Divorce can be a one-way ticket down the road to financial instability for many women, especially for those who are middle class or low-income.
It can mean a loss of work hours, more time (and expense) devoted to childcare and a cold slap in the face when it comes to finding a job or finishing an education.
While working-class women tend to be hit harder, not having a job, money or credit of their own is a challenge that can affect women of all socioeconomic brackets, said Bruce McClary, spokesman at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "In a lot of situations you have that career interrupted... It can be very messy in that situation because they have to start right from scratch."
This was the situation Michelle Bornemann found herself in when she and her husband began divorce proceedings more than four years ago. The Long Island, New York resident, who has two children, had worked for a title insurance company before they were born but has been largely out of the work force since.
"I have nothing to show for a resume," she said. "The place I worked for 18 years ago is long gone."
Now, Bornemann earns $12.50 an hour as a special-ed teacher's aide. "I'm paying the bills week by week because I don't have extra money in the account," she said. Her hours fluctuate depending on when school is in session, with holidays and snow days putting a dent in her earnings.
Money she can't afford on home repairs is adding up. "I'm not able to fix anything in the house or update anything," she said. "There's a leak coming through the ceiling in one of the bathrooms [and] there's a sinkhole in the yard that fell through." Bornemann had to declare bankruptcy, which means she can't even get credit cards to serve as a buffer when her income falls.
"There are big losses in income across the income distribution for both higher- and lower-income women," said Laura Tach, an assistant professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University. Mothers who have custody of children can see 30 to 40 percent of their income vanish, and their earnings are often unstable, since childcare or other caregiving demands can pull them out of the work force.
"Also, just having a single income doesn't help buffer some of those financial shocks," Tach pointed out. "It's much more difficult to balance that out."
Paid time off
A 2012 Urban Institute study found that only 43 percent of employed, working-class parents in a focus group got paid time off — including sick time — from their employer, 60 percent worked nonstandard hours and nearly a quarter had to work nights. For a newly single mother trying to reestablish herself in today's labor market, these barriers can be challenging.
Even for women higher up the socioeconomic spectrum, reentering the labor force can take months. "I really do like the idea of the whole stay-at-home-mom experience but as far as practicality, I have been advocating for women to keep their foot in there in some way, shape or form," said Lisa Sotir, a Miami resident and mother of one who struggled to find work in her former field after she and her husband separated in 2010.
"I had done a little bit of part-time marketing work for a nonprofit for a couple of years, but I for all intents and purposes had left the workforce," she said.
"I probably would have kept some things in my own name as a safety net," Sotir said. Instead, she had to depend financially on her estranged husband for nearly a year until she could find a job. "Tensions are high — money is a hot topic in a divorce anyway," she said.
"One of the top reasons for disagreements within a relationship is the subject of household finances," said McClary said. Money can be a hot button during divorce because of women's employment challenges, and maintaining two households — two rent or mortgage payments, two electric bills, and so on — costs more.
"Divorces are expensive," said Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families. "[For] both women and men, divorce can cause big decreases in income, and it takes a while to recover."
Some struggle for years to rejoin the middle class. For Lara Brooks, her 2010 divorce meant going from working as a teacher's aide while she finished earning her bachelor's degree to juggling two fast-food jobs and ultimately losing her home to foreclosure.
Mountain of defaulted debt
The Mississippi resident was seven months away from earning her degree in social sciences, but now she worries that with a mountain of defaulted student loan debt, she'll never be able to finish her education.
Education is one of the sharpest dividing lines when it comes to divorce, and can be another strike against women trying to rebuild their lives. According to University of Michigan economics and public policy professor Justin Wolfers, 17 percent of couples without college degrees divorced within seven years of marriage, compared to 11 percent of couples with college degrees.
Studies consistently have shown higher unemployment for people without college degrees. That means women without degrees — already more prone to divorce — have a harder time finding work after the fact.
"I have an associates degree and 7 months shy of my bachelor's but it means nothing without work history," Cox said in an online conversation. Her youngest son is five, and the only one of her five children who still lives at home with her. She said she hopes that once he starts kindergarten next year, she'll be able to pick up her job search.
"Making your career as a stay-at-home mom will get you nowhere if your husband decides he is done," she said.