Post-Divorce Consultant: ‘Men Can Be as Good a Caregiver as the Mother’

I’ve written one piece before about blogger Lee Block and here’s another (Huffington Post, 2/24/11).  She gets a lot right that’s worth knowing and repeating, which is why I’m writing about another of her articles. 

Block looks to me like one of those people whose consciousness of family law issues more or less tracks the collective’s.  In other words, like much of society and the news media, she’s gradually coming around to the understanding of the value of fathers to children and how to improve on what we have now. 

And, like much of society, her statements and concepts sometimes make me grind my teeth.

Her latest piece deals with non-custodial mothers.  Specifically, she’s interviewed five such moms who don’t have primary custody, not because they’re unfit, but because, for various reasons, they think the dad’s having that job is the better arrangement.

One of Block’s main points is our culture’s differing images of mothers and fathers.  She’s all in favor of equalizing the two which puts us solidly in the same camp.  She’d like it if our culture were more open to the concept of mothers as non-custodial parents, and needless to say, so am I.

But then she comes up with this:

When a father is non-custodial, we picture this guy who is out working really hard and just doesn’t have the time to raise his children on his own. He is noble and kind and pays his child support on time. And, when he does take those kids for his three days at a time, we applaud him for doing it on his own.

As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger when the bad guys surrounded them, “who’s this ‘we,’ Kemosabe?”

I don’t know who Block is referring to when she says “we” picture non-custodial dads as noble, hard-working, etc.  Whoever it is, it’s not the news media that routinely refer to non-custodial fathers as “deadbeats.”  And it’s not popular culture that tells us that dads generally and non-custodial ones specifically are uninterested in and dangerous to their children. 

And it sure isn’t family courts or state legislatures that bend over backward separating fathers from children and then cheerfully brand them as selfish for complaining about it.

No, Block’s imaginary ‘we’ who idolizes non-custodial dads is her own invention who needs to exist in order for the converse to be true as well.  Non-custodial dads must be venerated so that non-custodial moms can simultaneously be condemned.

It’s a false dichotomy.  The simple fact is that this culture distrusts non-custodial parents and shows it in many different ways more or less constantly.  Parenthetically, that raises the question “if we don’t like non-custodial parents, why do we create so many of them by our system of custodial and non-custodial parenting post-divorce?”

The only answer I can give is that we’re slow learners.  We have lots of people and lots of social science inveighing against the current system and pleading for equal parenting, but old habits die hard even when there’s literally nothing to be said for them.

To her great credit, Lee Block is trying to do just that – change our concepts of mothers and fathers, the better to promote sensible parenting arrangements in the wake of parental divorce or separation.

To that end, she interviews mothers who gave up primary custody because they thought doing so was a good idea.  Block rightly calls them ‘brave’ for doing so.   That’s because the same culture that denigrates dads places mothers and motherhood on a pedestal which makes abandoning that role difficult.

Block’s right; the fact is the term “non-custodial mother” suggests a drug addict, a felon or someone burdened with serious emotional/psychological problems.  Is that how you’d like to be thought of? 

So her interviewees have gone out on a limb; they’ve agreed to suffer society’s barbed assumptions and they’ve done so because they thought their kids would be better off spending most of their time with dad.  So let’s give them a standing O.  They deserve it.

But the key word in that last paragraph is “agreed.”  Block doesn’t seem to notice it, but, according to her description of them, these mothers could have had primary custody for the asking.  As I’ve said more times than I can count, fathers’ rights really are in mothers’ hands, and it’s no less true here.  It so happens that Block’s five mothers decided to forego primary parenthood.  That’s nice and selfless on their part, but the decision was still theirs and not the result of fathers’ legal or moral authority in family court.

Here’s Block’s bottom line:

Putting a child’s needs above your own is the best way to raise healthy children post divorce, and these women have figured out how to do that.

Is this the difference between men and women? I don’t think so. What I do think is that in order for more men to parent equally, women have to allow them to parent equally and that men can be as good a caregiver, if not better, to their children as the mother. I also know that kids change and parents need to recognize this and make the changes that are best for the children.

She’s right about all of that except for, again, conditioning men’s opportunity to parent on the mothers’ allowing them to do so.  If she’s talking about mothers’ giving up maternal gatekeeping and allowing dads to do everything necessary to raising the child, she’s right.  If she’s talking about post-divorce parenting, she’s wrong.

Children’s relationships with their parents post-split are far too important to be left to the goodwill of individual parents in the throes of possibly the most emotionally conflicted time of their lives.  Block’s interviewees seem to have behaved reasonably, compassionately and honorably.  Good for them.  But how many parents do?  And should we construct a family court system based on that evanescent ‘goodwill.’

In fact, there will always be parents like Block’s who get along and do what seems best for their children.  If all parents were like that, we wouldn’t need family courts. 

But of course they’re not, and for those, both parents need equal rights so children don’t lose one parent following divorce.  To a great extent, that’s what the system of primary parent/visitor accomplishes; it makes children lose their dads.

That’s why family law must equalize the rights of mothers and fathers in custody matters.  Parent-child relationships can’t be left to the good offices of one of the parents, however kind and just that parent may be.

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