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War of the wounds by Judith Stadtman Tucker

page two

Feminism 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 (Farrell's 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.

Most marriage 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).

whose war is it, anyway?

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