As our thoughts begin to turn to the holiday season, we begin to reacquaint ourselves with the nuances of etiquette. For example, child support payments might be a topic to avoid in the way that people shy away from discussions of politics, religion or plans for having children.
We’re reacquainting ourselves with social interactions after a prolonged period of avoiding family and friends due to what we’ve said was the pandemic. But it could have been any reason, from finding some family or friends just plain annoying to being too short of money to take any trips. Whatever the reason, customs, including rules of etiquette, are at the forefront of my mind these days. Our everyday manners have taken a hit during the past few years. We’ve all given a service industry employee, health care worker or family member a little less patience than we would’ve liked. But everyone has been doing their best, right?
Now, behaviors that may have been overlooked before are met with disapproval. Coughing or blowing your nose at a table can elicit a pretty stern reaction. Well-established rules of etiquette at social gatherings have included avoiding topics of discussion such as politics, plans to have children and religion.
So a recent conversation with a friend sparked my reflection on the potentially divisive topic of child support payments.
As I sat with my guy friend on my porch, the warm summer evening gradually slipping away in Baltimore, our conversation veered toward the familiar, yet wearisome, topic. For years, I had patiently endured his monologues about the intricate struggles he faced in his relationship with his child’s mother and the labyrinthine court systems. The situation is often a convoluted mess.
When we first crossed paths, he was a licensed community social worker, offering his expertise to those in need. But now, he shuffled between security jobs and music gigs. He never spoke explicitly about the job change, but I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the loss of his social work license was somehow connected to the challenges he confronted as a father. I observed a concoction of mental health struggles and ceaseless battles with the courts, child support and custody disputes and the myriad complexities Baltimore fatherhood can bring. He was battered and beleaguered.
So, I would listen. Our conversation that evening served as a stark reminder of how much his life had changed. I believe the system failed him, and in doing so, failed his family.
This made me reflect on the upcoming holiday season, a time traditionally reserved for celebration and togetherness. I’m certain he wouldn’t be invited to the holiday table with his child or the child’s mother. I couldn’t help but think about how, for my friend and many others in similar situations, the holidays could be a painful and isolating reminder of their yearlong child support or custody struggles. It was a poignant moment that prompted me to reevaluate my perspective on the issue, recognizing the importance of compassion and understanding, especially during a time when many were celebrating the joys of family.
Hearing my friend’s story offered a stark departure from my own experiences, and the resilience he still exhibited was nothing short of inspiring. It’s a conversation worth being a part of, just not at the holiday dinner table.
Child support, which in Baltimore often consists of court-ordered payments typically made by a noncustodial parent to support their minor child or children, can be a potential source of tension. The topic can encompass elements of other taboo subjects and has the potential to introduce a contentious mix of conversations. Arguments can disrupt the peaceful ambience of a meal shared with beloved family members, friends or colleagues.
On the political, legislative and legal fronts, significant federal legislation covering child support was enacted in 1975, and since 1990, Maryland has had child support guidelines in place.
The guidelines seem simple enough. The Maryland Court system created a formula for calculating child support that’s based on a portion of each parent’s gross income.
In my sphere of influence and conversation, child support experiences in Baltimore usually are centered around the father’s gross income and his requirement to pay. While the intention of the child support system is to provide for the child’s well-being, my very personal anecdotal evidence from conversations with men in Baltimore, including when on dates (really not a great time to talk about child support), suggests that it can often destabilize family dynamics, or worse, alienate a parent from seeing their children.
In 2021, the number of Maryland families served by the Office of Child Support Enforcement was 170,000, according to a report authored by the University Maryland School of Social Work. The same report stated that the Office of Child Support Enforcement reached approximately 12.6 million children in 2021, including 1 in 3 children from low-income families.
On its site, the Maryland Child Support Administration states that it offers emotional support. But with thousands of Baltimore parents, mostly fathers, owing millions of dollars in arrearage, the emotional support is mostly beside the point.
I’m certain that some fathers and parents in Baltimore will not be at the dinner table this holiday after battling in court through any number of tools that the child support enforcement office can pursue. These include withholding child support from wages, reporting parents owing child support to new employers, seizing assets or even intercepting Maryland lottery winnings.
A parent not having the means to pay support for a child is one variable. But that parent shouldn’t expect any understanding or sympathy when they just ignore the kid and the payment altogether.
As I read Leslie Gray Streeter’s Baltimore Banner column about her experiences with single motherhood, I reflected on my own journey. I was married in my early 20s. When my relationship was coming to an end and I was becoming a single mother, I thought hard about how my now ex-husband and I dealt with his child support case for two previous children. I had my own doubts about whether child support would truly be sufficient because of that.
My marriage had an emotional, fiery ending, but I still, in a Nobel Peace Prize-worthy feat, opted not to put my children’s father on court-ordered child support because I saw how negatively life-altering it could be. The government has its hand in enough of my personal life anyway as a woman. But still, I can appreciate cases in which court-mandated child support would be an absolute necessity.
In my family’s case, the kids are blessed to have the option of going to either house for the holidays. But the grownups still make sure not to explore child support in those holiday-table conversations.
Alanah Nichole Davis, a writer, artist and alumnus of Maryland Institute College of Art, works as a freelance communication and design consultant. She lives in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood with her family.