December 15, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Following up on my post of yesterday... There I made the point that we can’t seriously expect fathers to act the part of dedicated, selfless parents when our culture simmers in a toxic stew of anti-dad messages. Amazingly, even with all the obstacles placed between men and full parenthood, the overwhelming majority of dads manage to play that role anyway, or at least try to. From before a child is conceived all the way through its birth and childhood, we tell fathers in countless ways that there’s only one way in which they matter — as a source of cash. Again and again, directly and indirectly, we say to fathers “You don’t matter” and “Now pay Mom.” Having done that, we then pretend to be outraged when fathers act in conformity with those messages.
How many times have we heard women complain that he doesn’t take an equal part in the hands-on childrearing? Yes, that’s often because he’s at work earning the money to pay the rent, buy the food, pay the electric bill, the doctor bills, buy the clothes, school supplies, etc. In short, he’s just doing his job, the one he’s historically been told to do and the one we still say is all he’s good for.
Just the way we treat child support and visitation says all we need to know on the subject, but of course there are countless other examples. We know that non-custodial parents whose visitation isn’t interfered with are much more likely to pay child support than those who have difficulty seeing their kids. So, given that we want fathers to support their kids, the obvious thing to do would be to enforce visitation orders as vigorously as we do child support orders. But we do nothing of the kind. We allow the most draconian enforcement mechanisms imaginable for child support orders, all the way up to and including jailing dads without the assistance of counsel in five-minute hearings.
Visitation? Not so much. As just about any non-custodial parent can tell you, it’s like pulling the judge’s teeth to get any help enforcing a visitation order. It usually takes at least a couple of years and several court hearings before anything is done. Contempt of court by custodial parents is winked at. In Australia, it’s worse. There the official written policy of family courts is to not enforce orders of access. Coincidentally, 90% of those who supposedly benefit from those orders are fathers.
And, as I’ve said many times, it’s not just fathers who suffer; children and mothers do too.
Which brings us to this fine article by Neil Lyndon (Telegraph, 12/12/14). It seems he and others, including the always excellent Kathryn Edin have noticed the same things.
Fathers who aren’t living with their children just don’t count. That’s not a rhetorical exaggeration. It’s an official matter of fact.
On the website for Gingerbread — the single parents’ organisation — a page of statistics, based on government data, aims “to tackle the stigma around single parents by dispelling myths and labels.” The first fact itemised there is:
Just over a quarter (26 per cent) of households with dependent children are single parent families, and there are two million single parents in Britain today.
Gingerbread acknowledge, however, that the only parents they have included in that two million figure are “those with residential care” — which mostly means mothers. About 90% of the children of single parents live for the greater part of the time with their mothers.
So, according to official statistics, fathers who aren’t married simply don’t exist. Why? Because they’ve been shoved out of their children’s lives by the same government that gathers the statistics. Of course, if we were talking about child support, then they’d exist all too clearly. A loving, caring father? No big deal. A wallet? Ah, that’s a different matter.
Kathryn Edin gets the point, as she usually does.
Those observations are reinforced by Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who has spent years researching the ways poor American men deal with with being unmarried parents. “Child support,” she says, “is a remnant of the days when we used to think that dads didn’t matter. With our right hand we’ve pushed these men away; we’ve said, ‘You’re worthless.’ With our left hand we’re picking his pocket....That’s how it feels to him.”
Now, few would argue that being defined out of the category of “single parents” is, by itself of much importance. It’s a niggling irritation. But of course it’s not “by itself.” If we cared enough about fathers to keep them in their children’s lives post-divorce, no one would complain about the government definition of single parent. But 90% of parents shoved out of their children’s lives by divorce are fathers and, just in case someone missed the point, they’re given “rights of access” that go unenforced. How could the message be plainer?
A complex, thoughtful article by Ruth Graham in the Boston Globe recently dug deep questions into this ethos.
Showing that the present official set-up and our social attitudes date from 40 years ago — when most mothers stayed at home all the time and most men went out to work — Graham argues that “the system needs an update, not only to be fair to adults but to avoid hurting the children whose interests it is supposed to serve”.
Oh yes, the kids. We forgot about them. It’s a point I’ve made countless times — courts tell us they’re acting in the best interests of children, but they’re not. If they were, they’d be ordering equal or substantially equal custody in just about every case. But, as Graham remarks, the 2014 child custody system is stuck back in 1954.
Well, not really. It would be stuck back there except it’s “progressed” by, instead of assuming that every father is Ward Cleaver, assuming that every father is Jeffrey Dahmer. Judges are all too ready to believe that fathers want nothing more than to avoid seeing or supporting their children and that, if Mom cries “abuse,” then something must have happened to warrant marginalizing Dad in his kids’ lives.
And, as I and others have said before, putting all the child care burden on Mom is not exactly doing her any favors.
In America, she writes, almost a third of all children of single parents are in households below the poverty line and their fathers, too, are poor.
Actually, that figure is incorrect. As Sara McLanahan recently reported here, the poverty rate for single mothers in the U.S. is 40%, and there aren’t enough single fathers with children to bring down the total very much.
The poverty of custodial mothers of course is visited on their children who, unsurprisingly, tend to manifest the type of mental, psychological, behavioral and educational deficits that are typical of those raised with insufficient resources. That of course is bad for both mothers and children.
Kathryn Edin says, “If we give in to the notion that the mom ‘owns’ the child, if that’s the default position, then the mom is also responsible for the child. So then Moms just end up holding the bag for everything, and men are cast out of society. That is a very bad deal for women.”
And, just in case you thought the anti-father bias we see so often is in some way a fluke, unintended, unconscious, here’s Neil Lyndon’s experience:
The mould for our present attitudes and practices in this country was set in the early 1990s when, as Conservative Minister of State at the Home Office, John Patten, set up the Child Support Agency with the explicitly avowed intention of pursuing and punishing errant, absent “deadbeat dads” who didn’t pay up to support their kids.
I wrote in a national newspaper at that time suggesting that non-custodial fathers might be more likely to take an active interest in their children if they were allowed equal rights as parents in family law and if they were accorded recognition, respect and honour in our society at large.
The stoniness of the ground on which those counsels fell was laid bare in a meeting in the 1990s between representatives of Families Need Fathers and the then Labour Minister of State at the Home Office, Paul Boateng. Mr Boateng effectively threw the FNF people out of his office with the reproof (as it was reported to me): “I don’t want to hear a word about any disadvantages for fathers until every inequality for women has been eradicated.”
Anti-father bias doesn’t get a lot clearer than that.
Someday soon we need to start paying attention to the social science on child well-being that teaches us that children do better with two parents in their lives. While we’re at it we could also take note of laws that, in the United States say that the state has no interest in parental decision-making by fit parents and elsewhere that children have a right to the company of their parents. When we do those things, everyone will be better off. Children will be healthier and happier, parents will be better off financially and a host of social ills will have been ameliorated. As a result, the masses of taxpayers’ funds thrown ineffectively in the direction of those problems can be diverted elsewhere, maybe even back to taxpayers.
There are plenty of people urging us to wake up, but on we slumber.
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