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Institutionalized Bias and the Exclusion of Divorced Dads

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"Fathers are entitled to the same information about their kids as mothers."

This is a nice idea. We have heard it many times from school administrators, teachers, PTA members, etc. I believe every single one of them means what they say. But the reality is, while divorced dads may be theoretically entitled, they are practically left out. I have witnessed it with my husband. I have witnessed it with friends. It is more common than I realized, and I have begun to see a system that excludes divorced fathers by design and by virtue of the assumption that most of the time, dads are at fault in the divorce.

Let's get the second issue out of the way first. Like it or not, in a divorce situation, most people assume the man is at fault. Most people assume that the man will be absent or will be involved minimally at best. Most people assume that there is a good possibility that the man has exhibited some objectionable behavior and must be kept at bay. I am not saying that every person feels this way, but it is common, and it is exclusionary. This mindset must change. This mindset is demeaning and judgmental by way of making it difficult or impossible for men to show up at their children's events thereby perpetuating the belief that divorced fathers are not involved.

In my view, any party, father or mother, who would have a derogatory conversation with anyone at their children's school, doctor or extracurricular activity about the other parent should be considered more suspect than the parent who says nothing. After all, subjecting children to negative views of either parent by those who teach them is detrimental to those children.

Moving on, let's get to the institutionalized part of the problem. My husband has been divorced for almost five years. Two of those years, he has been remarried... to me. This is why I use the term "divorced dads" rather than "single dads." In those two years, I have watched an involved, dedicated and reliable father struggle to get information that he is entitled to have about his daughters despite making every effort to participate. In his case, he has shared custody which entitles him to equal involvement, access and decision making with regard to his girls. He does not have primary physical custody, however, and so the mother does most of the registration for school, doctors and extracurricular activities. This is a very common situation.

When the mother does registration for the children, she can choose to include the father's information or not. Some years my husband is included, others he is not. So he must go to each school and find out if he is listed on school call-out logs, emergency contact forms or even listed as the father at all. This year, we found out he was not even in the system at one of the schools. We added him, but then realized he was not receiving emails regarding schools events such as honors day. He corrected that (after we missed honors day), or so we thought. He then found out he still was not getting emails, and the staff at the front office, while attempting to be helpful, could not figure out why only the mother was getting the emails. There is still no answer. When these emails go undelivered to fathers, it makes it difficult or impossible for men to show up at their children's events thereby perpetuating the belief that divorced fathers are not involved.

When he goes to Open House at school and signs up for email lists for the teachers and for the PTA, he may be added to that list, and he may not. Whether other mothers (room mothers) realize it or not, they tend to assume that only the mothers will participate in school parties or on field trips or in bringing in snacks for the classroom. They will sometimes email the mother exclusively. This system causes fathers to scramble around trying to find out when classroom events are, when class parties are and what is going on in their child's classroom. Being excluded from these lists makes it difficult or impossible for men to show up at their children's events thereby perpetuating the belief that divorced fathers are not involved.

There are also administrative issues that exclude fathers. Report cards are not mailed to fathers. Disciplinary letters are not mailed to fathers. Calls regarding sick children or to ask why a child was not picked up from school on time, are not made to fathers. This exclusion makes it difficult or impossible to be present and communicative with their children thereby perpetuating the belief that divorced fathers are not involved.

When school software is not designed in such a way as to allow information to flow easily to both divorced parents, when administrators do not institute practical policy that allows both parents to receive information equally, when teachers do not have sign-up forms that accommodate both parents to receive the same classroom information, when PTA moms assume that only the mothers will participate, it is difficult or impossible for men to show up at their children's events thereby perpetuating the belief that divorced fathers are not involved.

One question that needs to be asked, is to whom is the belief that divorced fathers are not involved being perpetuated? Anyone who has missed their children's events at school, doctors or extracurricular activities and has seen a look of disappointment on their faces knows that it is the children who suffer. For a father who is making every effort, it is heartbreaking. And it is even more heartbreaking when it is the system and culture of focusing on the mothers as primary caregivers rather than a lack in the father that is the reason for this heartbreak. For the sake of the children, it is not just a father's problem. It is an institutional problem and it is up to the fathers, the mothers and the schools to begin a conversation about how to improve this problem.

I recognize putting responsibility on the school districts adds a burden, however, with a 50 percent divorce rate, this subject must be addressed. I know that the attitude of schools used to be that it was up to the parents to work these things out, not the school. I do believe that attitude is changing, but the culture of viewing mothers as the primary caregivers and responsible parent has got to change. I know that many parents co-parent well and communicate effectively. There are many who do not. There are men who fight for every minute to spend time with their children and to be involved in their lives. Institutions should not be an impediment.

Let's begin a conversation. In coming weeks I will publish more on how I think this issue can be addressed and how we can begin to change the culture of divorced parenting. Please contact me at thesingledadsplaybook@gmail.com if you have experiences to share.