wailing and gnashing of braces.  Instead, she told me a lot of her friends from camp can't afford to go this year because either the mom, the dad, or both, had lost their jobs, so she understood.  I've told my son he may be going to a cheaper baseball camp in the Bronx instead of the one he's attended in Old Westbury, New York for the last two years, with door-to-door bus service and daily swimming in addition to intense baseball coaching.  He hasn't complained yet. 

The recession has provided me cover for everything from getting rid of our old car (which really just fell apart, and I couldn't afford to replace it), to missing our standing Martha's Vineyard vacation for the second year in a row, to buying only the minimum amount of summer clothing.  I've even used it as an excuse for the ridiculous amount of clutter in our home (can't afford a maid service anymore) to way fewer trips to the movies (entertainment budget isn't what it used to be).  Thankfully, the kids take most of this in stride.  As long as we spend time together, they don't seem to care where we go or what we do, because we're not the only ones facing hardships. They understand that other people like us are going through tough times, so the fact that we're also going through tough times helps to make us like everyone else -- which seems to be what kids want.  

In a way, the current economic environment has been an unexpected blessing.  I would like for my stock options to be worth something -- even $1 apiece - again.  I would love to climb out of that financial divorce hole before I have to fund my daughter's college education in six years.  And words can't express how much I miss being a homeowner.  But my kids don't appear to feel unusually deprived, at least not in comparison to their classmates.  They seem to understand when I tell them I'm grateful to have a job that allows us to have everything we need, even if we can't have everything we want. 

They still, however, make the slightly outsized requests.  Just this Memorial Day weekend, my daughter asked me if we could make a trip to BraSmyth, as opposed to Victoria's Secret, to stock up on bras.   introduced her to BraSmyth, and I'm glad she only wants good bras.  The concept of buying a bra that costs less than $60 hasn't yet entered into her head, although, regrettably, it must.  But when I squawk about costs, they seem to get it now, in a way that never quite registered before.  Still, I'm hoping my divorce recession ends the same time that the general recession does.  And hopefully, our economic recovery will happen even sooner.

Original to NYC Moms Blog.  Carolyn Edgar is a lawyer and writer who lives with her two children in Harlem.  Carolyn also blogs about life as a lawyer, writer and single mom on her blog, Carolyn A. Edgar (http://carolynedgar.wordpress.com).

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