Fathers & Families on CBS/HuffPost: ‘Do Men Become Better or Worse Fathers After Divorce?’

Author Jill Brooke helped craft a CBS Early Show segment and wrote an article on the issue of fathering after divorce. Two Fathers & Families supporters and I are quoted in the article. I helped Brooke with some research and briefly appeared in the CBS segment.

Brooke’s article is Do Men Become Better or Worse Fathers After Divorce? (Huffington Post, 7/17/09).

Brooke’s thesis is, as professor Don Gordon explains, “When a father is away from the stress of a failed marriage, he can be more relaxed and more reflective and as a result enjoy being more fully involved with his children.”

She quotes CNBC anchor Dennis Kneale, who says divorce has made him “vastly closer ” to his 9-year-old daughter Jing-Jing:

In many families, mom is the center of everything and the husband is the supporting player. But with divorce, I have had more one on one time with her in ways I never did before.

This can certainly be true, and some father-child relationships do improve after divorce. As a general rule, however, divorce is often what drives fathers and kids apart.

Brooke writes:

Technology has also helped prevent or reduce what is called parental alienation where in the past the residential parent may – consciously or unconsciously – block contact either out of her resentment towards the father or because she has remarried and is protecting the stepfather relationship.

A study by J. Annette Vanini and Edward Nichols found that 77 percent of noncustodial fathers faced some form of visitation interference.

But now fathers can give their kids pre-paid cell phones to insure contact. Divorce contracts are also often written to permit contact through email accounts.

Ted Rubin, a Huntington Long Island divorced dad to two girls, admits to using Facebook to keep in contact with his kids. “Sometimes when we speak on the phone I can tell if Mom is standing there and then later my daughter will contact me on Facebook,” he said. “A lot of Dads complain that moms could stand in the way of communication but now it’s almost impossible because kids are so tech savvy.”

In fact, Rubin, who has a contentious divorce with his ex-wife, says that email helps divorced parents diminish “the nastiness is our dialogues” which the kids would overhear on the phone. Now he can email what time he’s picking up the kids and delivering them without any verbal warfare…

[R]esearch shows that the kids do like it when both parents are present.

“They have fewer behavior and emotional problems, higher self-esteem and better school performance than children in sole custody arrangements,” said Glenn Sacks, the National Executive Director of Fathers & Families. “When researchers have examined children of divorce, and studied and queried adult children of divorce, they’ve found that most prefer joint custody and shared parenting.”

For example, in one Arizona State University study of college students who experienced their parents’ divorces while they were children, over two-thirds believe that living equal times with each parent is the best arrangement. A Harvard University study also confirmed that children in joint custody settings fared much better than kids living in sole custody households.

While many men acknowledge progress, some still complain that the system treats fathers as second-class citizens when asking for more time with their children.

As Gary Nicholson, the president of the American Association of Marital Attorneys, explains, part of the problem is that various state laws tie child support payments to the amount of time a father is with their child. Payments can be adjusted if the father spends as much as 100 nights with his child so many mothers resist giving 50-50 splits and are angered by the request.

Said Nicholson, “Are there folks who look at this economically and think if I have equal time I won’t have to pay as much child support? Yes. But the majority of dads want to be involved in their kid’s lives. They feel they should be equal partners.”

Brook begins the piece by writing:

If divorce is in the future of duplicitous two-timers Gov. Mark Sanford to reality TV’s Jon Gosselin, these men will have to navigate co-parenting. However, a growing trend shows that many men become better parents post-divorce, to the surprise of ex-wives who find it difficult to grasp that a man who wasn’t a good husband can indeed be a good father.

One, comparing the average divorced dad to these two is like comparing the average married woman to the conniving, spoiled, manipulative women of Desperate Housewives–it’s hardly an accurate generalization. (I would also add that Gosselin’s wife Kate supposedly was cheating on him with her bodyguard–some back up that story while others say Gosselin began these rumors. I’d delve into it in greater detail but my interest in the subject wouldn’t warrant it.)

Two, the line “ex-wives who find it difficult to grasp that a man who wasn’t a good husband can indeed be a good father” and some of the lines in the CBS segment imply that when women decide to divorce their husbands, that means that they weren’t good husbands. While sometimes that is the case, it is at least as common for women to divorce their husbands because they’re too damn critical of them. In my Chicago Tribune column Men Blamed for Marriage Decline but Women’s Relationship Wounds Often Self-Inflicted (1/21/07) I wrote:

To what, then, do we attribute women’s discontent with marriage and relationships, and the fact that they initiate the vast majority of divorces? A new Woman’s Day magazine poll found that 56% of married women would not or might not marry their husbands if they could choose again–why?

Nobody would dispute that, in selecting a mate, women are more discerning than men. This is an evolutionary necessity–a woman must carefully evaluate who is likely to remain loyal to her and protect and provide for her and her children. If a man and a woman go on a blind date and don’t hit it off, the man will shrug and say ‘it went OK.’ The woman will give five reasons why he’s not right for her.

A woman’s discerning, critical nature doesn’t disappear on her wedding day. Most marital problems and marriage counseling sessions revolve around why the wife is unhappy with her husband, even though they could just as easily be about why the husband is unhappy with the wife. In this common pre-divorce scenario there are only two possibilities-either she’s a great wife and he’s a lousy husband, or she’s far more critical of him than he is of her. Usually it’s the latter…

Yes, there are some men who make poor mates, but not nearly enough to account for the divorce epidemic and the decline of marriage. While it’s easy and popular to blame men, many of the wounds women bear from failed relationships and loneliness are self-inflicted.

A biblical saying is also applicable:

Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own? (Luke 6:41)

Brooke writes:

Take the example of Peter Giles. When Peter Giles’ three daughters were toddlers, work consumed him at the expense of family life. The New York businessman would justify the absences as doing the right thing for his family since he was providing the financial womb while his wife was taking care of their other needs.

What finally made him a better father? Getting a divorce.

“The divorce was such a shock and forced me to take stock of who I was and what success should look like,” said Giles, whose ex-wife Nancy Claus sought a divorce in 2001. “I came to realize that I had been providing for my children but needed to be more to them. ”

Like the majority of divorcing men today, Giles sought joint legal custody, which courts are more willing to grant since a federal study shows that men paid child support 90 percent of the time in comparison to less than 45 percent when the mother had sole custody.

When his daughters visited, Giles morphed into a multi-tasker taking on chores previously done by his wife including cooking, buying cosmetics and remembering to buy eggs and bacon at the market.

“I wish he would have been as involved and helpful when we were married,” said Claus. “But he has definitely become a much better Dad after our divorce.”

This seems rather unfair and condescending–Giles was sacrificing for his family when he worked long hours, and his ability to earn a good income was doubtless a substantial part of why his ex-wife decided to marry him to begin with. Like many men, his divorce came to him as a surprise. In don’t know what else happened between them, but it seems his ex-wife may have decided to break up the family because she was unhappy with decisions that she herself played a large role in crafting.

His ex says, “I wish he would have been as involved and helpful when we were married.” This may be true, but I would add that I’m sure she found his good income very “helpful” too.

The article doesn’t say what the Giles’ custody arrangement is now, and the article refers to his daughters “visiting.” If they do have real joint custody–not the piece of paper which says “joint custody” but allows dad only a few days a month with his children, but real joint custody, meaning substantially equal parenting time–then Giles’ ex-wife is to be commended.

There’s a lot of pressure in society to deny the harm caused by divorce and fatherlessness. The reason is that most divorces are initiated by women, and most of these are not due to serious infractions like adultery and abuse. Some divorced fathers have brought their problems on themselves, but many others were perfectly good husband and fathers. Brooke doesn’t say this and probably doesn’t believe it, but, de-stigmatizing divorce and depicting divorce as OK (or better) for kids is often a way to greenlight women to make these damaging choices.

Fathers & Families supporters David Gestl and Eric Ryerson are also quoted in the story. To read Brooke’s full piece, click here. To comment on it, click here and scroll down.

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