Actually, I feel as if I have not been able to parent him since he left.
This short blog post should be read by every person who opposes fathers’ rights to their children (The State Online, 5/18/10). I’ve written a lot about the realities of being a non-custodial father; I’ve cited studies showing how non-custodial parents – be they fathers or mothers – tend to become non-parents as time goes on; I’ve tried to describe how the system of primary custody/visitation harms parental relationships with kids by making the “visitor” just that.
But the linked-to post is by a woman who’s a non-custodial mother. It’s not exactly clear from what she says, but it looks like she had custody of her son for several years, but when he got to be high-school age, he said he wanted to live with his dad. That happens a fair amount and usually, kids of that age are given their preference by courts. So the woman’s son has been living with his father as he grows toward high school graduation.
And her description of being the parent on the outside should be read by everyone who thinks that the current system is OK. What she says – gently and without rancor – is what the studies show in their detached, academic way; non-custodial parenthood is non-parenthood. Why? Because you don’t parent. You don’t make those important parental decisions, you’re not involved in key moments of your child’s life, you’re not consulted about things that matter to a teen.
I feel helpless as I am separated from my child by several states. My son will cross the threshold into adulthood when he graduates from high school this June. I have not been there to guide him on a daily basis. I have not been able to talk to him about colleges and financial aid in great detail. We haven”t looked over brochures together while discussing the merits of one college over another. I haven”t been able to share this experience in a meaningful way.
My feelings of loss make me feel critical of the custodial parent. Why aren”t you doing this? Why haven”t you done that?
I hate not being there for those life moments that will not come again. He was the lead in a play. I was not there to see him. He told me about it. We laughed together over the funny bits later, but it wasn”t the same as seeing it for myself. His prom was last week, and again I will only hear about it second hand from him and eventually receive photographs.
The writer tells it from the point of view of her role as mother. What she describes is her loss, not her son’s. But we know that he’s lost too. He’s lost his mother in the real, everyday sense of the word. He has his dad, but as surely as his mother no longer feels like a parent, he no longer feels she is one. He has one but not the other.
It’s what non-shared parenting is like. It’s what the 84% of divorced fathers without custody feel; they feel like they’re playing second fiddle, that they’ve truly lost their children, that they’re at best entertainers, Disneyland parents.
This is the system of child custody that we have. We can do better. We can move strongly toward a presumption of equally-shared parenting. Courts can be instructed to err on the side of getting children as much time with each parent as possible, so that children don’t lose a parent post-divorce and that one parent doesn’t lose a child.
There will always be parents who don’t deserve equal time; there will always be parents who shouldn’t be around their children at all; and there will be some who don’t want equal time. A presumption of equal parenting accomodates all of that because a presumption in family court can be rebutted, just like it can be in all other courts. That’s how judges fashion orders to fit each individual situation.
But we should drop the pretense – now firmly disproved by much social science – that our current system works properly. It doesn’t. It’s bad for kids and bad for non-custodial parents – mostly dads. Into the bargain, it’s bad for custodial parents too because it saddles them with too much childcare. That means they tend to earn less and save less.
Equally shared parenting cures a host of ills. It’s time public policy reflected what we know. In the meantime, let all those who defend the current regime read the piece linked to and explain to all of us why it’s OK.