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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

The Role of the Father After Divorce
Ross A. Thompson


In a recent edition of the popular Sunday comic "The Family Circus," cartoonist Bill Keane pictures a father listing the assets he shares with his wife. Looming behind the house, car, furniture, investments, and other property are the shadows of the couple's four children, the most important marital assets they share. If the couple should divorce, they would be required not only to negotiate the division of their tangible property but also to make long-term decisions concerning their intangible assets, such as their relationships with offspring. Because the value of the latter cannot be quantified and therefore cannot easily be divided between them, divorce forces men and women to confront the complex challenges of allocating human resources whose value is personal and inestimable. How they do so dramatically affects not only their individual well-being following divorce, but also the quality of life enjoyed by their children.

In popular portrayals in this country, fathers figure very prominently in the morality tale of divorce and its consequences for children. They are the "deadbeat dads" who are delinquent in their child support payments and who often provide no support at all. They are the absent fathers who fail to see their children for months or years at a time, or who reenter their children's lives unpredictably and inconsistently. They are the vindictive former spouses who coerce unfair property settlements and refuse to pay spousal support, thus contributing to the "feminization of poverty" that undermines their children's economic well-being. In short, to the extent that divorce has always entailed judgments of blame and wrongdoing, fathers are often the villains of contemporary divorce. And based on this portrayal, the remedies proposed to correct the inequities of divorce are equally simple and straightforward. More coercive child support enforcement strategies should be enlisted to force fathers to contribute more to their children's care. Negotiations over property settlements and spousal support should be conducted under new rules giving women a greater share of marital assets, broadly defined. And if fathers refuse to visit regularly with their children, perhaps their visitation rights should be terminated to end the emotional turmoil and persistent uncertainty that children experience.

This contemporary view contains considerable truth: many fathers abandon responsibility to their children after divorce. But like most portrayals of complex social problems, this portrayal is also misleadingly simplified. Fathers, of course, have their own perceptions of the inequities of contemporary divorce. They protest custody standards that are gender-neutral in name only, that contribute to their lawyer's recommendation not to ask for more than visitation, and that seem to relegate them to the status of economic providers alone. They question the increasing coerciveness of child support enforcement procedures without equally helpful avenues to ensure that their visitation privileges are not undermined or restricted by a former spouse. And they wonder whether proposed new rules governing economic negotiations that involve long-term income sharing and equalized standards of living are punitive rather than equitable, emphasizing only a few of the diverse mutual accommodations that spouses contribute to marriage and recognizing few of their own sacrifices for the family. Above all, fathers experience many losses from divorce which make their characterization as the villains of contemporary divorce seem unjust and unfair. Primary among these, for many fathers, is the painful loss of a meaningful and satisfying relationship with offspring.

The most important reason for thoughtfully considering the experience of fathers in divorce is not merely fairness to fathers, however. It is to advance the welfare of children. Children strongly miss the absent father who does not visit long after he has ceased to be part of their everyday experience. Children benefit when their mothers and fathers can cooperate satisfactorily on their behalf regarding issues of visitation, financial support, health care, educational costs, and other concerns that affect their well-being. Children suffer significant economic disadvantages from a father's failure to provide adequate child support and, conversely, gain from his reliable financial commitment to them. Fathers thus figure prominently in a child's postdivorce life whether they are involved and supportive or distant and disinterested. To better enlist fathers in advancing the welfare of children, therefore, it is essential to understand the obstacles and difficulties men experience in their efforts to remain involved and to appreciate why so many men abdicate their responsibilities to children after divorce. Characterizing fathers as the villains of contemporary divorce does little to advance the goal of creating arrangements that can maintain a child's unconflicted relationships with each parent in the context of financial support that is reliable and adequate to the child's needs.

This discussion seeks to advance that goal by describing the experience of fathers in divorce, not to advance a "father's rights" perspective, but to foster a more multifaceted understanding of divorce and its consequences for the family. The author is a developmental psychologist who also teaches about family policy. His experiences in these areas have convinced him that public policy concerning divorce is too blunt an instrument for use in regulating complex and individualized private relationships, but it can provide incentives and supports that may strengthen family functioning. Given the difficult contemporary experience of children and their custodial parents after divorce, and the significant role of fathers in shaping that experience, it is essential to consider how fathers can be given more multifaceted and meaningful roles in their children's postdivorce lives.