The Divorced Dad’s Burden by Gail Sheehy

The cliché is the Deadbeat Dad. The newer reality is the deadbolted Dad-locked out of his children’s hearts after divorce.

It isn’t happy Father’s Day when dad has to return his progeny by 6 P.M. on Sunday, like rented videos, knowing that his next chance for “take out fathering” won’t be for two weeks. Most of us still assume that divorced dads come in only one variety- those who walk out, ignore their children and balk at paying child support orders- and more than a million women can attest to this painful reality. But for many men, the situation is just the opposite.
Close to four million divorced fathers in the United States do pay child support. In many cases, these are men who have fought for joint or full custody, and lost. Even when they demand more time with their children, they find that little attention is paid to enforcing or honoring their visitation rights.

On a recent cross-country book tour I was struck by the numerous stories I heard from such men-post patriarchal New men who are deeply attached to their children- about the biases they face in the courts, day care centers and their children’s schools, not to mention from punitive former wives. A Southern talk show host said he has nightmares that his former wife is “padlocking” his children’s hearts and that when he tries to “come home again,” he will find the locks changed.

That nightmare came true for Mike, a 36-year-old financial planner from Virginia. He found a surprise message from his wife on his office phone: “I’ve taken our son and gone back to my parents’ place.”

Mike made the 800-mile round trip to see his wife and infant son every few weekend was led to believe they would reconcile. Six months to the day after she left, his wife sued for divorce. Because she had established residency for their child in another state, she now had a more sympathetic environment in which to demand full custody.

“My life has been a nightmare ever since,” Mike told me. This Deadbolted Dad has traveled 15,000 miles in the last year to see his baby son, compelled by court order to limit “contact” to 29 hours a month. Its not anger one hears in Mike’s voice; its agony.

His child did not choose to have only one parent. Growing up with a “hotel father” is bad enough, but this son has also lost half of his extended family. “There are 30 other people-grandmother, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins- who could have a positive impact on my son’s life,” Mike said. “I’m not a Deadbeat Dad, but I am getting close to being a Beat-Dead Dad. It’s heartbreaking.”

The political posse that began chasing Deadbeat Dads in the 1980’s did achieve major social reform. According to the most current Census Bureau data, 76 percent of the nearly five million women due child support receive at least a portion of what they are owed, a total of nearly $12 billion a year, according to the most recent figure.

The greater role fathers are taking in raising children is one of the strongest shifts in the manly ideal. “There has been a fairly consistent increase in the proportion of fathers acting as primary child care providers during the last decade, among both married and divorced parents,” said Martin O’Connell, chief of fertility and family statistics at the Census Bureau.

More and more men whose wives work and who have preschoolers are now acting as the primary caregiver- 22 percent in 1994, up from 17 percent in 1988, Mr. O’connell said. Think about it: a quarter of the men in this category-1.4 million fathers- are taking up much of the responsibility for dressing, feeding and diapering their babies. And many more men who don’t label themselves as Mr. Mom sill shoulder a significant share of the responsibility

It sounds like the sort of sensible role fluidity that progressives have long advocated, right/

But what happens when the traditional dialogue between the stay-at-home mom and fast-track father is reversed- when it is the working wife who says, “I’ve grown and you haven’t-sorry but I want out”?

These Mr. Moms may be stunned when they face courts still operating under old stereotypes about the inviolate mother-child bond. Their claims to custody are seldom recognized- even joint custody is not easily won. To shut men out of their children’s lives as a consequence of divorce not only robs the child and parents, but it also fails our society.

Larry Pollack, a New York matrimonial lawyer for a quarter of a century, described a typical case in which his client is the husband. When the wife received a hot-shot job offer in New York, the couple moved from the South, where the husband had made his living buying and selling real estate and fixing up houses. She became the breadwinner, while he took on the role of soccer dad.

When the wife asked for a divorce, Mr. Pollack said, the husband believed the courts would recognize his wish to continue being the hands-on, day-to-day parent. Mr. Pollack is trying to persuade the father not to fight, because he won’t win. Even though the other intends ton continue her demanding professional life by hiring nannies, she will almost certainly win custody, Mr. Pollack said, because it is seen as a social disgrace for a mother to lose custody of a child.

Some courts do recognize fathers’ rights when both parents are reasonable. The phrases “shared parenting” and “time sharing” are gradually entering the legal lexicon, promoted by groups like the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. But the key to making such arrangements work is not the courts; it is parents who are grown up enough to sacrifice their revenge fantasies for the greater good of the child they created together. Some, at least, can manage to clear this difficult emotional hurdle.

A Massachusetts research scientist named Roger, divorced at 50, was furious to have to give up his rights as a full-time father. In spite, he planned to move to California, get a condo, dye his hair and start dating. The children could visit when it was convenient.

“But I forced myself to think long term,” he told me, and that meant sticking around the same neighborhood and convincing his former wife that allowing him to continue fulfilling the fathers role was essential. He sees his children several times a week, not in a hotel or at McDonald’s, but driving them to the dentist or doing homework together.

“It grounded me,” Roger said of the approach. Otherwise, he said, he might have done a lot of silly or self-destructive things to make up for the emotional hollowness.

So much of the concern previously shown by courts in deciding the lives of divorced parents and their children has focused on monetary connections. That neglects the long-term issue of maintaining the continuity of a child’s relationship with both parents.

Roger’s solution, while a compromise, suggests a new model-and a reward that is priceless. After seven years of involving himself in the daily details of his children’s lives, this unbolted dad says proudly, “They really like to see me- and now I’ll never lose them.”

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