For years, fathers’ rights advocates have been wondering aloud why family courts routinely discount their contributions to children’s welfare when it comes to custody, visitation, etc. Yes, those contributions tend more towards being financial than do mothers’, but what’s the problem with that? Children, like everyone else, need a roof over their heads, food in the fridge, clothes on their backs, etc. Traditionally and currently, fathers still provide more of that to children and mothers do more hands-on care. So why are things like providing food and shelter devalued by family courts when it comes to awarding custody? We know that the system of primary custodian/visitor is the one favored by family courts in the United States in the vast majority of cases. We also know that family courts in the United States overwhelmingly give primary custody to mothers. Why do they do so? On what do they base their conclusion that the primary parent is not the one who brings home the bacon, but the one who cooks it and places it on the table? Well, it turns out that we now know the answer. American law awards mothers the badge of primary parent because they tend to do the things mothers do, not the things fathers do. If that sounds like a silly statement, I plead guilty, but only because family court precedent is as well. Back in the 70s, Goldstein, Solnit and Freud, in their very influential book, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, listed certain activities that to them and to American family law precedent established which parent should be considered the primary one. Ten are listed and not one is something usually done or predominantly done be Dad. They’re things like preparing meals, bathing and grooming, buying and washing clothes, etc. And, as our old friend Canadian researcher Paul Millar points out, none of that behavior has ever been correlated with better outcomes for children. Courts use them to decide custody, it would seem, more because they’re done by mothers than because they’re better for kids than providing the wherewithal to produce meals and purchase clothing. And let’s not forget that, again as Millar finds, although maternal custody is all but uniform, data on child outcomes provides no support for the proposition that it’s better for kids than paternal custody. In fact there’s some data to the contrary. The question remains, though, “why the disdain for fathers’ contributions?” Well, maybe the study reported on here throws some light on the subject (Sydney Morning Herald, 3/4/11). Two researchers, Jennifer Baxter and Diana Smart of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, have just completed a study of 4,000 mothers and almost as many fathers conducted over the course of nine years. What they found was that
wives tend to play down the fathers’ financial contribution when considering the fairness of the division of housework and childcare.
As Baxter put it,
”When mothers are asked about the support they’re given in raising children, the initial reaction is to think whether fathers get the children to bed, read to them..”
In short, mothers do the same thing courts do – they discount fathers’ earnings when evaluating his support and caring for children. They take his contributions for granted and ask “what else is there?” And that’s despite the fact that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey, men spend more time doing paid work than even unemployed women spend doing childcare. According to the study, among the mothers and fathers studied, fathers provided two-thirds of the family income even when the kids were eight and nine years old. They provided even more when the children were younger. Baxter appends a plaintive note to the statement I quoted above saying “but I think they (the mothers) would appreciate the income.” That is, her study didn’t find that and the mothers didn’t say that, but Baxter believes they would appreciate it. Hmm. I suppose I can add that news media are fond of portraying men as layabouts who are always content to see their female partners working their fingers to the bone. That’s the basis of the “Second Shift” myth that’s so prevalent in news pieces and popular culture. The second shift, so the theory goes, occurs when Mom gets home from a full day at the office and finds hubby beached on the couch like dead fish. He couldn’t care less that the house needs cleaning, dinner needs preparing, the baby needs changing, etc., so Mom has to do it all. The facts that the second shift myth is happy to overlook are many. They’re things like men do more paid work than do women, even when the two say they work full-time. Men earn more than women do and thus pay a greater share of life’s necessities for themselves, their partners and children. When paid and unpaid work are added together, men and women do almost identical amounts. But, particularly in popular culture, what we get are not the facts, but the myths. So men are routinely excoriated for not doing “enough” childcare, but the same treatment has never (as far as I’ve seen) been accorded women for not doing “enough” paid work. In short, news media and popular culture have the same take on men’s contributions as the women in Baxter and Smart’s study, whose viewpoint is reflected in the custody decisions of family courts. It’s a hat trick. The only ones left out of the Amen Chorus are fathers and children. The dads persist in believing that their contributions have value and equal value at that. The children suffer terribly from a custody regime that doggedly separates them from the fathers they themselves love and who love them. Part of the concept of equality is that of equal respect. Until family courts recognize the value of fathers’ contributions, they likely will continue to deny them equal parenting. And it seems that, as long as mothers and media devalue what fathers provide, family judges probably will as well.