Recently, there was an article on the HuffPost that I found somewhat disturbing. A newly divorced mom who admits she married young — 21 and just out of college — to a man with mental challenges. They eventually divorced with young children and now she has to co-parent with him as former spouses.
I wanted to fight. I believed I was on the side of right. I still do. But I came to the realization that life is not fair. The courts are not fair. Despite everything I saw and my lawyer saw, there was a chance I might not win. That if I was one of the less than 5% of cases that ends up in court, it might not go my way. In continuing to fight, I was sacrificing my own and my children’s well-being, and our financial future. And I wasn’t willing to potentially sacrifice those things just to prove I was right. … I compromised. I acquiesced to what eventually became a 50/50 share of custody. For my children’s sake, instead of fighting, I tried and continue to try to make peace. At first, I felt like I was sacrificing a piece of my soul every time I pasted on a fake smile and compromised in order to maintain a peaceful existence for my children.
Hey, my heart goes out to her. She sounds incredibly genuine, and I have no idea what it’s like to be married to someone with a personality disorder (although I totally understand what it’s like to be married to someone who is a tad less than honest — and to be a tad less than honest myself).
At the same time, I have a really hard time accepting that a having mental illness means a man can’t be a good dad. Robin Williams, a brilliant comic and a kind person, lived with depression all his life yet he was a beloved man and loving father. Why wouldn’t he be entitled to 50/50 custody? So to take Live by Surprise’s statements as a gospel truth is worrisome.
But the discussion reminded me of a post I’d written a while ago about men who want to be “good” dads — mentally challenged or not — are often screwed. So please indulge me while I revisit a HuffPost Divorce piece that never made it in my blog, but based on a reality I experienced nonetheless. Here it is, raw and real (with a few updates, thanks to a recent study by Pew on stay-at-home dads):
The moms had seen him at the ballet school every Thursday — an attractive 30-something guy with earrings and cropped blond hair. They gossiped about him — Who is he? Is he unemployed? Is he a trust-fund baby? What is he doing with that cute little girl? Where’s her mother? What is he doing here? He just doesn’t fit in.
Finally, a mother got her nerve to walk up to him. “I see you here every week. What are you doing here?” He was taken aback. What did this mother think he was doing at 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the exact time of the beginners’ ballet class? The answer was embarrassingly obvious: “Taking my daughter to ballet class.”
It’s a scenario that seems to be plucked off of the pages of Tom Perrotta’s brilliant novel “Little Children,” or the movie starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson based on it. But this isn’t a scene from a novel or a movie — it’s real life if you are a stay-at-home-dad or a single or divorced father. As much as we love the idea of men being an equal partner in a marriage, we don’t necessarily embrace the idea of men being an equal partner in a divorce.
The divorced father who shows up for his kids in meaningful and obvious ways, such as taking a daughter to a midday, midweek ballet class, is still considered odd. It’s a similar but slightly different reality than that of stay-at-home dads — the trail-blazing “feminist, father, and husband who doesn’t care what the gender roles are,” is how Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, sees them.
Not all, however. There are more than 2 million stay-at-home dads, according to a recent Pew survey. But the recession, which hit men hard, has kept many more men at home, willingly or not. (Indeed, the largest share of stay-at-home fathers, 35 percent, is at home because of an illness or disability while 73 percent of mothers are home specifically to care for their home or family). That number is sure to grow; some 45 percent of men said they’d stay at home if their wife made more money than they do, according to a recent survey by Men’s Health and Spike TV.
And then there are single fathers, about 1.8 million in the United States — a 27 percent jump in the past decade, according to the latest Census. Of those single-father families, 46 percent are divorced, and another 19 percent are separated. That’s about two-thirds of all single-father families — a pretty substantial portion of men taking their children to ballet classes or Little League practice. So why are we surprised that many of them are either co-parenting or have full custody?
As Sally Abrahms writes in Working Mother magazine:
“Today, it’s not uncommon for fathers seeking sole custody in a contested case to prevail at least 50 percent of the time. And Dad is asking for joint or primary custody more and more: Over the past decade, the number of fathers awarded custody of their children has doubled, according to the latest data. In the current generation of dads, gender doesn’t dictate who changes a diaper or consoles an infant. And as fathers become more entrenched in their roles as co-caregiver, they’re less willing to hand off that role when a marriage breaks down.”
We should applaud that — dad’s an equal partner, exactly what women want! Yet as a society, we still aren’t used to seeing dads being so hands-on with their kids in public. The stereotypes are challenging. All dads — whether stay-at-home, single, co-parenting or full-custody divorced dads — are likely to hear comments rife with judgment, such as, “Are you babysitting today?” or “Giving Mom a break?” if they’re out with their kids. And they are suspect if they volunteer in classrooms, hang around parks while their kids play, or try to join in a playgroup, typically made up of moms. As one stay-at-home dad tells Andrea Doucet, a Brock University sociology professor and author of Do Men Mother, “It’s kind of bad for men to be interested in other children.”
But divorced dads often experience another layer of judgment and gender-based expectations. “When men parent as single parents, they’re expected not to be as good at it,” says Dr. Wendy A. Paterson, dean of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. School of Education at St. John Fisher College in New York and author of Diaries of a Forgotten Parent: Divorced Dads on Fathering Through and Beyond Divorce.
“We don’t trust men. A lot of women, and they don’t even understand they’re doing this, take on all the mothering and they ‘allow’ the father a peripheral role or an ‘invited in’ role, and then when the father isn’t as big a part of the lives of his children, they get blamed for not participating.”
It isn’t unusual for divorced fathers to hear comments like, “How often are you allowed to see your daughter?” As Sam Magee, a divorced co-parenting dad, writes, “despite having a solid full time job, a regular salary, and no concerning habits of any kind, people were stunned that I got 50% custody. ‘Wow, that’s a lot,’ people would remark. ‘Every weekend?’ They were shocked that I was actually going to be a consistent and active part of my son’s life post-divorce.”
When people react that way with words, they react that way with behaviors, too. While they may have been fine letting their young daughter have a sleepover when a guy has a wife, not many feel the same when he gets divorced. Now it seems creepy. That’s on top of the general stereotypes that all divorced men are womanizers, cheaters and dead-beat dads; after all he must have done something wrong for her to dump his sorry butt.
“There’s a huge need for people who can mediate the separation of a family into two families, and not one family with a visiting dad. Calling someone a visitor; the language of that has to change,” says Paterson, a single mom. “Women will never be liberated until men are.”