grew up as a child of divorce, shuttled between two households.
Out of every fourteen days, I spent five with my dad, nine with my
mom -- or thirty six percent of the time with my dad, sixty-four with
my mom. Numbers notwithstanding, the tangible symbol of my divided
life was a small, flowered suitcase. More of an overnight bag, really,
it was sugar and spice pretty. Mine became quite worn over time. For
me, living in two houses was what it was: sad, cumbersome, better
than any of the alternatives -- by which I mean, better than not having
authentic access to both parents and better than their staying together.
Time and again, as friends go through divorces, I feel grateful to
my own parents; however arduous the process of their split was --
and it was -- they tried to do what was best for my sister and me.
Money, or our time with one or the other parent, was never ammunition.
We were never pawns of their anger or disappointment. They were divorcing.
They weren't at war.
Depending how your divorce goes, you may end up being at war. That
much, all sides can agree upon. A follow up question is this one:
whose rights matter most? That's currently up for debate.
Attorney Jeff Wolf, of
Law Reform Institute, explains that what has long guided the
courts in their handling of custody and child support cases was
this imperative: "Do what's in the best interest of the child."
This constituted the standard for the state's 1998 Child Custody
Presumption Law. Legal priorities aren't necessarily set in stone,
and many argue that by trying to change the standards, the "Fathers'
Rights" movement is actually attempting to put a parent's right
-- the father's -- above the child's.
Advocates like Jeff Wolf
believe the current standard should not change for this very reason.
"The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court articulated that
in custody cases, the most pressing issue is how to provide children
with the most stability possible given their situation," Wolf
explains. Not all parties agree with Wolf's assessment. Groups advocating
for the rights of non-custodial fathers have gained momentum since
the early 1990s. They work in myriad ways from outrageous antics
to mainstream lobbying.
In England, Fathers 4
Justice employ guerilla theater tactics to get their point across.
The group, recently profiled in a New York Times magazine
piece by Susan Dominus ("The
Fathers' Crusade," May 8, 2005) is known for its dramatic
actions. On the group's behalf last year, former housepainter Jason
Hatch scaled Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman. From there, he
unfurled a banner in support of fathers' rights -- "Super Dads
of Fathers 4 Justice" -- and spent more than five hours perched
on a ledge near the palace balcony. Although arrested once the stunt
was over, Hatch was released without ever being charged with a crime.
He even got his ladder back. Before the Buckingham Palace protest
Prince Charles was quoted (in London's Daily Telegraph)
in support of fathers' rights. He said he felt judges "favour
mums when deciding custody of kids -- even when many fathers were
not to blame for the split." The prince made this remark when
speaking with a newly divorced Navy officer on HMS Belfast in London.
Jamil Jabr, head of Fathers
4 Justice, has recently begun a United States branch called
Fathers 4 Justice-US. In a reconnaissance trip to New York, members
of the organization scouted out sites for an action. While in the
city, they were trailed by the head of New York's terrorism intelligence
branch. Says Jabr, "He had FBI connections and orders to make
sure that there would be no Buckingham Palace-type incidents."
Although it is dubious whether such outrageous guerrilla theater
style tactics would prevail in post 9-11 New York, it has been widely
reported that the father's rights radicals went out for a beer with
the men assigned to watch them.
Meanwhile, others like
Ned Holstein, founder of the Boston-based organization Fathers
and Families use more conventional means to push the fathers'
rights agenda along. With downtown Boston offices, a membership
base of about 2,000 and an annual budget of $130,000, his group
focuses on lobbying. His was one organization that helped get family
law initiatives on the Massachusetts ballot this past November.
Massachusetts' voters weighed in on the custody issue by answering
non-binding referendum questions in one hundred communities across
the state. Voters, asked if they would endorse a law requiring judges
to presume shared physical and legal custody of all minor children
in all divorce cases unless a parent is proven unfit or unable to
care for the child, offered resounding approval for the suggested
measure: eighty-five percent.
Massachusetts isn't the
only place where such lobbying is taking place. The Indiana chapter
of the Children's
Rights Council (a fathers' rights group) urged that class action
suits be filed nationwide to call for a presumption of joint physical
custody. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack signed a presumptive joint custody
law in May 2004. Although New Mexico's custody laws determine joint
or sole child custody according to the best interests of the child,
they plainly state this bias: "There is a presumption that
joint custody is in the best interests of the child, unless shown
otherwise." In all, 11 states and the District of Columbia
have a legal presumption in favor of joint custody. Only three states
make this presumption even when the parents contest the arrangement;
eight states apply such a presumption only when both parents are
Some conservative women
are weighing in to support fathers' rights too. Wendy McElroy, a
columnist for FOX News, believes in fathers' rights, wholesale.
Not only does she support shared custody, she recently wrote an
editorial about a birth father's right to his biological child (with
an ex-girlfriend he hadn't known was pregnant in the first place).
In the essay, she cited the father's finding support for his case
from the National
Coalition for Free Men, an organization that lists at the top
of its list of current activities an attempt to abolish the Minnesota
Battered Women's Act. The organization wants the state to take a
brand-new tack, one that "utterly discounts and discredits
the old 'women good, men bad' model and forthrightly recognizes
instead that domestic violence is a shared problem between men and
These groups attempt
to level a playing field they believe is skewed against some men
by widening that description to suggest actual discrimination against
all men. In a 2000
article for Salon, author Cathy Young chronicles the way Dianna
Thompson became executive director of the American Coalition for
Fathers and Children. "Thompson was galvanized into activism
in 1992 when, as a result of an overhaul of California's child support
laws, her husband's support payments for two children from his first
marriage were tripled. Thompson, a mother of five, says that as
a result of the increase, her family was faced with losing their
home." In both of these scenarios -- the biological father
so distanced from the pregnant mother that he wasn't aware of the
pregnancy and the man charged higher child support payments -- men
are presented as innocent victims.
Like the conservative
feminists, the vast majority of fathers' rights activists cite personal
roots for their dedication to the cause. Jason Hatch got into the
fathers' rights movement three and a half years ago after his second
wife left him, taking their two children with her. When he located
her and took her to court, he was granted visitation rights, he
has said, a ruling he states she didn't comply with so he has struggled
to see his children even that much. Two years ago at Gloucester
Crown Court he was convicted of harassing his ex-wife and given
a 12-month conditional discharge. He and his girlfriend had a baby,
and according to a story in the London newspaper, the Telegraph,
Hatch's girlfriend left him after complaining that his obsession
with a campaign for fathers' rights put too great a strain on their
relationship. "Gemma Polson, 27, the mother of the couple's
seven-month-old daughter Amelia, said Jason Hatch's involvement
with the pressure group Fathers 4 Justice had 'taken over his life.'"
Polson went on to explain
to the newspaper that Hatch -- father of four, from two former marriages
in addition to his relationship with her -- put all of his energies
into fighting for the right to see his children from his second
marriage. Quoted as saying of Hatch, "He was seeing hardly
anything of our daughter, which was a bit rich when the whole point
of his campaign was to allow dads to see more of their children.
I would rather he saw more of Amelia than he does."
Ned Holstein's commitment
to fathers' rights also comes from personal experience. He attained
joint physical and legal custody of his three now grown children
and believes that his family fared well through the divorce. However,
the court proceedings -- as he said to the Boston Globe in a November, 2004 article profiling him -- opened his eyes to
the fact that he was being seen as a potential derelict about to
shirk parental responsibility rather than a contributing member
of society going through a difficult experience. The line of questioning
that sparked his sense of injustice was this: "And you do make
a lot of money, don't you doctor?" The stated mission of Fathers
and Families is to "protect the child's right to the love and
care of both parents. We seek shared parenting for the children
of divorced and never-married parents with equal rights and responsibilities
for fathers and mothers."
Gerson, author of No Man's Land: Men's Changing Commitments
to Family and Work, looks at the ways men's and women's roles
in society have changed over the past thirty years. She contends
that large social shifts occurred, upending the old structures,
and clear new paths have not been paved. For example, women's contributions
to the labor force have become critical to our economy. "As
women took on more economic responsibilities, the father as sole
breadwinner model eroded," Gerson says. "And so men do
not possess a predominant ideal or pattern of masculinity or fatherhood."
She has identified three models of fathers, the first being the
old-fashioned married man with wife at home. The second is the egalitarian
man who values emotional involvement and his role as nurturer with
his children even if a marriage breaks up. The third is the absent
father -- deadbeat or runaway -- who finds sustained involvement
with his children inordinately difficult. Gerson explains that the
extremes are most apt to take action. "The Promise Keepers
are highly committed and conservative men determined to turn back
the clock and restore traditional fatherhood. The underbelly of
these Promise Keepers is a rejection of the notion of women's equality.
The fathers' rights movements are filled with men who feel pushed
out, denied of ties to their children, leaving them estranged and
angry. The underbelly of this is anger toward women."
She does not believe
either extreme reflects most ordinary people's experiences. "The
vast majority of men are in the middle, part of dual-earner families,
whether married, otherwise partnered or divorced, and they are working
to earn money and redefine fatherhood in non-politicized fashion;
they are simply living their lives." Gerson notes that the
number of custodial fathers, though it remains small, has doubled
over the past ten years. "Because these new patterns don't
get politicized, they are often not defined as men's movements.
A real fatherhood movement -- like a real mothers' movement -- would
question the structure of how our society balances work and family."