is not the problem
Part of the problem may be that while progressive feminists emphasize that father's equal involvement in family life and child
rearing is essential to the advancement of women (you'll find
this viewpoint reflected regularly in the pages of the MMO, for
example), there are clearly a number of predictable situations
where the legal standard of equal-access parenting would be bad
news for mothers and children. When a parent is mentally ill or
has a history of spousal abuse, child maltreatment, or a past or
present substance addiction -- or has been convicted of certain
criminal offenses -- courts generally assign sole custody to the
more "fit" parent (although a recent National
Institute of Justice study based on custody mediation cases
in California found that battered mothers who reported domestic
violence to the court were less likely to be awarded primary custody
than those who were abused but did not report it).
Even those lobbying for a return of 1950s-style patriarchal families
admit the prevalence of intimate partner violence against women
is a significant drawback. As Tom Sylvester writes in a
2003 commentary for the Institute for American Values, "a
root cause of domestic violence is a distorted sense of masculinity
as male tyranny. Whether driven by jealousy, anger, or insecurity,
some of the most serious cases of domestic violence are committed
by men who try to control 'their women,' both emotionally and physically."
Research also suggests that men who abuse their wives are considerably
more likely than other fathers to abuse their children. Obviously,
not every aggrieved father who signs onto the father's rights movement
is an outright batterer or child abuser. But the core debate about fathers'
right to equal custody is not simply about protecting women and
children from domestic violence, or the difference between "good"
dads and "bad" dads, or even the contradictions of liberal
feminism. It's about preserving male privilege in and outside of
marriage, and whose needs and emotional well-being take precedence
when parents in disrupted families just can't get along.
My fascination with the murky world of the father's rights movement
was renewed a few months ago when I received a submission from Teri
Stoddard, the owner of Egalitarian
Feminists 4 Fathers, a blog highlighting the activities of fathers’
rights organizations in the U.S. and abroad. I'm generally leery
of anything that paints the fathers' rights agenda in a positive
light, but I wanted to know more about why a thrice-divorced mother
of four and self-proclaimed feminist would devote so much time and
energy to a cause that's transparently hostile to mothers (father's
rights supporters report that nearly a third of their number are
women; most are second wives, significant others or immediate family
of non-custodial fathers). And while I wasn't persuaded that MMO readers
would necessarily agree with the author's conclusions about the
moral mandate of equal parenting, I thought they might be interested
in reading an alternative perspective on fathers as caregivers.
I offered to publish Ms.
Stoddard's commentary as part of a point-counterpoint, as long
as I was able to confirm that all the factual information in her
story was accurate and used in an appropriate context.
Since more seasoned critics than
I have denounced the twisted logic and ulterior motives of father's
rights advocates -- big name supporters of father's custody include
right-wing radio personality Glenn
Sacks, archetypal anti-feminist Phyllis
Schlafly, libertarian commentator Wendy
McElroy, and masculinist Warren
Farrell, who rated a section of his own in Susan Faludi's Backlash
latest book purports that women are paid less because they're less
willing, or less able, to compete on men's terms) -- there's
really no need to go into the details of the weird disintegration
of my communication with Ms. Stoddard. Let's just say that in the
five-week period I spent fact-checking several different versions
of her article, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about
the peculiar mindset of the father's rights crowd. But I also found out that irrefutable facts about the disposition of child custody in
the U.S. and the effects of different custody arrangements on children's
well-being are very hard to come by.
That father's rights
activists routinely circulate misinformation about the incidence
and severity of domestic violence against women and overestimate
the frequency of false allegations of child abuse is well known.
And proponents' charges of "parental alienation syndrome"--
the methodical denigration of one parent by the other with the goal
of turning a child against the absent party -- are a trademark strategy,
even though PAS is not recognized as a clinical disorder by reputable
mental health professionals. It's relatively easy to expose the
fallacy of this kind of subterfuge -- and to ferret out reports of
criminal behavior by high-profile father's rights organizers. But locating definitive
information on the connection between intimate partner violence
and child custody disputes -- and on either desirable or undesirable
outcomes of joint physical custody -- is considerably more challenging.
With the exception of Ms. Wilson, who has written about her personal
reasons for opposing the father's rights agenda and has provided
public testimony against initiatives for presumptive joint custody,
the motives and objectives of other individuals and citizen’s
groups mounting a resistance to the father's custody movement seem inconsistent and slightly dubious.
It's comparatively easy
to dig up reliable numbers on family violence, child abuse and neglect,
respective numbers of custodial mothers and fathers and their income
and earnings, and compliance with child support orders. In one way
or another, the U.S. government tracks these social indicators.
It's more difficult to determine exactly how mothers and fathers
are making out in family court, since the disposition of child custody
laws varies from state to state and records are usually sealed.
The best estimate is that around one million children are affected
by divorce each year, and in 72 percent of cases with a formal written
agreement, mothers retain sole custody; fathers are awarded sole
custody in 9 percent of cases, and joint custody is awarded in 17
percent. About one-third of children of divorced parents have no
regular contact with their biological fathers; many non-custodial
parents do not pay all the child support they owe, and many others
have no formal obligation to pay support. Custodial mothers are
44 percent more likely to live in poverty than custodial fathers,
and their earnings and standard of living tend to be significantly
lower than those of non-custodial dads.
and family experts agree that, whenever feasible, joint legal and physical
custody -- which allows children to spend substantial time with
both parents and permits both parents to be involved in decision
making in their children's day-to-day lives -- is preferable to
sole maternal custody with or without visitation, and the number
of joint custody awards has increased over the last decade. But
there is also a strong consensus among child advocates and researchers
who've studied the effects of divorce on children that when court-ordered
joint custody intensifies conflict between parents, it's less healthy
for children than other custody alternatives. Many domestic violence
experts also believe that forced joint custody in cases with a high
degree of parental discord puts mothers at risk for physical abuse
and emotional blackmail. Furthermore, a government-commissioned
meta-analysis of recent studies on child custody, paternal involvement
and children's well-being in the U.S. found existing research does
not conclusively demonstrate that children in shared legal and physical
custody are more well-adjusted or have better outcomes than those
in other custody arrangements (although several studies suggest
that children living with a biological parent and step-parent often
fare worse than those living in single parent households).