New York Times

Op-Ed Column

June 21, 1998

The Divorced Dad's Burden

The cliché is the Deadbeat Dad. The newer reality is the Deadbolted Dad --
locked out of his children's hearts after divorce. 
It isn't a happy Father's Day when dad has to return his progeny by 6 P.M.
on Sunday, like rented videos, knowing that his next chance for "take-out
fathering" won't be for two weeks. Most of us still assume that divorced
dads come in only one variety -- those who walk out, ignore their children
and balk at paying child support orders -- and more than a million women
can attest to this painful reality. But for many men, the situation is just
the opposite. 

Close to four million divorced fathers in the United States do pay child
support. In many cases, these are men who have fought for joint or full
custody, and lost. Even when they demand more time with their children,
they find that little attention is paid to enforcing or honoring their
visitation rights. 

On a recent cross-country book tour I was struck by the numerous stories I
heard from such men -- post-patriarchal New Men who are deeply attached to
their children -- about the biases they face in the courts, day care
centers and their children's schools, not to mention from punitive former
wives. A Southern talk show host said he has nightmares that his former
wife is "padlocking" his children's hearts and that when he tries to "come
home again," he will find the locks changed. 

That nightmare came true for Mike, a 36-year-old financial planner from
Virginia. He found a surprise message from his wife on his office phone:
"I've taken our son and gone back to my parents' place." 

Mike made the 800-mile round trip to see his wife and infant son every few
weeks and was led to believe they would reconcile. Six months to the day
after she left, his wife sued for divorce. Because she had established
residency for their child in another state, she now had a more sympathetic
environment in which to demand full custody. 

"My life has been a nightmare ever since," Mike told me. This Deadbolted
Dad has traveled 15,000 miles in the last year to see his baby son,
compelled by court order to limit his "contact" to 29 hours a month. It's
not anger one hears in Mike's voice; it's agony. 

His child did not choose to have only one parent. Growing up with a "hotel
father" is bad enough, but his son has also lost half of his extended
family. "There are 30 other people -- grandmother, grandfather, aunts,
uncles, cousins -- who could have a positive impact on my son's life," Mike
said. "I'm not a Deadbeat Dad, but I am getting close to being a Beat-Dead
Dad. It's heartbreaking." 

The political posse that began chasing Deadbeat Dads in the 1980's did
achieve major social reform. According to the most current Census Bureau
data, 76 percent of the nearly five million women due child support receive
at least a portion of what they are owed, a total of nearly $12 billion a
year, according to the most recent figure. 

The greater role fathers are taking in raising children is one of the
strongest shifts in the manly ideal. "There has been a fairly consistent
increase in the proportion of fathers acting as primary child care
providers during the last decade, among both married and divorced parents,"
said Martin O'Connell, chief of fertility and family statistics at the
Census Bureau. 

More and more men whose wives work and who have preschoolers are now acting
as the primary caregiver -- 22 percent in 1994, up from 17 percent in 1988,
Mr. O'Connell said. Think about it: a quarter of the men in this category
-- 1.4 million fathers -- are taking up much of the responsibility for
dressing, feeding and diapering their babies. And many more men who don't
label themselves as Mr. Mom still shoulder a significant share of the

It sounds like the sort of sensible role fluidity that progressives have
long advocated, right? 

But what happens when the traditional dialogue between the stay-at-home mom
and fast-track father is reversed -- when it is the working wife who says,
"I've grown and you haven't -- sorry, but I want out"? 

These Mr. Moms may be stunned when they face courts still operating under
old stereotypes about the inviolate mother-child bond. Their claims to
custody are seldom recognized -- even joint custody is not easily won. To
shut men out of their children's lives as a consequence of divorce not only
robs the child and parents, but it also fails our society. 

Larry Pollack, a New York matrimonial lawyer for a quarter of a century,
described a typical case in which his client is the husband. When the wife
received a hot-shot job offer in New York, the couple moved up from the
South, where the husband had made his living buying and selling real estate
and fixing up houses. She became the breadwinner, while he took on the role
of soccer dad. 

When the wife asked for a divorce, Mr. Pollack said, the husband believed
the courts would recognize his wish to continue being the hands-on,
day-to-day parent. Mr. Pollack is trying to persuade the father not to
fight, because he won't win. Even though the mother intends to continue her
demanding professional life by hiring nannies, she will almost certainly
win custody, Mr. Pollack said, because it is seen as a social disgrace for
a mother to lose custody of a child. 

Some courts do recognize fathers' rights when both parents are reasonable.
The phrases "shared parenting" and "time sharing" are gradually entering
the legal lexicon, promoted by groups like the American Coalition for
Fathers and Children. But the key to making such arrangements work is not
the courts; it is parents who are grown up enough to sacrifice their
revenge fantasies for the greater good of the child they created together.
Some, at least, can manage to clear this difficult emotional hurdle. 

A Massachusetts research scientist named Roger, divorced at 50, was furious
at having to give up his rights as a full-time father. In spite, he planned
to move to California, get a condo, dye his hair and start dating. The
children could visit when it was convenient. 

"But I forced myself to think long term," he told me, and that meant
sticking around the same neighborhood and convincing his former wife that
allowing him to continue fulfilling the father's role was essential. He
sees his children several times a week, not in a hotel or at McDonald's,
but driving them to the dentist or doing homework together. 

"It grounded me," Roger said of the approach. Otherwise, he said, he might
have done a lot of silly or self-destructive things to make up for the
emotional hollowness. 

So much of the concern previously shown by courts in deciding the lives of
divorced parents and their children has focused on monetary connections.
That neglects the long-term issue of maintaining the continuity of a
child's relationship with both parents. 

Roger's solution, while a compromise, suggests a new model -- and a reward
that is priceless. After seven years of involving himself in the daily
details of his children's lives, this unbolted dad says proudly, "They
really like to see me -- and now I'll never lose them."

Gail Sheehy is the author of "Understanding Men's Passages."