After stifling an eye roll, I said that I thought that “nice” was subjective, because what one woman might think is a nice gesture or approach, another woman may find offensive. Same with men. When my wife and her friend started talking about finding someone who is a good fit for your kids, I heard this from the woman I married: “There’s a difference between a single father and a divorced dad.”
I’m not ashamed to admit this dumbfounded me. “What’s the difference?” I asked.
Her answer startled me and even angered me a bit. I wasn’t angry at her exactly, but at the stereotype she shared that her friend completely understood without an explanation.
According to this mindset, men who do not have their children full-time are not single fathers. They are considered divorced dads. Single fathers are those that care for their children full-time and “understand” what a single mother contends with on the day-to-day as a result. Divorced dads are men who have their children every other weekend and have all kinds of freedom in between, and as such do not act like fathers during that time. They don’t always consider the time they have outside having their children at all intersecting with the time they spend with their kids, which makes them seem irresponsible.
That was my summation of what she said, understand. Her explanation was more eloquent, but no less astounding — and denigrating, in my opinion, considering I only get my sons every weekend as per my custody agreement.
I waited until we were on our way home so I could calm down a bit, but I had to ask. I had to know. “Did you see me as a divorced dad, not a single father when we started dating?”
Realizing that I may have been offended by that, she sheepishly replied, “Yes… and you overcame that.”
Let me just say that I never considered myself less than a single father when I was single. I found her notion that men who don’t have their kids full-time are somehow less of a father than ones that do to be abhorrent. The question is: why is THAT the stereotype?
I asked a swath of friends what their opinion was and it was largely in line with what my wife and her friend thought. I could see that this was a not just a case of me being overly-sensitive to the plight of divorced dads with kids, but rather a perception that was widely held. I turned to that savior of information, the Internet. According tocensus.gov, in 2011, 18.3% of fathers had primary physical custody, up from 6.1% in 1993.That is a massive jump in numbers, to be certain, yet the stereotype that men who do not have their children all the time are not equal to the men who do persists.
A salient view of this issue could be found in an article on attorneys.com, which asks the question: “Why Do Women Win Custody?” Their sobering answer: There are many reasons why women win custody in the overwhelming number of cases. Chief among them: Because that’s the way it’s always been.
Traditionally, men worked and women stayed home to raise children. Although that is less frequently the case these days, there is still a bias toward women in child custody cases. From a biological perspective, we are more inclined to think of the mother-child relationship than the father-child relationship. Many people make the automatic assumption that women are more nurturing as parents than men.
In a world where women comprise 47% of the total labor force in the U.S. (as per the US Department of Labor), it seems pretty safe to assume that men and women work roughly the same amount of jobs. Add to it the growing number of stay-at-home fathers and it’s pretty clear: men and women can both be caring and nurturing parents.
So how can we get past this bias? I fear it’s not that simple. This is part of our culture. Just take a look at all the nostalgia for “the good old days,” comprised of the idea of a nuclear family, complete with the Ward Cleaver-esque father heading off to work while June stays home to care for the house and the kids. However, our culture has shifted and changed, and that highly specialized view of the ideal family just doesn’t suit anymore.
Then, there is this idea that women are better nurturers than men, ergo, better parents. I can recall hearing my attorney say this to me when I filed for divorce: “Well, in this county, you’re not going to get custody. It just doesn’t happen unless the woman is a drug addict, a danger to your kids or a mental patient. You’ll be in the minority if you get more than every other weekend with your sons. My advice would be to do all you can to keep her happy, so that she’ll be easier to deal with when it comes to custody.” This was the man I was paying to help me, and his sage advice was catering to the whims of the woman I was divorcing.
And boy, did I ever take that advice to heart. I was scared to death I would only be allowed to see my sons four days a month. I bent over backwards and gave up many things naively because I feared the worst. In the end, I was lucky I was able to have my sons every weekend and have dinner with them during the week. My agreement is seen as a victory even by my attorney’s standards. I’m certainly thankful I get that much time because it could have easily been worse.
That is what is frustrating for me. I am viewing this as a man who has sacrificed to maintain a connection to his children. I realize there is a whole other side of this argument from a female perspective. My wife voiced how it wasn’t her intent to judge single fathers or to be overly critical. Instead, she viewed it as a cautious measure when considering who she, as a single mother, chose to date. She admitted she felt tremendous gravity in her serious dating relationships to weigh what “kind” of father those men would be around her children. Some were classified as “divorced dads” and did not make the cut to even be around her daughters.
I can empathize with her explanation, because I was very choosy about who my kids would meet too. The difference is that I didn’t assume the worst. That doesn’t make her protective stance with her daughters wrong, just a different approach. I guess I just find it sad that societally, we assume the worst when it comes to men and fatherhood, especially in the case of custody. I do believe that with time, we can prove that we can be and ARE great parents in our own right and eradicate the stereotypes. The onus is on us, men. We need to own our fatherhood and show how marvelous we all are at being “just” a dad, and that makes us great fathers, too.