Twenty years ago, I put together a men's group where eight guys met twice a month to teach each other the lessons of manhood most didn't get from their fathers and to work through the issues that affect our relationships and limit our lives. We wrestled with friendship and trust, intimacy and sexuality, marriage and divorce, parenting and fatherhood, and emerged as better all-around men. This two-decade journey of my group is chronicled in my new book, Act Like a Man -- available now on Amazon in Kindle or print editions.
One lingeringly painful experience that several of the men in my group -- including me -- never managed to totally come to terms with, though, is the way we were marginalized and penalized as divorced fathers in the family court system. Comments from many readers of my articles echo the ongoing trauma of similar experiences. In fact, as I write this -- 30 years after my own divorce -- I'm hyperventilating just remembering the anger, frustration, and intense emotional anxiety I went through then.
It takes two people to make a marriage work and two people to destroy it. And, while it's debatable which gender is more responsible for the 50% divorce rate, all that matters to the children is having two parents who love them and can help them cope with the fallout from a broken home. Too often, however, the courts don't view custody cases from this perspective, operating instead from a 1950s paradigm in which fathers were considered breadwinners with little hands-on parental input.
This assumption that women are more capable of raising children than men are makes my blood boil. I raised my oldest son as a single dad from ages one to six in the late 1960s, when there was no daycare and I was just beginning my career after college. What I lacked in parenting skills, I more than made up for with love, nurturing, and a deep desire to be that little boy's hero. I never shirked my responsibility and, for years, had no social life.
Years later, having had temporary custody of my second son for a year, I found myself in family court when he was 10 after learning that he frequently found his mother drunk and passed out on the sofa when he came home from school. I had to hire a lawyer -- which wiped out my savings -- answer insulting and irrelevant questions in depositions, and be accused of being an unfit father -- despite my proven track record -- before finally being awarded full custody. And, despite the emotional and financial pain I endured, I consider myself lucky. The judge refused to pay give credence to opposing depositions and put my son's interests first by taking him into his chambers and talking with him for nearly an hour. He asked my son the only relevant question -- "Do you feel safe with your mother?" -- and ruled to protect him.
My oldest son is an adult now and the father of a young son himself -- in many ways, the dad I wish I'd had. He's gone through his own custody battle and I'm proud he made a stand for his rights with his son. It's agonizing to see him have to suffer the way I did just to protect his rights as a father, though, and my heart goes out to him each time he faces a new legal hurdle.
Few men would argue that they have to help support and raise their children after divorce. But sometimes women take advantage of the family courts for financial gain. To a father whose custody of his children has been limited, providing financial support can feel like marriage without any benefits. While I sympathize with a woman's need for financial support to help her raise the children, I have no sympathy for women who use the courts to destroy the financial lives of their ex-husbands. A failed marriage shouldn't be an opportunity to get even -- for either parent.
If it takes two incomes in today's economy to support an intact family, then it's going to take two incomes to support that family after divorce -- and maybe even more, considering the necessity for two separate homes. In fact, it's very important that children feel they do have two homes -- not a primary home with their mom and a weekend stopover at Dad's place. By giving equal custody to fathers, women would both lighten their financial burden and increase their opportunities to work outside the home. A shared arrangement -- both custodial and financial -- is both fairest for the parents and most advantageous for their children.
Equal physical custody is every divorced father's right, and I support and advocate for every man who struggles to maintain his role as equal parent to his children. And I hope women will realize that this shared parenting is in their children's best interest and will get behind men in this struggle. Read my book to see how guys can support each other -- and women can help -- in making the family court system truly serve justice for all.