Not long after I graduated from college, I worked at a government agency. One of my co-workers was in the middle of a bitter divorce. Prior to the divorce, he stayed home caring for his two young sons. Once his wife left him, however, she filed for custody of the children. At the time, he did not contest the filing, as he did not want to upset his kids any more than they already were. However, he was clearly heartbroken and missed nurturing his children.
I left my job to return to school, as did my colleague. Over the years, I lost track of him. Then, many years later, I was at LaGuardia Airport when I noticed my former friend's face on the cover of one of New York City's tabloid-y newspapers. "City's Worst Deadbeat Dad!" the headline screamed. "WTF?" I thought to myself. I bought a paper.
Long story short, eventually Bob (not even close to his real name) became upset with the way his ex was raising their kids. He went to court to get them back. He lost. Bob was also ordered to pay more child support, although his ex had a very high salary herself. Rather than give her more money, Bob quit his job and moved into his mother's basement. The article portrayed Bob as a horrendous person and his wife as a victim of a petty man. I felt awful for Bob and the children; the media coverage relied heavily on the stereotypical idea that men cannot possibly be as good caregivers as women.
It seems, however, that Working Mother magazine readers disagree:
A new survey by Working Mother magazine shows that 74% of respondents believe a mother’s nurturing is essential to a child’s development, but at least 50% of custody cases now end with the father gaining primary custody, and this figure looks set to rise.
Here's what I say to that: so what? Of course, I'm not in favor of the idea that working mothers should be punished for doing so by losing their kids. But if we are asking fathers and other partners to step up and do their part in caring for and raising children - as they should - then we also have to acknowledge some stereotypes that have traditionally worked to the benefit of women and we have to be willing to give up those privileges.
I'm not saying that there are not scary issues that this raises. Clearly, we do not yet live in a world where people understand that a mom who works is as devoted to her children as a mom who does not. The idea that women might be losing custody of kids merely because working women are seen as less devoted to their children is horrifying. And I also know a woman in the midst of a terrible divorce whose powerful, working-long-hours husband filed for sole custody, saying his wife neglected their school-age kids because she opted to go to night classes in a master's degree program two nights a week. That is evil.
But back to the idea of sharing and working toward a better world. It turns out, contrary to popular belief and strange excuses, that men are actually capable of nurturing and raising kids. Some do it on their own when their wife dies or leaves them. Others have male partners and no women in the household. Another group shares responsibility with the children's mother. When men care for their own children, they do not "babysit" any more than mothers do when they care for their kids. If a man is a stay-at-home dad, why shouldn't he have any less of right to custody than a stay-at-home mom? That is insulting and absurd.
In the past, it was thought that a father's role in child rearing was to earn some money so that the kids had a house and food and clothing. That was pretty much it. Maybe he was also expected to discipline the kids or show the kids what the proper role of men was, but when couples got divorced under this rubric, it made sense to automatically grant custody to the moms. At the same time, the mom and kids were usually plunged into lower economic circumstances for a variety of reasons, one being that she had been out of the work force for a while, another being that women are paid about 25% less than men for doing the same job, and a third that alimony doesn't really add up to enough to support a family. Plus, men got remarried and had new families to look after. Really, when I think about it, the old system kind of sucked.
Since I don't want to live in a world where women are made to feel guilty if they work and men are not expected to have real responsibility in raising the kiddies, I'm down with the idea that more men want to share custody of their kids. The key is to make sure that women are not punished for working while men are rewarded for changing an extra diaper or two every week. But a knee jerk reaction to news that dads want custody and that women must do everything they can to prevent this from happening is wrong. It doesn't serve working parents, stay-at-home parents, or most importantly, the kids.
Those are my two cents. There's a very interesting discussion over at the Feministing Community on custody and whether courts favor mothers. Back in 2006, Ampersand at Alas, a Blog offered an excellent analysis of custody decisions and the stat that men get custody 50% of the time. On a related topic, Hannah "might mouth" Wallen shares her frustrations over Sexism in Divorce law and Child Support enforcement. Cafe Cynthia at Cafe Mom looks at both sides of the Working Mother article. Finally, Deesha at Co-parenting 101 looks at the original article and few other blogs and concludes, "we believe that joint custody should be granted except in situations where such an arrangement is detrimental to the kids."
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