We’re coming up on Father’s Day, and even though I’m not a fan of Hallmark holidays the day will be nonetheless hard for me this year. My father passed away May 26, just a few weeks shy of his 89th birthday, so his death will be very fresh on the day to honor him.
Although he was in a nursing home some 2,500 miles away from me for the past few years (not my choice but let’s just say it was complicated), I visited him frequently and spoke to him every other day. In a strange way, I’m not so sure we would have spent so much time together had he not been confined to a wheelchair and alone (my mother passed away in 2010); I’m incredibly thankful for our time together, talking walks, going out to eat and reminiscing.
Even now, we don’t focus as much on dads as we do on moms.
What’s up with dads? The married ones are as stressed out by work-life issues as moms, a new Pew study says. And divorced dads? It’s hard to know, says T. Lawrence Bottom of the psychology department at DePaul University, who looked into what research has appeared in peer-reviewed publications since 1990. There are hundreds of studies and books about the impact of divorce on children, and about as many studies on the impact of divorce on mothers. What he discovered is perhaps not so surprising: there just hasn’t been much written about the well-being of divorced dads.
That’s curious, considering divorce affects men and women differently.
The studies that have been done tend to focus on what happens with dads and their relationship with their kids post-divorce, and how it the loss of contact negatively impacts the children. But there hasn’t been much research on how the dads themselves are faring. A well-referenced 2003 study noted how divorced men were at much greater risk of suicide than were divorced women or single men. Other studies indicate that divorced men drink more booze than their married counterparts and divorced women (although women in general don’t drink as much as men).
And because men don’t often have the social networks women do, they are especially vulnerable post-divorce. As one therapist puts it:
Men starting over may be very frightened by the enormous responsibility of maintaining two households at a time when they’re feeling inadequate and insecure. … The newly divorced man has usually lost the structure and comfort of his home and daily routines, and may have been accustomed to his ex-wife handling responsibilities that are now on his very full plate. He may miss the special moments of spontaneously snuggling with his children or being privy to their daily confidences. The limited visits with his children may feel forced or awkward, and over time, the comfort and closeness they once felt may have become strained. Hopefully, as the children mature and gain insight, a closer bond can be re-established.
And a huge amount of men don’t see their children after divorce or see them rarely. That has lifelong impacts for the men and their kids.
In Florence Kraslow’s recent book Divorced Fathers and Their Families, she details the “long-term pain, sense of loss, and bereavement” divorced men experience and how difficult it was not to be part of their children’s daily life while growing up. And since two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women, “the sense of having been discarded, rejected, and thrown out was pervasive … and for most of the men this feeling lingered for years and is periodically re-experienced” at family or children’s celebrations.
Bottom’s analysis of the few studies from 1990 to 2011 that focused just on divorced father’s well-being indicate that divorced fathers who were more involved in their children’s lives and saw them more frequently, or who had sole custody were less depressed and had higher self esteem.
And fathers stepped up to the plate for their kids. Since many strongly believe that divorce is a negative experience for their children, they often attempt to create as stable and secure a home for their kids to overcome that. And they often rethink their priorities to try to maintain their connections to children, even if this means conflict with their former spouse.
Speaking of conflict, Bottom discovered that more men are upset by the lack of justice in “the system” than at their former wives. The upshot is that “many do not attempt to be awarded custody of their children for fear of fighting a losing battle, even when welfare professionals agree that children would be better placed in their primary care.”
The handful of studies that Bottom discovered are severely limited because they only look at white men who lacked post-secondary education and who were of low- to middle-class socioeconomic status; that excludes a lot of men. In general, the lack of studies on divorced dads worries Bottom, and rightly so:
By omitting divorced fathers from research, scholars could be neglecting important constructs for understanding family systems and how fathers might be affected by the construction of those specific systems. … This review also provided support for contentions that collaboration with (and participation of) divorced fathers in research has not yet been realized. … the results presented here nonetheless provide abundant evidence that very little research has been done specific to divorced fathers’ well-being. Additionally, published research overwhelmingly showed that divorced fathers’ well-being suffered during and after divorce, which must be addressed to help fathers parent more effectively.
It’s clear that we haven’t been focusing on fathers post-divorce. This must change if we are to help men in the future, especially ones who are willing to reverse traditional gender roles and stay home to raise the kids as more moms are becoming the breadwinners.
What do you think divorced dads need?
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