We haven’t heard a lot from the “responsible fatherhood” movement in a while, but here’s the latest (Daily Standard, 1/12/12).
The responsible fatherhood movement gets it half right. It recognizes and urgently promotes the involvement of fathers in the lives of their children. It takes a backseat to none in educating the public about the deep psychic injuries suffered by the children of absent fathers. For that – the half it gets right – it is to be applauded.
But it’s the other half that’s problematical. The concept of “responsible fatherhood” includes the notion that, if fathers just weren’t so gosh-darned irresponsible, children would have fathers in their lives and all those deep and lasting “father wounds” would disappear. The problem, according to the movement, is that fathers, prefer to abandon their responsibilities to their kids. It follows that convincing fathers to remain connected to them will solve everything.
Well, it’s a big world and there are doubtless fathers who don’t care about their children and who abandon them at the first opportunity. Of course there are mothers who do the same. Indeed, many states have “Baby Moses” laws that specifically allow mothers to do exactly that. But neither the responsible fatherhood movement nor anyone else acknowledges that part of the problem.
But when it comes to fathers, the prefered narrative that male parents simply aren’t responsible enough to care about remaining with their children is pure bunk. Do those fathers exist? Doubtless some do. But the true villains of the drama are less the fathers than they are family courts, family laws and gatekeeping mothers.
If the responsible fatherhood movement wants examples of absent fathers, I can give them plenty. How about Scott Ritchie? He’s an “absent” father. Here and here are the pieces I’ve done on him.
Ritchie is the Michigan man who, with the agreement of his wife, was the stay-at-home father of their son Kyle. Their agreement was that she would do the earning and he would stay home with their son until the boy reached the age of six and started to school. Then, with the boy out of the house several hours each day, Scott could resume gainful employment.
But that plan went awry when his wife took a job in Omaha and filed for divorce just when Kyle started school. Scott hadn’t had a job in several years and we were stuck in the depths of the current recession in one of the hardest-hit states - Michigan. So, with no job, no prospects and no child support from his soon-to-be ex-wife, Scott was relying on their savings account to tide him and Kyle over. But his wife scotched that notion by cleaning out every penny of the $73,000 they’d saved, leaving him and Kyle destitute.
Given all that, you’d think it impossible for Scott to lose custody in the divorce action, but that’s exactly what happened. Yes, he’d been the stay-at-home dad; no, there was no claim of abuse; yes Kyle was a happy, healthy little boy; and yes, he had extended family in the Michigan area in which he’d lived all his young life. But Scott’s ex got custody anyway.
That meant hauling the child out of his familiar environment with his loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. It meant taking him from his school and neighborhood friends. It meant putting him in the care of a mother who works long hours and who’d never before been a hands-on parent.
Now Scott Ritchie gets to try to exercise his “visitation” rights when his son is a 12-hour drive away. And, as I write, the judge is set to approve his ex’s move to Seattle, effectively taking Scott’s son out of his life altogether.
Absent father? You bet. Loving, caring, capable, responsible father? You bet.
But how did that happen? It happened because the family court simply couldn’t wrap its brain around the concept of a stay-at-home dad. And if a stay-at-home dad can’t get custody, what dad can? The answer is “not many.” In fact, the few dads who do get custody of their children are often those with ex-wives who are so dysfunctional that even a family court judge can’t ignore it.
From Sanford Braver’s studies of divorced dads to the Fragile Families and Child Well-being study ongoing at Princeton, science paints a portrait of fathers that’s entirely at odds with the one preferred by the “responsible fatherhood” movement. That portrait shows a man who’s passionately dedicated to his child, but who’s in danger of losing contact due to a variety of factors.
One factor is popular culture and the news media that routinely portray men as uninterested in fatherhood and their children and incompetent to give care to them. Those same sources depict women as natural caregivers, uniquely fulfilled by – and qualified for - the task of parenthood. Is it any surprise men hesitate to “step up” and take responsibility for children?
Those ubiquitous cultural messages help shape the interpersonal behavior of men and women when they become parents. The mother is strongly motivated (“This is my job and I must be good at it.”) to take over parenting and the father is strongly motivated (“I don’t know what I’m doing”) to let her. So at every opportunity, Mom steps in and elbows Dad aside. That’s called maternal gatekeeping and much social science informs us of the practice.
That interpersonal dynamic is reinforced if the couple divorces. Judges have learned the cultural lessons about fathers and mothers as well as the next person, and so, when it comes to deciding custody, guess who’s favored. Scott Ritchie can tell you.
Dad’s visitation, even if Mom allows it, is generally so minimal as to qualify as absenteeism. As one study in the U.K. showed, a full one-third of children of divorce eventually have no contact whatsoever with their fathers. That’s because courts refuse to enforce the meager two-days-every-two-weeks visitation the court ordered.
Add to all that the fact that, when parents are unmarried, social science shows that fathers and mothers alike treat mother and child as a “package deal.” Wherever she goes, the child goes and Dad will have to work hard to keep up. Again, we can consult Scott Ritchie about the details of that arrangement.
In that scenario, each ensuing boyfriend of Mom pushes Dad further and further out of his child’s life.
That’s a very brief sketch of how our system of pop cultural messages, preconceived notions about fathers and mothers and the abject failure of family courts to recognize the value of fathers to children, work hand in glove to create those “absent fathers” the responsible fatherhood movement talks so much about.
It does so in some very compelling ways.
“The father wound is so deep and so all-pervasive in so many parts of the world that it’s healing could well be the most radical social reform conceivable.” My friend, Father Richard Rohr, wrote that.
“Not only here in the West, but across the globe, disengaged fathers are leaving a mark that will forever reshape the future of our planet. You show me a person that is angry, violent, depressed, selfish, sexually immoral, hyper-driven, or one of several other personality types, and I’ll show you a father wound.“Nothing is more important to a young man, or a young woman, than a father’s love, respect and acceptance. And nothing is more damaging than when the question ‘Am I good enough?’ is asked of the father by the child, and the answer is silence.”
Those are words every family court judge should be forced to read every day before he/she steps into the courtroom. Every social worker, every guardian ad litem, every CPS worker, every psychologist, every state legislator and yes, every President of the United States should do so as well.
Father Rohr is right. Connecting fathers with children may well be the most important social reform we can undertake, with the furthest-reaching positive consequences. But doing that will take far more than admonitions to fathers to behave better. It’ll take the destruction of the many barriers that stand between even the best, most dedicated fathers and their children.
Don’t believe me? Ask Scott Ritchie.
Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.