Let me preface this post by noting that there are a lot of terrible fathers. Many of them are abusive, punitive and cruel. Many are irresponsible and fail to take their role as parent seriously. Some simply abandon and neglect their families. In such cases, it may very well be better for the kids if these dads weren’t around. Such men are not “fathers”. They are unworthy of the title. My heart goes out to their victims. But, there are good dads out there and in many cases, their role can be unnecessarily marginalized. I am only talking about the good dads in this post. Women, please don’t hate me.
As Father’s Day approaches, I find myself contemplating the role of a dad in the family- in particular, given my career as a family law attorney, the role of a dad in a post-divorce family. I grow increasingly frustrated with the term “single parent”, which is so often bantered about unnecessarily. We are told of how hard the single parent has to work. Often we are treated to images of single moms struggling to make ends meet with kids at home and a dad nowhere to be found or, at least, not involved. For many of my clients, that is the case. To be sure, there are a lot of dads out there who don’t step up.
In most cases, however, single parenting isn’t necessary. Co-parenting is the better way to go. After the demise of their marriage, one parent does everything possible to eliminate the other parent from the equation. I have heard moms say that they would be happy if their kids’ dad would just go away. Some even say they would prefer their ex-husbands to be dead. Such sentiment is surprisingly common. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
To be sure, some dads deserve the ire of their ex-wives. There are dads who check out and neglect their families, refusing to pay child support and refusing to take responsibility as fathers. There are dads who are abusive. It is only natural that a woman may feel uneasy about the man who beat her up. I am not talking about the bad apples here. However, there are many dads who do not deserve the level of scorn they receive.
Divorce can be nasty. When people get to my office, things are usually pretty bad. Folks don’t make the big decision to get a divorce unless they are very unhappy with their spouse. However, all too often, a wife can unnecessarily extend her hatred of her ex to his relationship with the children. These women, not realizing the damage they inflict on their children, will stop at nothing to minimize or even eliminate a dad’s involvement in the family. While they are very happy to maximize the child support they receive, they are relentless in removing dad from the parenting equation. This is not ok. Kids need their dad and although a wife’s experience of her ex-husband as a spouse may be less than perfect to say the least, this man still has an important role with the kids.
I have had a number of cases recently where a mother decides, for whatever reason, to relocate out of the state. These women have reasons for their decision to relocate. Sometimes the reasons are good. Many times they aren’t. Perhaps they are moving closer to family. Perhaps they feel they can get cheaper housing. Universally, they minimize the impact on the kids’ relationship with dad. They, wrongly, believe that they are the only important parent in their children’s lives. What they fail to understand is that this man, with all of his imperfections, is still their dad. He is a part of them. They love him. Yes, they even need him. One prominent psychologist told me that the moving parent almost in every case fails to understand how devastating moving the kids away from the other parent can be. In family law, move-away cases are not about what is in the child’s best interest. Rather it is about minimizing detriment. It is rarely in the child’s best interest to move away. As participants in the legal process we are then asked to determine whether it messes the kids up more to lose their dad or to lose their mother. Judge’s hate these kinds of cases.
I have seen grown, tough men weep openly in my office as they explain to me how hurt they are that the mother of their children cares so little for their contribution. One such parent lamented that with his wife moving, he would no longer be able to attend Cub Scout meetings or coach the soccer team. One father told me how upset he was that his son would miss out on campouts and fishing trips. Another dad told me how tragic it was that he and his daughter would miss their regular basketball scrimmages at the local park.
I have also seen children in pain that one of their parents is being cut out of their lives. One teenage boy told me that he misses his father terribly and doesn’t understand why his mother speaks negatively about him. He says, “He’s my dad. When she bad mouths him, it is like she is talking bad about me. It makes me cry. I don’t show her though; I just go in my room and punch my pillow.” Another twelve-year-old boy told me that while he loves his mom and understands that she had her reasons for leaving his father, he feels like a piece of him is missing. He said, “My uncles are great. But they are not my dad. Why can’t I just have my dad around.” Then with tears in his eyes he said, “I just wish I could still hang out with him.”
Not just to pick on the moms, I have had many mother’s complain that they wished that their ex-husbands would be more involved. They try to encourage dad to participate, but he refuses. Sometimes dads just “check out” as parents after the divorce. This is not ok either. Dads, you need to step up.
I am a strong believer that it takes two genders to be most effective in parenting. I am sure that there may be someone out there who will take me to task and wrongly accuse me of sexism. I am just noting, that as much as we would like to say that there are no differences, men and women are, in fact, different. These differences, rather than seen as a way to divide families, should be embraced and celebrated. As a father of five children, my wife and I have had many conversations about how important we believe the gender differences are in our parenting. We each bring different parenting styles and different approaches to the table. These differences enrich our children and bring them balance.
The best co-parenting I see is when both parents are deeply involved. While the parents may have deep and real differences that led to a divorce, they don’t show their children these differences. Rather they present a unified front to the kids. They both encourage a relationship with the other parent. They seek the other parent’s guidance and counsel about issues with the kids. The kids benefit greatly from having both parents as active and equally important parts of their lives.
(Just an aside, it is equally damaging when fathers eliminate mothers from the equation. But it’s father’s day and we are talking about dads. We also see more cases where the dads get pushed out then the other way around. But the inverse does happen.)
So what is the lesson for Father’s Day? Moms, unless you ex is truly one of the bad apples I mentioned above, you should probably go out of your way to include him in the parenting of your kids. Remember, he is part of who they are as individuals. That is meaningful. Encourage him to be involved. Encourage your kids to reach out to him.
Dads, it’s time to step up if you haven’t already. You are vital and irreplaceable. You are more than a convenient source for child support. You are far more important than a mere sperm donor. Make SURE that your children know that you love them. Demonstrate your love by word and deed. Be responsible. Be involved. Tell your kids that you love them. Show an interest in their activities. Don’t give up. Don’t just blame your ex if you have a terrible relationship with your kids. Step up and take initiative. Those kids of yours are precious and they need you.
To both parents, minimize your conflict. Spend less time fighting about stuff in court and more time working together in a mutually respectful manner. I encourage the use of mental health professionals, mediation or collaborative practice to help folks work together. I know the split up probably hurt. Now, be the grown-ups. Swallow your pride. Find a way, if at all possible, to work together for your kids.
To learn more about mediation and collaborative practice as a way to reduce conflict and to encourage effective co-parenting, contact Shawn Weber at 858-345-1616 or visit www.BraveWeberMack.com.