Jessica Valenti Understands Need to See Dads Positively

In my own ways, I’ve said much of what this article says many times (The Daily, 4/2/11).  Well-known feminist Jessica Valenti shows she gets it. 

What’s “it?”  “It” is the connection between cultural expectations of men and women, and fathers’ rights to their children.  I’m a lawyer, so I write a lot about the law as it impacts fathers and their children.  After all, there’s a lot to say and there will continue to be until state legislatures start to change their statutes.

But I’ve also rattled on a fair amount about the cultural aspects of fatherhood.  The simple fact is that judges, like everyone else, are products of their culture, at least to an extent.  And few if any statutes can be so ironclad that they don’t leave room for the exercise of some judicial discretion.  That discretion will unavoidably reflect the biases of the culture in which the judge is steeped.

So recently I pointed out that, while the State of Pennsylvania passed a law prohibiting awards of custody based on the sex of the parent, it also requires consideration of who performs the “parenting duties” in custody decisions.  

I’d bet good money that that’s an open invitation to judges to ignore fathers’ earnings that allow mothers to work less and therefore do more childcare.  In other words, judges will be free to act on the bias that hands-on childcare is more important than earning the money that makes it possible.  In short, culture can easily trump law.

And in her article Valenti makes it clear that we need to alter cultural conceptions of men as either bad at or uninterested in parenting.  She knows that neither of those things is true in most cases.

Valenti rightly says that our cultural preference for mothers

reveals a deep bias we have against men. No matter how progressive our country claims to be, we”re still surprised when men are good dads.

I couldn’t agree more.

Valenti goes on to quote a recent United Nations Report on the status of men in families.

“Despite an increasing worldwide focus on the role of men in families, burgeoning research documenting men”s contribution to gender equality, the importance of their engagement for work-family balance, and the numerous positive paternal contributions to children”s development, policy-makers have been slow to recognize the need for effective public policy that is supportive of men”s involvement in their families,’ the authors write.

There’s not much to argue with there.  The simple fact is that laws and judicial practices often seem more intent on separating fathers from children than on doing the opposite.  That doesn’t make sense for anyone.  Fathers suffer from the loss of their children in divorce and children suffer from losing their dads.  Mothers lose fathers’ help and are unable to work, earn and save equally.  What’s the upside to what we’re doing now?  I don’t see one; it seems bad for all concerned.

Add to that the fact that men who are actively involved in their children’s lives are far more likely to be employed and far less likely to be in prison or to abuse drugs or alcohol than men who aren’t.  So men who are active fathers are exactly the type of men society wants and benefits from.

So we ought to be doing everything in our power to connect fathers with children and keep them that way regardless of divorce, regardless of separation, regardless of everything.

As Valenti says,

Because, as challenging as it can be (especially when there are diapers or the teenage years to contend with), parenting is a wonderful thing. And by assuming men can”t do it as well, we”re robbing American men of the opportunity to find fulfillment in caretaking.

It may take culture-wide change to equalize mothers’ and fathers’ rights.  But Jessica Valenti is one feminist who understands the need to do so and the benefits to everyone when we do.

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