Malynnda Littky-Porath
Malynnda Littky-Porath
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Why equal isn’t equal when it comes to joint custody

A straight comparison of time and salary ignores the invisible costs to mothers

There’s a reason the saying birds of a feather flock together is considered a truism. So, it probably comes as no surprise that many of my friends are also single mothers. Lately, a lot of my friends who have joint custody, as I do, have been getting messages and letters from their exes referencing recent changes to Israeli law, and threatening to stop payment of child support. Given how difficult life can be financially in Israel, especially for single parents, many women in this situation are wondering if this is fair, and how they will be able to manage without this income.

Both the Israeli Supreme Court and the Knesset have brought up the topic of parents with joint custody within the last few months. In July, the Supreme Court ruled that when both parents care for their children for roughly equal periods of time, they each have an equal responsibility to provide financial support. The Knesset has since introduced a bill which would codify this as law, which is currently awaiting a second and third reading before it can be passed.

This decision is a reversal of the previous position of the Israeli government which held that fathers were primarily liable for the welfare of their children until the age of 15 regardless of how much time they spent with their children. Going forward, the Court has suggested that child support payments for those with joint custody be based on the relative incomes of the parents, and if the mother makes as much, or more than, the father, she would likely not receive child support.

That sounds fair, right? If both parents have equal time with the kids and equal incomes, then why should either of them be expected to pay more towards the care of their children? And in a perfect world, I would totally agree. Unfortunately, Israeli society is far from perfect in how it treats women, which impacts the position in which mothers and fathers find themselves when they divorce.

First, women are responsible for the greater portion of childcare in most Israeli households. This is due both to cultural bias and to gender-based gaps in salary. It is difficult to have both parents work full-time jobs of equal intensity if school gets out between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., and daycare is unavailable after 5 p.m., especially in hi-tech, where the workday ends at 6 p.m. or later. In these cases, it is much easier for the lower-paid person to sacrifice professional accomplishments for flexibility.

However, this comes back to bite mothers in the bosom if we should split from the family’s primary caregiver. Israel does not offer spousal support after a divorce, and women who have been unemployed or underemployed for years are forced into entry-level jobs at starter salaries, while still needing to budget for a family, typically in jobs with less security than our partners. A shekel for shekel comparison doesn’t include that these women have paid less into pensions, and typically have fewer perks and benefits, because they are in effect just starting out in their careers.

Additionally, few custody cases are decided in the court. Nearly 90 percent of custody issues are settled through mediation, and the mother is almost always given primary custody. Think about your assessment of a mother who would agree to giving the father primary custody. Now, how do you think of a father who doesn’t ask for joint custody? Different imagery, I’m guessing.

This prejudice carries forward on a daily basis. For example, teachers tend to call the mom to remind us of assignments or to come get our kids when they’re sick. Until we push equality between mothers and fathers prior to a divorce, and to the point where joint custody is the default, with fathers having to turn it down, rather than ask for it, women will be expected to carry the emotional burdens associated with being the primary parent, even where this isn’t the case.

Another factor is that there is no civil divorce in Israel. Women are forced to wait for their exes to grant them a gett before we can move forward. This is certainly unfair. However, the argument has been that this is just how Jewish law works. Of course, Jewish law also says that the father is the parent with the obligation to pay for the upkeep of the children. It seems ironic that once again, time marches on when men’s issues are on the table, but women are just told to deal with guidelines laid down hundreds of years ago, because… well eff you, that’s why.

If we really are interested in an equitable arrangement for mothers and fathers when it comes to custody and child support, we need to fix the entire equation. Workplaces need to be encouraged to have family friendly policies and flexible hours, fathers need to step up more both during and after the marriage, and both men and women need to expect that men are fully capable of parenting. Only once everyone backs a solution that allows women the same chance at professional success while granting them complete autonomy in the dissolution of failed relationships should we demand that both sides split the economic costs of raising children in half.

About the Author
Malynnda Littky made aliyah to Israel with her family in 2007 from Oak Park, Michigan. Her recent stay in Paris, enjoying both medical tourism and her new status as the trophy wife of a research economist, has renewed her love for Israel, despite arriving just in time to enjoy several weeks of lockdown.
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