Divorced Dads: The Forgotten Parent Wendy A. Paterson, Ph.D. Chair, Elementary Education and Reading Buffalo State College
Experiencing Divorce • “There are always three sides to the story: yours, mine and the truth.” • “I wanted to be sure that these kids stayed with me because I knew that if I lost custody of these kids it would be the greatest heartbreak of my life…I just couldn’t see my life without these kids.” • “Mothers aren’t necessarily nurturing and dads aren’t necessarily not nurturing.” • “There’s a distinct difference between being a father and being a Dad.” • “If it doesn’t work out with your wife, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work out with your kids!”
Divorce Wars • “In divorce, everybody loses.” • “It was horrible. It was just unbelievably horrible.” • “Women are much more vindictive than men. Some men are bastards, of course, but women…are gonna make you pay.” • “I mean this woman despises me…I don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to be in the same room.” • “The most painful part of the whole mess was when I thought I had just lost my kids.”
Why Can’t We Just Get Along? Your marriage is over. Unfortunately, when children are involved, that doesn’t mean that your relationship with your ex is over too. For the sake of your children, the marital relationship must now change and develop into a parenting relationship. This change, however, is often difficult…Among the things that prevent us from seeing a need to change are highly charged emotions like anger, jealousy, and fear (Ross & Corcoran, 1996, p. 20)
Guilt Frustration Anger Relief Shame Pain Failure Change Pride Honor Disbelief Sacrifice Love Poverty Loneliness Fatigue Fathering through Divorce
Pushing Dad Away: How Divorce Separates Fathers from their Children • The sundering of relationships and the dissolution of families are unavoidable byproducts of divorce. • Divorced men and women often maintain their anger, no matter how long past the divorce partly because the adversarial nature of divorce when processed through the legal system exacerbates such ill-will. • “Those who have bitter divorces have a much harder time rebuilding their lives than those who have peaceful divorces. I am convinced that the anger generated by the divorce process itself is often more intense and lasts longer than the anger that arises from the failure of the marriage” (Margulies, 2004, pp. 1-2).
What Divorce Costs Dad Over the past thirty years, more and more fathers are actively seeking at least joint custody of their children, but only 10% actually have residential custody. For over 80% of all divorces, it is the husband who moves out of the family home and sets up a new residence.
What Fathers Give Up The ownership of my son which I had signed away, so casually, four years earlier, stuck like a bone in my throat...I had not fought for custody because I assumed it was best that the children remain in their home, stay in the same school. The fact that I had actually signed away all rights as a father had not been discussed. I was thinking in terms of living arrangements, not legal rights (Stafford, 1978, p. 61)
A Stranger in My Own Home • It was uncomfortable to stand in a room that had once been our home and know that I was an outsider (Stafford, 1978) • “That’s the thing that kills you when that stuff happens in front of the kids, to be thrown out of a house that was your own. It’s hard at first, having to ring the doorbell to go into the house…Now it’s got to the point where I’m basically not allowed into the house. It gets to be time for me to pick them up and the kids bags are packed on the front porch.”
Then, with little warning, disaster struck. I found myself forced out of the house that had been my home for fifteen years. I was excluded from the lives of my children and separated from my familiar surroundings and the things I held dear. I had nowhere to turn. I was totally discounted. No one seemed to be aware of the depth of my pain. I became embroiled in a vicious, uncaring and unfair adversary system… (Silver & Silver,1981, xi).
Divorce is ultimately about change—in parenting patterns, in residences, and in economic and emotional security. And it is more often the man upon whom most of the change, particularly in the early stages of the divorce, devolves. When all this change is combined with a deep sense of rejection, the total experience can be quite traumatic. (Margulies 2004, p. x).
The Effects of Divorcing on Children • Children’s relationships with their fathers are more likely to undergo dramatic change from divorce than are their relationships with their mothers (Ahrons, 2004). • For children, the loss of a relationship with their fathers is often the most distressful and damaging part of divorce. If mothers continue to be angry, bad-mouth their exes to their children or tie visitation to the receipt of child support, they set up barriers to their children’s relationships with their fathers, with long-lasting, possible lifelong, effects (p. 116). • Living with divorcing parents is one of the leading causes of depression in children. They feel the tension even if there are no outward displays of anger. And when there is overt hostility between the parents, children find it frightening. The situation prolongs the grieving and mourning that inevitably accompany divorce (Margulies, 2004, p. 180).
Sophie’s Choice • Fathers are faced with the choice of whether to stay in a volatile relationship that keeps their children in the firing range of a power struggle between their parents, or to risk being branded as “deserters and abandoners” if they decide to move out. • When fathers move away from their children, it can look to the world like they are “no longer expected to care” but this is far from true for most divorced dads. • Nonresident does not mean absent.
What Would Dr. Laura Say? “People like her make people like me feel very, very guilty about it and I still feel guilty about it. It wasn’t my kids fault that their mother and I couldn’t make it, but it was probably the best I could do. When you make a decision, and the moment of absolute certainty is not there, you have to make the best decision you can in that point in time and go forward with it because you can’t fix what’s happened in the past. You can only work on what’s going to happen in the future.”
The greatest challenge to a father’s parenting competence…[is] separation of his life from his child’s…But divorce need not destroy fathering, ever. What terrifies children is what terrifies fathers: losing each other (Pruett, 2000, pp.11-12). • Even when they understood that they had made the only choice possible to get on with their lives and normalize their families, the guilt they felt at what others perceived as their abandonment of their children was one of the most painful experiences of their lives.
“I knew they were all in pain and hurtin’ and I had done it. On the one hand I felt guilty. On the other, I knew I was doing the right thing. I was doing what for the rest of my life was a kind of necessary thing to do.” “ I never left [you]. I’ve always been here. I always will be. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of you and miss you.”
When Dad Becomes a Visitor For many men there is a dramatic reduction in the amount of time they are allowed to see their children. In fact, their parental rights typically are terminated, and they are reduced to a visitor role. Most children from divorced families have more access to their neighbors than to their fathers. And the courts typically have created this situation…For fathers and children who have been close, divorce can be extremely cruel (Wedemeyer in Oakland, 1984, pp. 21-22).
Frustrated Fathers It is difficult for fathers to participate in the everyday lives of their children when they are only with them at most a few days a month. But it’s not for lack of trying. Many fathers in our study expressed deep frustration and grief about their diminished contact with their children. They miss the daily contact that they took for granted when they were living in the same household, and finding ways to compensate for that is not always possible. (Ahrons, 2004, p. 98)
Take the High Road • “You have to find some even ground with your ex…for the sake of the children and even if the other side is not willing to do it, then you have to be willing to do it. If you both do it, all you’re doing is destroying your children and they never asked for it and they don’t need it .... In the long run, your kids will understand.” • “It’s real easy to get angry and get petty, but do that in private, do that with your friends. In front of the kids, always positive. • “Maybe someday my kids can have good relationships with both of us and it doesn’t have to be damaged. That’s what I hope for. But I don’t need to influence their choice or their feelings in a negative way.”
Ahrons’ Study of Adult Children from Divorced Families Twenty years post-divorce, half of the adult children Ahrons interviewed “felt that their relationships with their fathers actually improved after divorce” (2004, p. 101). Some even commented that as adults they realized that they had “adopted their mothers’ view of their father, and as they got to know him separately they realized he was not the person their mother said he was” (p. 108). Others maintained that the separation of their parents allowed them to get to know their fathers as individuals.
What Children Need from Divorcing Parents They need for both of you to care for them and love them and for both of you to be involved, at least to some extent, with their activities. But what children need most of all is for the two of you to be able to cooperate around issues affecting them. They need you to cooperate around financial matters so they don’t end up in the middle when you disagree about money. They need you to be pleasant to each other when they move between households and they need you to be reasonable with each other in accommodating to changing schedules. They need encouragement to be comfortable in both households (Margulies, 2004, p. 210).
The Alienation of Fathers in America • Father-child alienation remains a defining characteristic of American family life” (Griswold, 1993, p. 3). • Industrialization changed the economic base from home industries to factory-centered industries, fathers began to lose the daily contact with their children that they had once enjoyed. • Since a gendered division of labor benefited the growing capitalist economy, so it was romanticized to maintain a balance of power where the ideal family was composed of “man the earner, woman the nurturer…” (p.14)
A Homosocial Culture • Men paid a high price for their economic power by losing ground as direct caretakers of their children, and soon father absence became normalized in family life. • Mothers, by contrast, were brought together through childbirth, visiting, friendships, church and other women-only social activities and “created a world in which men, fathers included, ‘made but a shadowy appearance,’” and parenting became more and more of a “homosocial culture” developed by and for supporting mothers (Griswold, 1993, pp. 16-17).
Blame the Monkeys • Bowlby’s WWII orphan deprivation studies and Harlow’s experiments with monkeys provided a scientific rationale for preserving the mother-child bond, especially for infants, going so far as to claim that chemical or hormonal bonding was communicated through the mother’s milk. The father was now fully disconnected, biologically and chemically as well as physically and emotionally (Lupton & Barclay, 1997).
No Parent Left Behind • In almost every book that examines father/mother roles in childrearing, the historical evidence is clear from 100 years of child and family psychology. Neither parent does it right! Mothers are criticized for too much contact, and fathers are criticized for too little. • What men may have gained as a gender, fathers lost as parents. The structure of the parent education movement—the fact that mothers, not fathers, were its targets—only confirmed and gave the imprimatur of science to men’s secondary place in the world of their children (Griswold, 1993, p. 130).
Jerks and Deadbeats • “People assume that wherever there’s a single mom, there must be a jerk dad.” • “There are a lot of deadbeat dads out there! I know a lot of guys that aren’t worth 25 cents. I’m sure there are a lot of women who aren’t wonderful people either. I think anytime you come up with a quick and easy blame to explain a problem, you’re probably not being very smart. Blaming a messed up kid on an absent father or deadbeat dad is just one more example of people not really wanting to go find out what made this kid have problems. This is an easy convenient target.”
Deadbeat Moms “That’s all you hear, ‘deadbeat dad! deadbeat dad!’ Maybe deadbeat mom doesn’t roll off your tongue, but people would shut off their TVs if someone said, ‘deadbeat mom.” How can you have a deadbeat mom?...They’re not surprised when some guy goes off the handle and kills his kids and kills himself over a broken relationship…but when a mom does that, it’s ‘Oh! How can that be!’”
We Are Not Deadbeats! • “When I see ‘deadbeat dads,’ I can’t believe that they could ever do that. It’s just inconceivable to me that you could just walk away from your children…If they are deadbeat dads, I have no respect for them whatsoever.” • I get very irritated because not all fathers are deadbeat fathers. I know I was not. I was never late in the entire time I was paying child support and alimony—never. And to be painted into that picture is not right. The fathers that don’t pay their bills, I’m ticked off at them—it’s not right. Just don’t put me in the same group with all those guys because I fulfilled my financial obligation and then some.
Dad the Caregiver • “I raised them as much as she did if not more from that aspect of it. I was very into my kids and involved with my kids. I think that’s why a lot of this hurts the way it does.” • “I just knew that I could be a better parent to my kids than my ex-wife even on my worst day.” • “I did everything for the kids from the time they were infants. It was me that was doing the changing, the laundry, taking them everywhere.”
Joint Custody isn’t Really Joint • Ask 10 people to define joint custody and you’ll get 10 different answers. (Warshak, 1992, p. 177) • Joint custody does not necessarily mean that both parents will be equally involved in their child’s upbringing. (p. 179) • Whatever the actual living arrangements, the great majority of children with divorced parents…must learn how to manage not only the physical, but also the psychological aspects of these crossings. (Ahrons, 2004, p. 79)
Schools Forget about Fathers • Teachers’ assumptions about homes are inconsistent with real people’s lives. • American cultural expectations of mother the homemaker and father the breadwinner contribute to schools’ mother-centered practices. • Divorced parents do not communicate well with each other! Expecting the residential parent to “inform” the nonresidential parent is unrealistic and naïve. • Mothers and fathers are invited to school events, but only mothers are expected.
“When they graduate and they go across the stage, they announce that so-and-so is going to whatever college and who are their parents. My daughter walks across the stage and apparently she only has one parent. You don’t even get mentioned! That is so wrong! There were other ones walking across the stage who had only one parent in their life, parents you know damn well are divorced.”
Including Fathers as Partners in their Children’s Education • Know the family configurations represented in your class and do not judge them! • Address all important communications to both parents (and/or caregivers). • Design activities that can be done by weekend fathers. • Follow up communications to be sure both parents are aware of important school functions.
Strive for Equity • Examine school practices carefully to see if times, customs or expectations inadvertently favor mothers and exclude fathers. • Do not “feel sorry” for divorced parents or children from “broken homes.” Understand their needs and treat them fairly. • Do not assume that because dad doesn’t show up, he isn’t interested. • Don’t take sides! Help parents understand that the welfare of the child is your focus.