Let’s Engage, Not Distance Dads

By Jeanne Falla

Just about everyone, including presidential candidates, agrees that children need responsible fathers. If a noncustodial parent is able to help raise a child, most believe he or she should be held accountable, even if this could mean ending up on a most wanted poster. Yet the reality is too many barriers exist in our society which actually oppose father involvement.

Let’s suppose Mary gets pregnant by John, her unemployed boyfriend, and both later break up. John, himself the son of an absent dad, visits the baby bringing diapers and seeks joint custody. Yet when John’s day in court arrives, his offer to play Mr. Mom is met with resistance from Mary and the family court system where he is served with a summons to pay thousands in child support or go to jail. In the end, John gives up his fight to co-parent and ends up the absent father no one wants because he feels the system is stacked against him. Unfortunately, scenarios like this which alienate dads and men in general happen all too often.

The push for strong child support and domestic violence protections began with good intentions: to safeguard women and children from violent and financially deadbeat men. But father absence must be addressed by engaging men, not keeping them away due to the actions of a few bad apples. The problem is family breakdown often gets blamed on only men (and not also women) behaving badly, perpetuating the punitive “man bad, woman victim” mindset which discourages active fathering lest a man fail to properly change a diaper. Yet the supermom mindset actually hurts women’s equality because women can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do everything and it’s time, of course, for men to step up to the parenting plate.

Studies show joint custody households, where fathers tend to be actively involved parents, get higher child support awards than sole custody households. This follows the logic that parenting is a job and needs to be seen as one – expecting dads to be responsible without the right to co-rule the roost is no less unfair than expecting a full day’s worth of work without the right to fair working conditions. Leveling the playing field for dads by strengthening joint custody laws and reforming the family courts would do much to help bring back men to the home.

In the end, what we need is a type of social and legal system that’s balanced, where the child’s rights trump those of the mother or father. However, while striving towards this goal, let’s not distance dads from children. If you would like to support advocacy efforts to strengthen father involvement, contact Fathers and Families at www.fathersandfamilies.org.

Falla is a Citizen Advocate Program Organizer with Fathers & Families and a daughter of a divorced dad.

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