Ameican Spectator

June, 2000

The Sadness of the American Father

Harassed and belittled by the left, straightjacketed and ignored by the right, the dutiful American dad can't win no matter how much he tries to please his critics and defenders. In his confusion he starts to believe all the terrible things being said about him. Isn't it time he be given a break!

The American Spectator

In the controversy over the fate of Cuban boat boy Elian Gonzalez, the familiar sparring between anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists and the complicated debates about freedom versus family have coexisted with another theme: sexism against fathers.

In a Time essay titled "The Second-Class Parent," Lance Morrow wrote that politics has been allowed to trump family in Elian's case because "Americans have grown stupid and confused about the meaning of fatherhood" and fathers are seen as "secondary and essentially dispensable." Other commentators, including Ellen Goodman and the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, have made the same point: It's only lingering prejudice toward men as parents that has kept the boy on American soil; if the father had died on a journey to the U.S. while the mother was back in Cuba, he would have been sent home immediately. Fathers' advocates have been saying this practically from the day the story broke (one might even, if so disposed, see evidence of sexism in the fact that the mainstream media didn't catch on until about four months later, when all the other angles had been done to death), and some of them have been actively involved in the effort to have Elian returned.

Actually, if the roles had been reversed, it's far from clear that the outcome would have been different. Almost two decades ago, what some call "Cold War ideology" and others call freedom trumped both parents rights in the case of Walter Polovchak, the twelve-year-old boy who asked for asylum when his émigré parents decided to return to the Soviet Union. (Polovchak, now himself the father of a six-year-old son, opposes sending Elian back to Cuba.) In the early 1970's, California courts ruled that two small children whose Czech refugee father died shortly after arriving in the U.S. should stay here with their paternal grandparents, even though their mother in Communist Czechoslovakia wanted them back.

Nonetheless, it must be said -- however queasy one feels about the idea of returning a child to a modern-day slave plantation -- that some of the rhetoric from the "Let him stay" side had disturbing overtones of dad-bashing. Take the flimsy allegations that Juan Miguel Gonzalez was a wife-beater and a child abuser who should be barred from contact with his child until these charges are sorted out. Take the suggestion, laden with a presumption of guilt, that before the father's custody claim could be considered, an effort should be made to find out why Elian's mother left him. Such tactics are sadly familiar to American fathers who have never set foot on Communist soil.

Perhaps it's revealing that, of all the people I know who have fled Communist or ex-Communist countries, I found one who leaned in favor of sending Elian back -- a father going through a nasty, divorce. Mihai Muset, a New York attorney, is an émigré from Romania, where as a student he was briefly jailed under Ceaucescu for his dissident views. In New York, he was summarily thrown out of the family home after his estranged wife charged, with no evidence, that he had abused her; more recently he was arrested for going to the house in violation of a restraining order which had expired. "I never thought this could happen in the United States," says Muset. "I can see certain similarities between the way I'm being treated as a father in family court, and the way people were treated under Communism. In both cases, you have no rights."

While the battle over Elian mall not be primarily a fathers' rights issue, those who want to turn it into one are raising the right questions for the wrong reasons. Fatherhood is, indeed, the subject of much confusion and ambivalence these days, and is often treated less as a bond to be respected than as a problem to be debated. Some decry father absence; others proclaim the fatherless household to be just another wonderful addition to the mosaic of diversity. Some blame fathers for shirking their responsibilities; others speak of a movement for fathers' rights -- a notion that, not long ago, would have seemed bizarre.

At a time when more than a quarter of children in the United States are growing up without a father in the house, the idea that children are better off with two parents has become something of an uneasy consensus (though there are still those who say everything would be peachy if "society" just provided adequate support to single mothers). But it's far from clear that we know where to go from there, or what to expect from fathers when they're present. Conservatives and liberals alike tend to miss the real picture of fatherhood and fatherlessness in America today -- the latter, because they often can't see past the dogma of male oppression of women; the former, because they often can't see past the dogma of traditional sexual distinctions.

Many, social conservatives who affirm the importance of fathers also share the belief that men's natural attachment to their children is weak at best, and that they must be either coaxed or coerced into accepting a paternal role. As David Blankenhorn put it in his 1995 book Fatherless America, "Men do not volunteer for fatherhood as much as they are conscripted into it by the surrounding culture." From such assumptions, it clearly follows that the cause of fatherlessness is willful male abandonment of children. It is a leitmotif of conservative social commentary that the post-1960's loosening of cultural, moral, and legal restraints has liberated men to desert the women they impregnate, or walk away from their families to seek greener sexual pastures.

There are enough real-life examples of such behavior for the clichés to be believable. But it's a very incomplete and ultimately misleading view of what is happening to American fathers and families.

Fathers Without Children

For one thing, the dirty little secret of the divorce debate is that two-thirds of all divorces involving children are initiated by mothers. To many people, the idea that women are more likely to dump their spouses seems so counterintuitive that they are tempted to look for some alternative explanation: Maybe the wife formally files for divorce, but the husband has already moved out and is living with some floozy. Yet surveys of divorcing couples suggest otherwise. Consistently, at least two-thirds of the time, both spouses agree that the wife wanted to end the marriage -- and usually not because of adultery, wife-beating, or other grave offenses, but over such things as "losing a sense of closeness" or "not feeling loved and appreciated." If some wives are discarded after devoting their lives to their husbands, plenty of men feel they were dumped just as unceremoniously after they did their best to be good husbands and fathers. (Unmarried fathers should not be automatically presumed to be the "deserters," either, though there are no reliable studies on breakups between unwed parents.)

Interestingly, men are also more inclined to believe that parents should stay in a so-so marriage for the children: In a 1994 poll, just 27 percent of women agreed with this view, compared to 41 percent of men. It is entirely possible that men are less pro-divorce, in both word and deed, because they pay a heavier price for it. "I believe that where you have minor children involved, in most states there really is no such thing as no-fault divorce for fathers," says Detroit attorney and fathers' rights activist Phillip Holman. "On the practical level, fathers realize that divorce means they lose their kids."

Surveys show that the majority of divorcing fathers would like to have at least joint custody; relatively few have the resources or the stomach for a legal fight. Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver, the author of a major study summarized in his eye-opening book Divorced Dads (1999), found that only 15 percent of fathers, compared to more than two-thirds of mothers, managed to obtain the custodial arrangements they wanted. Typically, the father is reduced to a role that leaves him with most of the obligations of traditional fatherhood -- such as breadwinning -- and few of the rewards. Fathers complain of being treated as "checkbooks" and "visitors."

Contrary to myth, the majority of non-custodial fathers don't live in the lap of luxury and don't bail out on their kids. Studies show that the vast majority of divorced men who are steadily employed pay all or most of the child support they owe. Those who disappear often give up after their efforts to remain involved are systematically thwarted by their ex-wives. A common affliction among divorced fathers, Braver has found, is the feeling that they are "parentally disenfranchised" -- deprived of any real say in their children's upbringing, and often hampered in their attempts to maintain regular contact. They become, in Braver's poignant phrase, "fathers without children."

As many as half of non-custodial fathers report at least occasional visitation interference, and 25 to 40 percent of custodial mothers admit sometimes denying court-ordered visits to their ex-husbands to punish them for some real or perceived misdeed. Dad may show up at the scheduled time and find no one home; or he may be told, over and over, that Tommy or Janey is sick or has a lot of homework or is out playing with friends. Or else his ex may play the abuse card. Needham, Massachusetts attorney Sheara Friend describes a case in which a man whom court experts had found to be an excellent father was cut off from all contact with his daughter for several weeks -- even by telephone -- after his ex-wife, who had earlier made uncorroborated charges of violence, claimed that she felt frightened because he had been looking for a house in the same area where she was moving with the little girl.

Beat-Dead Dads

These disenfranchised fathers -- who, in a bitter spoof of the "deadbeat dad" label, often refer to themselves as "beat-dead dads" or "deadbolted dads" -- form the core of the fathers' rights movement, a loosely organized agglomeration of groups that have tens of thousands of members nationwide. While these groups are often derided as "right-wing," they generally have not received much support from the political right.

Social conservatives who favor traditional sex roles are unlikely to look kindly on the activist fathers' crusade to eliminate the legal system's preference for mothers as custodial parents. In 1998, commenting on the notorious custody fight between hotshot lawyer Alice Hector and stay-at-home dad Robert Young, David Frum argued that the presumption that the children belong with Mom should be preserved as the most sensible approach to custody issues, even if it didn't quite fit the facts in this case. What's more, men who are upset because the courts ignored their contributions as diaper-changing, bottle-feeding, baby-bathing modern fathers qualify for little sympathy from conservatives to whom the "New Dad" is a faintly repulsive symptom of politically correct androgyny. (Norman Podhoretz once wrote that such "Mr. Moms" were no better than men who abandoned their children.) Some traditionalists' beliefs about male and female natures have even prompted them to embrace feminist myths of victimized women and beastly men -- such as the claim that fathers who demand expanded custody rights are not motivated by paternal feeling but by the desire to terrorize their ex-wives into settling for less money, or that gender-neutral custody laws have put mothers at a disadvantage in divorce cases.

Meanwhile. where are the liberals who have shown such enthusiasm for fathers' rights in the Elian Gonzalez case? They're quite willing, along with the feminists, to applaud and support the "New Dad" when he sues his employer over the denial of paternity leave, or an airport over putting all the diaper-changing tables in the ladies' rooms. But let him go to court to argue that he should have primary custody of the children because the mother devotes 70 hours a week to her career, and he's lust another evil male oppressor. In 1995 when the estranged husband of O. J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark filed for temporary custody of their two young sons during the trial, Ellen Goodman wrote a column titled "Guilty of Success" lamenting that working women were victims of bias in court and that Gordon Clark might simply be engaging in no-holds-barred "post-marital warfare." Tammy Bruce, then head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, warned that if Clark lost, it would mean that "punishing women for...balancing families and careers is now in vogue." On ABC's This Week With David Brinkley, Cokie Roberts fumed, "I mean...the number of men who have been working in court and no one has ever talked about taking their children away!" -- as if taking men's children away had not been, for decades, the typical outcome of divorce.

It didn't matter that when Marcia Clark filed for divorce (apparently because she no longer found Gordon's company intellectually stimulating), she admitted in her petition that he had always had an equal role in raising the boys. Or that at the time of his custody bid, she was working 16 hour days and weekends while he was usually home by 6 p.m. Or that she wanted him to pay for babysitters, out of his $36,000 a year to her $96,000, instead of letting him spend more time caring for his own children.

Gloria Steinem and friends do pay occasional lip service to nurturing fathers (while reserving their most blistering contempt for the old-fashioned fellow who thinks that supporting and protecting his family makes him a good father even if he's never cooked his kid's favorite meal). But this crowd has a funny way of promoting any kind of fatherhood, even the most "progressive." In Steinem's pet project, Ms. magazine, rare valentines to the New Dad are vastly outnumbered by screeds against the Bad Dad -- the selfish deadbeat, the domineering patriarch, the ogre who beats his wife and rapes his daughters. According to Ms. co-founder Letty Cottin Poregin, fathers' misdeeds, from desertion and emotional neglect to violence, are "a social calamity of major proportions," while women who love their fathers have been merely conditioned to overlook their bad behavior.

With a few exceptions -- such as former NOW President Karen DeCrow -- feminists have shown little regard for their hallowed principles of equal rights and gender neutrality when it comes to fathers. NOW, in recent years, has made the battle against the fathers' movement a top priority. The first and longest of its 1999 resolutions was a call for action on behalf of women in divorce and custody cases, beating the drums against supposedly well-connected and influential fathers' rights groups and asserting that "custody awards are...distorted by anti-woman bias, money and politics." (Women's groups have claimed that when fathers seek custody, they win two-thirds of the time; but this statistic refers mostly to cases in which the father has custody by mutual agreement, not to custody disputes.) NOW has urged its members to fight such sinister proposals as joint custody, penalties for false charges of abuse, and encouraging mediation instead of litigation. Last fall, it mobilized against a congressional bill dubbed "Fathers Count," which would fund job training for indigent non-custodial parents and programs that promote marriage and successful parenting. According to NOW, the bill would be "bad for women and children" because it would supposedly encourage women to marry abusive men.

While feminists often accuse the activist fathers of being after "power and control," their own rhetoric is an unabashed declaration of maternal supremacy. Legal advocates Joanne Schulman and Valerie Pitt write that "forced joint custody, like forced sterilization and forced pregnancy, is a denial of women's right to control their lives" -- a right that, in their view, obviously overrides the right of fathers and children to a relationship. When fathers' groups propose such modest measures as allowing divorced fathers who are asked to pay for day care expenses to have a say in choosing child care or to provide it themselves, feminists clamor that this would "allow non-custodial Dads to control child care decisions made by Moms." The feminists still badger men about participating equally in child-rearing (in a TV debate in 1996, NOW President Patricia Ireland declared that "men need to take equal responsibility for the family"-- just a few months before NOW issued an "Action Alert on 'Fathers' Rights'" comparing men who seek a role in their children's lives to batterers). But their idea of equal parenting seems to boil down to this: You, Dad, will change half of all the diapers, make half of all the breakfasts, and do anything Mom needs you to do to free her to tote her briefcase to the office. But the moment she decides that she doesn't want you around anymore, you'll get out like a good boy, keep the checks coming, and stay out of her way.

These attitudes also trickle down into the liberal mainstream. Groups that make a show of their concern for the poor rarely extend this concern to indigent "deadbeat dads" whose child support arrearages mount while they are unemployed. (Legal Aid represents only "primary caretakers" -- read mothers -- in child custody cases.) Nor do civil libertarians show much concern for fathers whose contact with their children is severely restricted by restraining orders based on uncorroborated allegations of abuse. In fact, to some people of progressive views, the very idea that children need fathers is still suspect. Reviewing Braver's Divorced Dads, Publishers Weekly sniffed that "readers with more fluid, less patriarchal notions of family life will find much here to question" -- even though Braver repeatedly stresses his support for many aspects of the women's movement, and specifically for flexible parental roles for men and women.

You've Gotta Have Heart

The state of fatherhood in America is not quite as grim as the focus on "disenfranchised dads" would suggest. There are plenty of men who are doing a wonderful job, either as traditional breadwinner fathers, or as "nurturing dads" who are equal or even primary caregivers -- or as something in between. It makes little sense to malign any of them. If feminists are consumed with hatred for the unreconstructed masculinity of the Old Dad, conservatives are far too inclined to get paranoid about the "androgyny" of the New Dad. Men and women will always bring their sexual identity, an intangible male or female je ne sais quoi, to what they do; just because a father's role is not distinctly "masculine" doesn't make his presence as a man less vital. Is there really anything to deplore about the fact that in nearly one in five two-earner families with preschoolers, the father is the principal provider of child care when the mother is working? Why not let a hundred fathers bloom?

The real problem is that in America in the year 2000, almost any father, "old" or "new," can find himself a "father without children." What can be done about this! Perhaps, in order to rebuild fatherhood, we need to appeal not to the hearts and minds of men, as Blankenhorn and others have suggested, but to the hearts and minds of women. The mother who sabotages the father-child relationship is not always acting out of spite; she may sincerely see little value in this bond; she may want to make a "clean break" and view the father as an intruder -- partcularly if she wants the children to see the new man in her life as a father figure. In many ways, our culture today encourages such thinking. There have been public service ad campaigns with such slogans as? "They're your kids. Be their dad"; maybe we need one that says, "They're his kids. Let him be their dad."

As for policies with more teeth, joint custody is an option worth exploring. Many conservative critics of the "divorce culture" see it as a false panacea that promises harmless divorce. Braver's findings, however, indicate that joint custody and frequent contact with the father do mitigate many of the negative effects of divorce for children. More intriguing, Rick Kuhn of the Washington, D.C.-based Children's Rights Council and John Guidubaldi of Kent State University have found that the early 1990's -- which saw a high percentage of joint custody awards -- experienced the greatest declines in divorce rates. Maybe if people (and yes, I mean primarily women) know that they won't be able to get their ex out of their hair as long as a child binds them together, they'll make more of an effort to stay married.

Biologically, of course, men and women can never have quite the same connection to their children. Only the woman has to be there at birth, and only a man can be unaware of his child's existence. But that doesn't mean the father-child bond is weaker or more artificial: It is simply more vulnerable, and may need more safeguards from disruption. Most men do not need to be conscripted into fatherhood; all they need is a real opportunity to volunteer.

CATHY YOUNG is the author of Growing Up in Moscow (Ticknor & Fields) and Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (Free Press).

Copyright © 2000, The American Spectator.