Family Attorney: System Sides with Gender Over Parenting Skills

Here’s a guy who gets it (Huffingtom Post, 3/28/11).

The writer is family attorney David T. Pisarra and he’s got a few things to say about the all-too-apparent bias against dads in family courts.

But his piece is more than that.  Pisarra isn’t just talking about fathers’ rights and their deprivation by courts across the land.  He also grasps one of the fundamental points I’ve been making for a long time – that courts’ underemphasis on dads is unavoidably an overemphasis on moms as well.  How could it be otherwise?

While there are inherent animal instincts hardwired into our species when dealing with infants, parenting is a learned behavior. And the myth that women automatically know how to be a good parent solely by virtue of having given birth doesn’t only put unfair expectations on women but minimizes the role of men in the rearing of a child. Short of not being able to breast feed, men have the same abilities to protect and guide the development of a child as women. Yet this myth propagates the notion that men are innately incompetent to nurture a child which, unfortunately, plays itself out daily in Family Court.

Does it ever.  It’s not only that men are as capable as women at caring for children as much research makes clear.  There’s also the misguided notion that earning a living somehow doesn’t qualify as caring for your child.  We all agree that feeding children, bathing them, changing them, reading to them, etc. qualify as good and necessary parenting behavior.

So why don’t we regard as equally valuable earning the income that makes all of the above possible?  Objectively it is and, when combined with the other things dads do for children, their contributions to the child’s welfare, in most cases deserve equal respect by courts.

But they don’t get it.

And lest anyone cry out that mothers do as much earning as fathers, be advised, they don’t.  Take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on employment and its Time Use Survey and you’ll see right away that men do more paid work than do women and women do more childcare than do men.

Those figures are from the overall American population, though.  It’s much more extreme among parents and still more so among parents with young children.  Take a look at this article by the always solidly-based W. Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia (National Review, 6/19/09).

 In most American families today, fathers still take the lead when it comes to breadwinning: In 2008, the Census estimated that fathers were the main provider in almost three-quarters of American married families with children under 18. Providership is important to protect children from poverty, raise their odds of educational success, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed later in life.

Got that?  Providing is good for kids, not just in the immediate term but in the long one as well.  OK, I know you get it.  It’s judges who don’t get it. 

And dads’ propensity to provide is exactly what moms want.  Wilcox again:

Moreover, most women who are married with children are happy to have their husbands take the lead when it comes to providing and do not wish to work full-time. For instance, a 2007 Pew Research Center study found that only 20 percent of mothers with children under 18 wanted to work full-time, compared with 72 percent of fathers with children under 18. My own research has shown that married mothers are happiest in their marriages when their husbands take the lead when it comes to breadwinning – largely because his success as a provider gives her more opportunities to focus on the children, or balance childcare with part-time work (the most popular work arrangement for married mothers).

So the fact that dads express their love and their commitment to their wives and children more by providing is not only what they want, it’s what their wives want too.

And as we know, the hands-on parenting dads do is not the same as that done by mothers.  The two form a sort of synergy that children require to grow into fully-formed adults.  Wilcox cites a

 growing body of research indicating that fathers bring distinctive talents to the parenting enterprise. The work of psychologist Ross Parke, for instance, indicates that fathers are more likely than mothers to engage their children in vigorous physical play (e.g., roughhousing), to challenge their children — including their daughters — to embrace life”s challenges, and to be firm disciplinarians.

Not surprisingly, children benefit from being exposed to the distinctive paternal style. Sociologist David Eggebeen has shown, for instance, that teenagers are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and delinquency when they have involved and affectionate fathers, even after controlling for the quality of their relationship with their mother. In his words, “What these analyses clearly show is that mothers and fathers both make vital contributions to adolescent well-being.’

So explain to me again why dads are penalized in divorce court for doing what’s good for their kids and what they and their wives want them to do.

All that is trumped by family court practice, as Pisarro has seen first hand.

But having been in countless court cases where I’ve seen men who wanted nothing more than to be actively involved in their children’s lives fall victim to a system that regularly sides with gender over parenting skills, it’s clear that statutes alone aren’t enough to change the preconceived biases that still exist.

Yep.  I know of no family laws that spell out that mothers are to be favored over fathers.  And yet they are.  In state after state, country after country, 83% – 91% of custodial parents are mothers.  In the U.S. that’s remained true for almost 20 years with literally no change.

Likewise, I doubt that there are many family court judges with a conscious anti-father bias.  My guess is that the preference for maternal custody comes from tradition, an ignorance of the social science and a culture rife with messages about good moms and bad dads.

And Pisarro understands, as I’ve said many times, that the way custody is apportioned by family courts is in fact bad for all concerned.  That’s because for every dad who loses contact with his child, there’s a mom who can’t get a break from childcare, who can’t improve her education, her job skills or who can’t just take a few hours off to hang out with her friends.

As long as the notion exists that gender serves as the defining factor in determining parenting skills both men and women will suffer. Good mom’s will shoulder too much of the burden while good dad’s are denied access to what matters to them most.

And as long as one sex is split off from his child post-divorce, children will suffer.  The loss of a parent is traumatic for children and no amount of intoning the mantra of “the best interests of the child,” will salve the wound.

It’s one of the great ironies – not to say one of the great tragedies – of our time that those words are so often used to describe a system that in many ways seems designed to achieve the opposite.

Thanks to Ned for the heads-up.

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