Fathers Have Rights, Too

By Dority, Barbara | The Humanist, March-April 1994 | Go to article overview

Fathers Have Rights, Too


Dority, Barbara, The Humanist


Many people who are concerned about social justice for women and children seem to be morally blind when it comes to the rights--if not the humanity--of divorced and separated fathers.

In today's social and political climate, it is not considered appropriate to speak in defense of divorcing and divorced men, or even of divorced fathers. This prevailing anti-male, anti-father attitude, employed in tandem with a lot of misinformation, flawed data, and sexist stereotypes, has succeeded in convincing most divorcing fathers that they are less than human. In the era of the "deadbeat dad," most believe that they cannot continue to be a father to their children after divorce and that they certainly couldn't perform adequately as a single parent. When contemplating the possibility of a separation or divorce, most involved fathers assume that they would forfeit their active parental role and become an every-other-weekend "visitor" in their children's lives. Beginning very early in the divorce process, fathers begin to receive consistent confirmation of this assumption. Certainly some fathers voluntarily abdicate their parental responsibilities even in the absence of the many extenuating circumstances discussed below. Here, I address the tragic crisis faced by fathers who want very much to continue to parent their children after divorce'

Under current conditions, there are several reasons (other than the welfare of the children) for a wife to battle strenuously to obtain sole custody. The more custody the mother has of the child, the more financial support the courts will award her. Often, however, the main reason is totally unrecognized by the courts: the bitterness and need for revenge which attends so many marital breakups. Instead of recognizing the devastating effects this can have on everyone and attempting to minimize them, the legal system encourages the use of the children as weapons in divorce court.

Attorney Ronald K. Henry summed it up in testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee on June 30, 1992:

We know that children are born

with two parents. We know that

children want, love, and need two

parents. Still, we take two loving

parents, we walk them into court

at their most emotionally distraught

and weak moment, and

we say to them, "Here are your

weapons. Fight it out and the last

one standing owns the child."

The court system begins with the presumption that women are better suited to care for younger children than are men. Lawyers routinely tell divorcing fathers that they have very little chance of getting custody and that making the attempt will require thousands of dollars and a bitter court battle that will be very hard on all concerned, including the children.

Just as many men have resisted giving up the economic advantages they have enjoyed, many women cling to their traditional domain of power. Various attempts are made to rationalize this behavior, such as the pervasive belief that men don't really want custody or continued involvement with their children. This is reminiscent of the arguments given for denying women full participation in economic life--and just as sexist.

When a marriage breaks up, regard, less of the couple's financial and child, care arrangements, the courts presume that the wife has an equal right to the money and property her husband's and/ or her labor has produced. Why isn't it also presumed that the father has equal rights to the children they have produced? If a father has participated in parenting--that is, child care and decisions regarding the children--why doesn't the father still have at least an equal right to continue parenting his children?

Instead, the system turns fathers into visitors with the every-other-week, end "privilege"--when mother sees fit to cooperate--to see his children. (In more than 20 states, visitation is legally defined as a "privilege" rather than a "right") The mother makes all decisions about the children's education, health, religion, appearance, rules of behavior, and discipline. …

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