Divorced fathers face a heavy maternal preference in the courts. This is based on the “tender years” presumption that younger children need to be in the care of their mothers, and that fathers were not able to provide the same level of care. Although this sexist legal precedent has been removed from the law books, it still dominates judges’ minds. Jeffrey Leving, in his book, Father’s Rights, indicates that 85% of cases today include the mother being awarded physical custody of the children. Even though 68% of mothers work outside of the home as fathers do, and 88% of Americans believe that parents should be able to share equally in the parenting responsibilities for their children, mothers still have the upper hand.
Leving reports that if you do the math, 18 million children live in single-parent homes. According to the Census Bureau, 3.5% live with their father; thus, 17.4 million children live in a home without their father. Further, 20% of custodial mothers see no need for the children to continue a relationship with their fathers, and 40% of children of divorce haven’t seen their father in a year. The courts are quick to protect a mother’s right to financial support, but slow to protect a father’s right to child contact. He believes fathers are slowly being excluded from their children’s lives.
What We Know
Whiteside and Becker, in the March 2000 Journal of Family Psychology, reviewed 131 articles published from 1970 to 1941 on the effects of divorce on children under age 5, and found that 106 of them did not include information on fathers or on co-parenting between divorced mothers and fathers. Clearly, primary-parent and secondary-parent fathers alike have received less focus in the literature.
One question that is often asked by researchers is whether continued contact with non-custodial fathers after the divorce is beneficial to the children. Studies have been somewhat contradictory on this. On the one hand, many studies have documented problems in the absence of the father. Leving cites the National Fatherhood Initiative in reporting:
- 72% of teenage murderers, 60% of rapists, and 80% of adolescents in psychiatric facilities, and 59% of prison inmates were raised with out fathers in the home
- Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school, and show lower reading and math scores
- Fatherless children are 11 times more likely to show violent behavior
- Three of four teen suicide cases are from single-parent homes
On the other hand, some studies show that continued contact with the father is associated with greater maladjustment in the children. It is important to keep in mind that the results of such studies are correlational. Thus, it is impossible to know whether child adjustment problems are the result of father’s involvement, or whether the child’s problems are the cause of the father’s involvement. Bray and Kelly, in their study of step-families, found that many formerly absent biological fathers came back into the picture after their children showed difficulties adjusting to divorce and step-family life.
Many studies have documented a large number of benefits to children who maintain contact with their fathers. Whiteside and Becker found better father-child relationships were related to less internalizing problems, like depression, withdrawal, and some kinds of anxiety. Positive relationships were associated with more time together, a history of involvement, and a stable visitation schedule. Leving argues that when fathers are pushed out of the picture, boys especially have a hard time. They develop a pattern of defiance toward authority, and problems spread from home, to school, to the rest of the teen boys’ life.
However, father-child relationships have to be viewed in a context because time together does not guarantee a positive relationship. Amato, in his review of 180 recent studies, found that parental contact associated with high parental conflict is seen in cases of poorer child adjustment and coping. Visits with the father that are not associated with parental conflict are seen in cases with better child adjustment and coping. This may be the reason for some of the research’s contradictory findings. Child-Parent relationships can not be separated from Parent-Parent relationships. You can work very hard to form a strong post-divorce bond with the children, but fighting with their mother in front of them can undermine all of your work.
Dunne and Hedrick, in their article Parental Alienation Syndrome: An Analysis of Sixteen Selected Cases, discuss “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” as proposed by Richard Gardner. Gardner wrote about cases in which a child shows an “obsessed hated of a parent” without apparent reason. Some studies have cited cases where the custodial parents’ resentment and psychological vulnerability, coupled with the child’s young age and impressionability, allow the primary or custodial parent (typically the mother) to “turn” the child against the secondary or absent parent (typically the father). Since studies have shown that 40% of maternal sole-custody and 30% of paternal sole-custody families had no overnight visits with the non-residential parent, they argue that such divorce cases could easily set the stage for a case of “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” They selected 16 cases for analysis.
They analyzed cases for a number of variables, and concluded that “Parental Alienation Syndrome” is a complex issue. Cases described by this pattern of rejection can present immediately or two years after the divorce, in young children or in teens, in a child with a history of good relations with the father or without such a history, and in one or more than one child in the family. Although the alienating parent is typically the mother, some cases of alienating fathers were seen. Typically, a deep emotional injury was felt by the alienating parent, and they blamed the ex-partner for this and turned to the children to validate their feelings of mistreatment and pain. However, motivating factors beyond revenge are typically seen, and the justifications and claims made by the alienating parent are extreme.
The cases they reviewed did not meet all of the criteria set forth by Gardner. Rather than seeing it as a discreet and clearly diagnosable syndrome, they view it as representing an extreme form of children’s normal reactions to divorce and destruction of the family. Therapy did not appear to significantly alleviate the rejection, and assessment of only the child or alienating parent was also similarly fruitless.
Physical Abuse Allegations
Leving adds that often these kinds of mothers will accuse the father of child abuse. The children may back up the mother’s claims, both because they depend upon her and want her love, and because she has control over most of their lives. Leving cites the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, who reports that only 10% of child abuse allegations are false when divorce is not included in the picture. However, in divorce cases when custody is in question, the number of false allegations jumps to 75% in some areas.
Sexual Abuse Allegations
Leving also notes that there are many false sexual abuse allegations that are levied against fathers. Professionals are left with the task of evaluating whether they think abuse actually happened or is being falsely raised. They then offer their opinion to the court, and the court must decide what to do. Leving offers a number of signs of false sexual abuse changes:
- There were no abuse allegations while the couple was married, or in the early stages of the litigation and the mother’s deposition.
- The couple is still involved in a nasty divorce in which key issues such as finances have not been decided.
- The report of the abuse the child gives matches the mothers report very closely, word for word in places, and has a rehearsed quality; the child appears angry and wants the father punished, and there is a lack of guilt, confusion, or discomfort discussing the trauma; the child is observed to be calm and relaxed in the presence of the “abuser” when the mother is absent.
Other authors (for example, Emery et al and Pearson et al) discuss fathers’ support and access to their children. They report three key findings:
- 83% of children reported not seeing their non-custodial parent on a weekly basis, and 33%-50% report not seeing them in the previous year.
- About 2/3’s of families returned to court after the divorce settlement within two years, usually over child support and access issues.
- Over 90% of litigated cases resulted in the mother retaining custody of the children.
Access to children and child support appear to be interconnected, despite the court’s efforts to treat them as separate issues.
Pearson found that regular support from the father after the divorce was best predictor of continued support and contact with the children. In other words, fathers who were involved after the divorce tended to stay involved. However, contact and involvement with the children prior to the divorce was not the best predictor of continued support or contact with them. This may be so for many reasons, as there are three kinds of dads discussed in the literature:
- Always-Active Dads
Despite the changes in our society, many men still work full-time, while their wives work half to three fourths time and take responsibility for the home and children. The father may even be working overtime to make ends meet. These fathers had less time with the children during the marriage, but this decision was made only because they lived in a two parent home. These fathers remained devoted to their children despite their work schedules and intend to continue devotion to their children after the divorce.
- Divorce-Activated Dads
Bray and Kelly report that some fathers did not spend much time with their children during marriage, and that they find the separation and divorce process to be very painful. They needed time to recover, and during this time re-evaluated their relationship with their children. They became “divorce-activated fathers” and made the decision to work to keep and improve their relationship with the children.
- Lost and Reclaimed Dads
Other fathers felt they should back out of their children’s lives, and that their presence was unwanted, especially by their ex-wives. Some did not change their minds, but for some, a variety of factors led them to reconsider:
- Becoming romantically involved again prompted them to reconsider. For many, their new partner encouraged them to reestablish their relationship with their own children; for others, the new partner brought her own children into the relationship and naturally prompted some self-reflection on the father’s part
- Seeing their ex-wives become romantically involved again. Some men became very clear that they did not want to see their children calling someone else “Dad,” and decided to reinitiate their relationship
- Some fathers saw their sons having problems adjusting, and felt the need to return to the son’s life to provide support and understanding. Stepping in to be the “rescuer” in a highly stressful time in the child’s life is a powerful incentive
- Other fathers reevaluated their access rights when the mother pursued child support
Pearson and Emery found that most court filings for support were immediately followed by filings for visitation. While the court tries to separate issues of visitation and support, it appears that father do not separate the issues this way. Leving argues that there are some “deadbeat dads” out there. However, it is seldom the issue of a father who simply “forgot” his children. The issue is more complex than it appears:
Leving reports that more than half of “deadbeat dads” are deceased, imprisoned, disabled, or unemployed. Of those who are employed, about half make less than $7000 per year.
- Denied Access
Leving notes that 90% of dads with joint custody and 80% of dads without custody who are happy with their visitation pay their support and pay on time. Over 50% of fathers who do not pay their support don’t get to see the children regularly. Leving refers to having to pay child support and not being allowed to see your children a modern form of “taxation without representation.”
- Emotional Loss
For many men, they have a hard time accepting that the marriage is over, and when they finally do, they think the parent-child relationship is lost to them too. This rejection is very painful, as is being called “deadbeat dads.” they become angry, bitter and resentful toward their ex-wife as a result.
- Adjustment to Step-Family Life
Some dads felt that moving out of their child’s life and allowing them to adjust to their new step-family was in the child’s best interests. Bray and Kelly note that other men remarried women with children, and viewed their responsibility to their wives to include responsibility for their wives’ children. Often the “deadbeat dads” were model fathers for their step-children; they had little to do with their own children only because they felt unwelcome in their former family and in their children’s lives. The conflict with the ex-wife often prompted this, as well as self-doubts and guilt about the break up of the marriage and whether they had a right to continue the relationship with their children
Often, ex-wives filing for child support find that suddenly their ex-husbands want back into the child’s life. They may find this is more painful than they expected; having the ex-husband back in the picture re-awakens buried issues and feelings, disrupts the family routine they have come to develop, and leads to open conflict again. The result can be custody disputes, desires to change visitation, and litigation.
Pearson found that where the father had sole custody of the children, about 50% had no child support from the children’s mother, and did not appear to deny visits or resent this. Further, 87% of residential fathers with support benefits said mother was behind, while 47% of residential mothers with support benefits said father was behind. However, across all nonresidential mothers and fathers, 85% say they are paid up to date. Clearly;
- There are “deadbeat moms” as well as dads
- Fathers and mothers, regardless of whether they have custody of their children, see support and access to the children in completely different ways
- The courts see access and visitation in father-primary-parent and mother-primary-parent families quite differently too
However, sometimes mediation with a third party is attempted either during the divorce process of soon after, and helps.
Mediation and Litigation
Mediation means that instead of paying lawyers and court personnel to handle your disputes, you and your ex-partner, typically working with a mediator with psychological training and an attorney with divorce-law experience, make an agreement between yourselves and simply ask the court to ratify it. This has several advantages:
- It’s financially cheaper. Some divorces cost $10,000 to $30,000, while mediation can be only a third of that
- It’s emotionally less abusive. Some divorces end up being an adversarial fight, in part because of hurt feelings, and in part because of the court’s approach to the divorce proceedings. Each side is expected to hire attorneys and each attorney is expected to fight for their client
- It can be easier on the children, since their best interests and stability are the primary concern. In some divorces, “How do I beat my ex?” becomes the primary concern
While not every couple can set aside their differences sufficiently to use mediation successfully, when a couple can, it generally has better results for everyone. McKay and colleagues spend most of a chapter discussing what mediation is, how it proceeds, who is best suited for it, and how to get the most from it.
Peterson colleagues, as well as Emery and colleagues, report that in their studies:
- Men who went into mediation with their ex-wives were generally happier with the outcomes, and more likely to pay child support and maintain visits with the children.
- Women who mediated were about as happy as women who litigated. However, they looked further and examined the women who dropped out of the study before it was finished. Women who were happy with mediation results were more likely to drop out of the study, as were women who were unhappy with litigation results. When they examined this, they found this worked to equalize the groups. Thus, it is unclear as to whether women were really happier on average with mediation.
- Men who litigated were more likely to have problems with the ex-partner and to blame the courts as being responsible for them.
Leving reports that the majority of mediation cases do resolve with joint custody of the children, and most do not go on to litigation. He offers example parenting agreements you and your ex-partner can work from, explanations of the process, and tips on how to make it go better. He cautions though that after the custody issue is resolved, matters do not suddenly become rosy and bright. Rather, the really hard work of co-parenting, managing and strengthening the relationship with your children, and seeing to their needs actually begins.
McKay and colleagues discuss several issues to consider in making parenting agreements with your ex-partner:
- Duration of the agreement, any “trial periods” to re-tune parts of the agreement that don’t work
- Custody schedule, including days, times, and places the children will be, as well as ways to make the schedule clear and easy to figure out for the children
- House rules that the children must follow in both households, such as bedtimes, off-limits TV shows, rules on having dates over, etc… as well as disciplinary practices both parents agree with, and where these rules and consequences can be posted for the children
- Vacation and holiday arrangements, as well as regular schedules such as who transports the kids to and from school and sporting events
- How school and homework problems, sibling conflicts, and PTA meetings will be dealt with
- Agreements for clothing, equipment and supplies, credit card bills, college savings, etc… and how they will be handled
- A re-evaluation date, to reconsider the agreement as the children’s schedules and needs change, as well as building in new issues that come up, such as a child’s desire to go out of state for the summer with relatives, etc…
So What’s a Dad to Do?
Leving offers dads a good bit of sound advice and tips on how fathers can maximize their relationship with their children, both for their own and their children’s emotional benefit, as well as to show the court evidence needed to protect their rights as parents. He suggests fathers get involved in their children’s academic lives by contacting teachers, talking to coaches, and learning about their children’s lives in detail. This can easily translate to being an extra parent to supervise class field trips, being an assistant coach for a soccer league, and inviting your child to have friends join you on your outings. Condrell and Small in their book Be A Great Divorced Dad offer several tips for divorced dads:
- Empathize with your ex-wife’s feelings. You may think this is crazy, but understanding your “opponent’s” motivations and feelings is one of the best ways to deal effectively with them. Having some empathy for her is also a good way to show her that you are reasonable, to defuse some of her anger, and to work with her to put your children’s interests first.
- Think before you act: Will what you are considering reflect badly on you in court? Do not give in to a desire for revenge.
- Don’t miss visits, or let other people care for your children on your visits. This will make it appear that visitation and contact with your children is not important.
- Don’t involve the children in risky but fun activities like riding motorcycles… it makes their mother even more nervous about them not being in her care.
- Don’t expose the children to adult romantic behavior. Don’t have your new romantic partner spend the night over, and don’t “make out” while the kids are over. You want to show them that they are your first priority when you have time with them.
- Don’t be late with child support checks so your ex-spouse can’t pay bills on time. This ultimately hurts the children. And on that subject…
- Don’t speak ill of your ex in front of the children. Don’t try to make the children choose between you and their mother. Don’t ask them to be “spies” for you about what Mom is doing and with whom. Don’t complain about finances with them (e.g., “What? Your mother’s supposed to pay for that!”)
- Don’t turn down an excuse to babysit the children for your ex. Yes, it may help her out when you are angry at her, but it can easily be a “favor” you do her and can use to your advantage later, and it’s more time with your children. Why would you turn that down? Don’t babysit them at her (your former) house if that will cause too much pain. Have her drop them off to meet you at a park, store, or library if you don’t want to see her at your place.
- Use humor to defuse angry moments; keep in mind that even if you can’t control your ex-partner’s behavior, you can control your own. Do not respond to anger with anger.
- Be considerate. Apologize when you made a mistake (e.g., “I’m sorry I got the kids back late”). Say “Thank You” when she shows some consideration (e.g., “Thanks for remembering to pack Michael’s swimsuit”). Check with Mom before making special plans with the children. And when in an argument, find something you can agree on with your ex-spouse. It’s hard to paint someone as unreasonable when they agree with you.
They also make several points about how to handle children who may be having problems with changing homes, visitations schedules, etc….
- Make sure you haven’t been insensitive. If you have broken any of the above “Don’ts” for interacting with their mother, you can expect it has some impact on the children. Try anticipating some of the things bothering them or letting them know you know it’s hard (e.g., “I was wondering, do you think I forget about you on the weekdays?” or “I know it’s hard switching houses every week”)
- Be willing to give the children time to “warm up” to you after a separation. Spend some time doing something “next to each other”; you could read while they work on homework, or they could watch TV while you make dinner.
- Allow children to bring friends along on visits. Scope out your neighborhood for good families and help your children make friends in your neighborhood too.
- Don’t let the children manipulate you or turn you and their mother against each other. It’s normal for children to try to avoid being disciplined for something they did wrong at home or school. Don’t let your children’s threats of “If you loved me you wouldn’t punish me” or “You must not want to see me” make you avoid enforcing the rules and values you know they need.
- If the children miss their Mom, let them call Mom while at your place to check in. Likewise, if your ex-wife wants to call and check on them, let her, and be polite about it. It’s far better than having the child express some difficulty with being gone from her and her responding with, “Well, you know I wanted to call, but your father won’t let me talk to you.” If your ex-wife is angry and talking is likely to provoke a fight, then try suggesting your child make a picture or something for Mom. Likewise, encourage them to buy flowers or make a card or Mom’s birthday and Mother’s Day.
- Let kids know how much time is left to the visit. That gives them time to prepare to say goodbye. Give them downtime before the end of the visit was well. Don’t plan as many activities as possible until the moment it’s time to go and then expect them to want to give up on all the fun you planned and leave.
- Keep in touch over the course of the week. Phone calls, emails, letters, even drawn pictures for younger kids… it’s not the money you spend, but the time you spent thinking of them and letting them know they are important and you haven’t forgotten about them.
- Cooperate with your spouse on parenting. When the children are sick, ask what Mom’s been giving them, how much, and when. Ask what kinds of foods and activities make them feel better. When the children are sick, don’t cancel a visit. Show that you can take care of the children just as well as your ex-wife. Restock their medications so they don’t miss any doses when they get back to their mother’s home.
- Get help if you need it. Hire a babysitter to help you manage the kids or a nanny to teach you about caring for babies, ask friends and neighbors parenting questions as needed, and talk to your own family. Call your ex-wife too. She may know more than you want to give her credit for, and may be more willing to help you than you think. You may think it shows you up as incompetent. However, it shows that you can and will consult with the other parent to work with them to assure the best care for the child.
- Let your kids know you are not a “second parent” in a “second home,” but a primary parent in their life and that your home is theirs too. That means expect to do household chores with them, do laundry with them, make sure they take a bath and do their homework at your home too. Consider all the things you know that children need to do at home, and make sure they get done at your home.
- If the above don’t work, ask a relative to come over and give you an objective opinion on how you handle the children. Or, talk to other relatives and ask if they have any suggestions. A child may have confided in a grandparent some problem they are having with a parent because grandma is “neutral.” This requires of course that you be willing to listen objectively to what they say and at least try the advice they offer. If you have problems with your children, ask your ex-wife if she can shed some light on matters. Do whatever you have to do to build a better relationship with your children. Most important, stay calm, be patient, and continue to reiterate you love your children, you aren’t going to divorce them, and you will always be there for them when they need you. Follow up on these promises.