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War of the wounds

What's wrong with the father's rights movement

Commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

June 2005

As someone who cares very much about the social and economic welfare of mothers, I’ve been keeping tabs on the father’s "rights" movement for several years. Although the movement and its most aggressive advocates come across as little more than a fringe element in a society that's still trying to figure out the meaning of manhood and fatherhood in a half-changed world, the legislative activism of fathers’ rights and "shared parenting" proponents could limit the power of family courts to award custody based on the best interests of the child. The movement's more moderate adherents complain that the inalienable rights of divorced and never-married dads -- particularly their right to due process and equal access to their kids -- are routinely trampled by vindictive custodial mothers and the family court system. Less image-conscious supporters are fond of the kind of hateful misogynist invective that makes me want to double-check the locks on my doors and windows at night.

Friends of father’s rights typically interact through an expansive network of personal and organizational web sites, blogs, and discussion forums, although local groups also meet face to face. National membership organizations, such as Fathers 4 Justice -- which was the subject of a May 8 cover story by Susan Dominus for the New York Times Magazine -- organize protests and guerrilla theater to call attention to the grievances of non-custodial dads. Most pro-dad groups are pushing for family law reform, particularly for the legal standard of presumptive joint custody, which, with few exceptions, would require judges to favor joint legal and/or physical custody in all child custody disputes. In my own state of New Hampshire, representatives of the National Congress of Fathers and Children (which promotes “equal opportunities for fathers and children” -- apparently mothers don't rate inclusion in the family equality scheme) are endorsing a bill to cut state guidelines for minimum child support payments to the bone and exempt fathers from paying child support when joint custody is awarded -- even though under the terms of split or shared custody, children may reside in their father's home as little as 35 percent of the time.

One of the most striking characteristics of American society in the late 20th and early 21st century is that fathers and mothers have been forced, sometimes reluctantly, to negotiate dramatically changed attitudes about gender, work and family with virtually no support from the public or private sector. Male and female roles in marriage and parenting have become, if not completely transformed, at least more pliant. New educational and employment opportunities for women -- and their desire for lives that include more than being someone's wife, or someone's mother -- contributed to skyrocketing divorce rates in the 1970s and 1980s, and continue to reverberate through contemporary family life. A national focus on the hardships encountered by "fatherless" children has heightened cultural sensitivity to the socioeconomic benefits of involved fathers (although research has yet to isolate the negative consequences of fatherlessness from the effects of poverty). What’s often left out of the fatherhood discussion is that men who truly care for and about their children usually express their commitment by maintaining a supportive, if not deeply caring, relationship with their children’s mother. In an October 2001 commentary for Women's eNews, Robert Okun, a specialist in men's issues and domestic violence, pointed out that many of today’s dads, whether married, never-married or divorced, are doing their best to stay actively involved in their children’s lives. But of men in the organized father’s rights movement, who typically represent themselves as the innocent victims of gender discrimination and manipulative ex-wives, Okun writes: "Some may very well be getting a raw deal. If so, it is essential that divorce lawyers, psychotherapists, family service court officers, mediators, guardians ad litem and judges educate themselves about those circumstances and take steps to intervene when a man has been erroneously targeted as part of a strategy in a contentious custody complaint. However, in a dangerously high number of cases, many of these fathers have a documented history of abuse."

Most family law and domestic violence experts have reached the same conclusion, as have concerned citizens who've taken the time to investigate the activities of father's rights groups in greater depth -- notably Trish Wilson, a freelance writer who considers exposing the shady underside of the father's custody movement her part-time job. Ms. Wilson first became curious about the movement when she stumbled into a father's rights message board on AOL ten years ago. When she questioned the accuracy of child support statistics posted on the board, Ms. Wilson reports she was "attacked by the regulars there. The woman who had posted the original out-of-context quotes told me that I believed all women should have custody of their children because they had uteruses, which is nonsense. There were similar, ugly flames thrown at me by others. I was taken aback at how nasty they were." Since then, Ms. Wilson has conducted extensive research reviews and produced a series of articles disputing the studies and data father's rights advocates use to justify their intention to overhaul child custody and support laws. Although her work has appeared in Off Our Backs and AlterNet, Ms. Wilson publishes most of her analyses and commentaries on her blog and a bare-bones personal web site. Although NOW adopted a resolution opposing the father's rights agenda in 1996, Ms. Wilson notes there hasn't been much interest from mainstream women's organizations in fomenting a counter movement. "From the beginning there were no active organizations that worked for mothers who were going through contested divorces," she says. "I'm one of the few people who actually works on these issues, which disappoints me greatly. Feminist groups have not taken much interest in divorce and custody and how both affect women."

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?

First and foremost, it's important to take into account that the vast majority of divorced or never-married parents -- somewhere between 75 and 90 percent -- settle on custodial arrangements without resorting to costly and acrimonious court battles. Despite the amount of media attention they've managed to attract, proponents of the father's rights movement represent a minority of divorced dads. Naturally, how these men differ from all the other divorced and separated fathers who aren't kicking up such a fuss is the first question that pops into my mind. It may well be that some of these dads have been treated unfairly by the courts, although research suggest that when fathers seek primary or joint custody of their children, they often prevail (and as noted earlier, a history of spousal abuse does not appear to be a strong deterrent to awarding shared custody in these cases).

With that in mind, there seems to be a distinct possibility that the circumstances fueling the grief and outrage of father's rights activists are related to personality factors rather than systemic ones. In a methodical evaluation of factors that predispose couples to high conflict divorce, Janet R. Johnston, co-author of Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict (1999), found that "separation engendered conflicts (the humiliation inherent in rejection, the grief associated with loss, and the overall helplessness in response to assaultive life changes) interact with vulnerabilities in the character structure of some divorcing individuals, making them especially prone to unresolved hostility and ongoing disputes." Johnston also found strong evidence that "In divorces marked by ongoing disputes over the custody and care of children, both inside and outside the court, there is often a history of domestic violence in the family and a likelihood that the violence will continue after the separation."

A recent survey of 800 family law judges in major U.S. cities found that judges cite "parents' ability to cooperate and communicate, both parents being involved in the child's life, geographic proximity, parental agreement and parental stability" as the top five reasons they would order joint custody. Judges also reported that lack of parental cooperation and communication was near the top of their list of reasons for awarding sole custody. A 1998 study of mothers' custodial preferences also found that mothers were more likely to favor joint custody over sole maternal custody when they were experiencing low-levels of conflict with their former spouse, low levels of anger/hurt over the divorce, had few visitation problems and considered their ex-husbands competent parents.

Given that marriages rarely break up because both spouses' need for intimacy is being met and everyone is getting along fabulously well, it's something of a no-brainer to surmise that some, if not most, of the couples who become embroiled in protracted custody and visitation disputes simply aren't capable of sustaining the kind of non-adversarial relationship that's necessary for effective co-parenting after divorce. As Don E. Stott, a family court mediator in California, wrote in a 2002 article for the American Journal of Family Law, "A significant number of child custody disputes are indirectly a result of the biological parents simply not liking each other. Each holds the other totally responsible for the failed relationship and feels the other should be punished by any means available. Although the vendetta against the other parent has a negative effect on the relationship of the children, the energy expelled to 'get' the other parent can be tremendous." Stott also estimated that 65 percent of the custody disputes he mediated were related to "one or both parents being remarried and were directed, at least partially, by the new spouse." According to Stott, the desire of one parent to move to a new city or state also lands divorced parents in conflict mediation. One of the most disturbing factors of these entrenched custody wars, he remarked, "is that parents spend thousands of dollars on attorneys, expert witnesses, and court costs, each motivated by their anger toward the other parent -- funds that could be better spent on raising the children."

This is not to dismiss the real distress non-custodial fathers may feel due to separation from their children. The tales of woe father's rights advocates recount tend to be maudlin and somewhat suspect -- for example, one man describes the two year-old son he's never met as "the love of my life" (one might imagine that actually living with a two year-old for any length of time would temper his boundless affection). And what proportion of these fathers' sense of injustice is triggered by the emotional deprivations of non-custodial parenting and how much is motivated by the presumption of male entitlement and a desire to control the lives of their ex-wives and children is, in most cases, impossible to discern. (Some groups, including Fathers 4 Justice, actively discourage members from using sexist language or "personal attacks" that might make the father's crusade look bad.) But I think it would be a mistake to assume the anguish these men report is simply a ploy to gain sympathy for their cause.

I've seen numerous testimonials of father's rights activists' torment over not having a more constant role in their children's daily lives -- and frankly, I don't buy it. Anyone who's been an active caregiver knows that, emotionally speaking, life with children is a mixed bag. Not to mention, you can find an equal number of heartrending stories from mothers who report they've been screwed over by abusive ex-husbands who used the "friendly parent" strategy -- speaking and acting before the court as if they were the more reasonable and accommodating parent in the dispute -- to gain shared custody. But it did strike me that when these angry men express the tenderness of their feelings for their children, it sounds as if they're new to the experience of being madly in love.

Maybe this isn't as far fetched as it sounds. A recent article by Sean Elder in Psychology Today suggests that men today feel "blindsided" by the escalating emotional demands of egalitarian marriage ("The Emperor's New Woes," April/May 2005). "Men have come to accept -- even celebrate -- their wives' careers and paycheck while learning, step-by-step, how to bathe the baby and baste the turkey," Elder writes. (Note to S.E.: There's no such thing as maternal instinct -- women learn these things "step-by-step" too, big guy.) But in an age where it's no longer enough for a husband and father to be a good breadwinner, some men are floundering as they try to figure out how to "do" intimacy. In Edler’s words, the "job description" of being a good husband and father "has expanded to include listening and that least measurable of skills, empathizing. Today, not cheating on your wife or beating your kids doesn't make you a good husband and father." Men, Elder notes, "did not ask to have their roles redefined." But while some fellows may be lagging in their interest and ability to make conscious connections with their wives, Elder reports that "men have quickly become masters at another kind of intimacy: fatherhood."

Many contemporary fathers feel they are an upgrade from the previous version. Warm, loving, generous fathers are lionized in the culture rather than scorned, points out Terry Real [a Boston-area psychotherapist specializing in men's relational issues]. "The current generation of men is much better as fathers than their fathers were," he says, "but it's not clear to me that we're much better husbands than our fathers were." The difference is that much less risk is involved in being vulnerable or intimate with your child than there is with your mate. The relationship of parent and child is not that of equals, and while we have a lot of expectations of our children, we generally don't look to them for emotional fulfillment.

This perspective might explain why father's rights activists are so bitterly resolute in their quest for "justice," but it's doesn't excuse their possessive and bullying behavior. Nor does it imply that the fundamental problem facing the men crusading for father's rights is the dissolution of traditional gender roles. To the contrary, all available evidence suggests that the majority of fathers are able to navigate new expectations of married and divorced life without leaving so much ill will in their wake. And needless to say, mothers can also play a role in keeping post-divorce antagonism alive. But the whole truth of the alleged dilemma of non-custodial fathers seems far more complicated by personal characteristics than those who uphold their rights are prepared to acknowledge. My impression is that for many -- if not most -- of these disaffected dads, the critical adjustment needs to take place at the individual level, not a legislative one. In any event, it's unlikely the damaged hearts of these displaced patriarchs can be repaired by imposing joint custody on their children's browbeaten mothers -- however sweet the taste of victory.

mmo : june 2005

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the MMO.

The print version of this article does not include the list of related reading and resources available on the web version.
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