Stay-at-Home Dads Still Get Short End of Custody Stick

University of London economist Dr. Catherine Hakim has published a fair amount lately, and much of it can be summarized thus: our attempts at social engineering often don’t have the affects we imagine; that’s because people tend to ignore them and hew to their learned ways of being.

Too bad no one told the blokes in this article (Daily Mail, 2/24/11).

It’s all about what may be a mini-trend in the UK – househusbands.  According to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, there are over 200,000 fathers in the country who have opted out of work and into full-time childcare.  They’re men who found themselves the lower earner in the family and, like many women, decided that it made as much financial sense to stay home with the kids rather as paying for daycare.

The dads interviewed by the Mail all did that after close consultation with their wives, all of whom encouraged them to do it.  And lo and behold, they loved it.  They took naturally to caring for their children, keeping house, cleaning, cooking and doing the laundry.  None of that is rocket science and all the men were happy for the opportunity to be with their little ones all day every day.

And none of them felt like less of a man because he wasn’t earning a living.

But then the realities of what Dr. Hakim describes began to make themselves felt on the men’s carefully-constructed “thoroughly modern” arrangements.

For five years Richard, from Watford, Herts, had worked hard to become a perfect “mother” to their sons, Jack, who is now nine, and Edward, seven. But from the moment he gave up his job, Richard says Louise, 47, failed to see him as a “man”.

“It was as if she was losing all respect for me, just because I was the one at home, doing the domestic duties.”

And so, she up and left him.  Indeed, something very much like that happened to all four of the fathers who appear in the article.  Both partners agreed that the dad should stay home, all the dads enjoyed the arrangement, all the mothers got fed up and left.

According to the men, that was partly because the arrangement interfered with the women’s sense of attraction to their husbands.  Are they projecting?  We’ll never know because the women weren’t interviewed, but I did a piece some months ago in which women in the U.S. said exactly that; they were less attracted to the man because he wasn’t earning.

It’s also the opinion one family attorney who’s seen reversed roles before.

Divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd-Platt says that in her experience, the decision to allow the wife to be the main wage earner will have a detrimental effect on as many as half of these relationships, and that divorce statistics in these cases have risen by at least five per cent in the past two years.

“My warning would be to think long and hard about letting the man stay at home,’ she says. ‘I know it is very trendy for the wife to be the breadwinner, but in my professional experience this decision will strain the marriage.”

What’s less emphasized is that each mother also seems to have been envious of her partner’s freedom and close bonding with their children.  Despite being career women and despite consciously agreeing to the arrangement, what the men report suggests women who were unable to let go of their perceived role as mother and homemaker.  David Williams describes it this way:

“There were times in our marriage when I felt as if I was being treated like a subservient Victorian housewife. I’d be criticised if the washing wasn’t hung out exactly how my wife wanted it and she used to check to make sure that I had cleaned the house perfectly, checking for dust and badly-washed plates.”

Now, we know that in this country, 70% of divorces are filed by women, and we know why – because they know they’ll get the kids.  That’s the conclusion of a study of every one of over 40,000 divorce cases in four states conducted by researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen.

So what’s going on in these U.K cases?  The women are leaving the men, but surely they’re not getting custody, right?  After all, he’s been the primary caregiver.

But if you think these men got custody, think again.  Without exception, when their wives left, they took the kids and the courts backed them up with awards of primary custody and maintenance to be paid by – you guessed it – the primary caregiver dad.

And that’s pretty much par for the course.

[Family attorney] Vanessa Lloyd-Platt says there is a huge problem built into the legal system at a time when more and more fathers are becoming primary carers for their children.

“There has been a massive turnaround in roles within a marriage, but there is still a very strong belief in the legal system that allowing the father to have residency of the children is somehow against the natural order of things, and many judges still believe the children will be better off with their mother.”

That of course, is the ultimate indignity.  To sacrifice one’s career to care for the kids is no small thing, but then to be treated like any of the countless fathers who don’t, to have one’s relationship with a child all-but destroyed and have to pay support for the privilege is truly infuriating.

The usual system of child custody in which dad, who earned most of the money and did less of the childcare, gets “visitation,” is a bad one.  That’s because the child needs both parents after divorce, not just one.  But to take the primary parent out of the child’s life because he’s the dad is indefensible on several levels.

The first is that it’s patently sexist.  Such an approach announces loudly and clearly that it matters not a bit what the dad does or doesn’t do; when the matter comes before a judge, the mother is the favored party.  Period.  David Williams nails it.

“It is ironic, given that for hundreds of years women have been perceived solely as housewives and mothers, and yet their role has been regarded as essential to society and they have been respected and valued for it,” he says.

As they should have been; so why don’t the dads get the same respect when they perform the exact same role?

Second, it gives the lie to the notion that everything we currently do is for the sake of the child.  We’re regularly told that the child has his/her most important attachment to the primary caregiver and that shouldn’t be disturbed for the sake of equal parenting time. 

But, when faced with a dad who’s done the lion’s share of the care, the same family courts that make those claims and those decisions suddenly reverse course.  There’s an obvious consistency in what they’re doing, but it has nothing to do with child well-being.

Last, we often congratulate ourselves on our ability to have altered society to promote women’s working, earning, advancement, etc.  And it’s true that much has changed in that direction over the past 40 years.  But when it comes to dads who sacrifice their careers to support their wives’ choices to make the workplace their main sphere of activity, we slap them down like so many flies.  If we believe in women’s freedom, why discourage the very dads who do so much to make it possible?

Dr. Hakim is probably nodding knowingly by now, but the fact is that we have rightly promoted women’s independence through self-sufficient work.  There’s no going back from that, nor should there be. 

Therefore, the only way is forward, and that means that family law and family courts must change to accommodate both mothers and fathers.  In this day and age of “gender neutrality,” that means looking past the sex of the parent and to the actual best interests of children.  And that means equal parenting for both mothers and fathers.

As one of the fathers, James Thomson said,

“It’s madness that in this day and age fathers do not have more rights over their children. I think it’s appalling that courts should be able to rule that a father’s needs are somehow less than those of a woman. Just because someone gave birth to the children doesn’t mean they love them more.”

Madness indeed, or worse.

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.

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