Wednesday, October 21, 1998, Editorial and Opinions By Cathy Young / The Detroit News
In a society sensitive to stereotypes, few groups have as bad an image as the divorced father. Despite a few positive portrayals in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, he is generally seen as a cad who walks out on his wife and kids to vacation in Hawaii with a blonde half his age.
Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths (Penguin Putnam), written by Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver with Diane O'Connell, is a powerful and well-documented brief in defense of this despised creature.
Braver, who has conducted an eight-year study of parents after divorce, knocks down the stereotypes one by one. To begin with, most divorced fathers don't "walk out." At least two-thirds of the time, the mother is not only the one who files for divorce but the one who wants out of the marriage. And it's usually not, as many assume, because the father beats her, drinks or cheats; most commonly, mothers cite such reasons as "growing apart" or "not feeling loved or appreciated."
Nor is it true that, once divorced, fathers are likely to desert their children emotionally and financially. Most fathers who are steadily employed consistently pay child support (their record is especially impressive if one looks not only at mothers' reports, on which most statistics are based, but at fathers' own reports) and work to stay in their children's lives. So-called "runaway dads" are often "driven-away dads": they vanish because their ex-wives keep them away.
Finally, there's the mother of all divorce myths: that men benefit economically from divorce, while women and children are impoverished. The famous factoid from Lenore Weitzman's 1985 book The Divorce Revolution - women's standard of living drops 73 percent in the year after divorce, that of men goes up 42 percent - was exposed as erroneous two years ago. But her critics' alternative calculations still showed a drop for women and a rise for men.
All those researchers, Braver shows, made one big mistake: they didn't factor in the tax code, which favors the single custodial parent. They also omitted such things as the father's spending on children during visitation. After these adjustments, the economic effects of divorce are similar for both sexes; mothers may even have a slight advantage. Weitzman and other feminist scholars have claimed that divorce settlements are tilted in favor of fathers because men are favored by a male-dominated system and are more aggressive negotiators. Yet on average, mothers are more satisfied with divorce settlements than fathers. Ten percent of mothers in Braver's sample thought the system was slanted in favor of fathers, while 75 percent of fathers thought it was slanted in favor of mothers - and more than a quarter of mothers agreed!
Braver doesn't paint all divorced fathers as martyrs; he certainly doesn't paint all divorced moms as vindictive shrews. He admits that irresponsible or abusive 'bad dads' exist, and that sometimes the mother tries in vain to keep the father involved. But Divorced Dads argues that these are the exceptions.
Our public policy has focused on hunting "deadbeat dads" while disregarding the bigger problem of disenfranchised dads. What are the solutions? Encouraging mediation instead of litigation. Programs to help divorced fathers remain active parents. A presumption of joint legal custody and substantial contact with both parents, rebuttable by evidence that this is not in the child's best interest. (It's worth noting that a shared parental responsibility bill has been stuck in the House Judiciary Committee of the Michigan state legislature for a year and a half.)
Braver's work is unlikely to receive the same acclaim as Weitzman's now-discredited research, because it challenges our cultural prejudices rather than reinforce them. Both liberals and conservatives have promoted the image of men as the bad guys in divorce - the former because it squares with their view of women as victims of male oppression, the latter because it squares with their view that men are biologically predisposed to sow their wild oats. From now on, any politician or commentator who traffics in these stereotypes should be required to read Divorced Dads.
*Cathy Young is vice-president of the Women's Freedom Network. Her column is published on Tuesday. You may write her at The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 48226. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 1998, The Detroit News
Dr. Braver's book is available in major books stores or via the Internet at:
DIVORCED DADS: SHATTERING THE MYTHS (Tarcher-Penguin-Putnam)
See it on the Web at