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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


The dilemma of fathers and divorce centers on the challenges inherent in contemporary paternity: a status whose defining characteristics have become blurred by changes in men's and women's roles in our society and whose redefinition is still to come. As a consequence, paternity has become unfortunately (but perhaps inevitably) defined in popular forums by what is lacking: the assumption of responsibility for children, an equal sharing with women of domestic responsibilities, and a willingness to invest relationally as well as economically. At the same time, contemporary portrayals of fatherhood, including those associated with divorce, continue to emphasize their economic support obligations and their alleged disinterest in—and inadequacy for—child care. It is in this context of conflicting and largely denigrating cultural images that men seek to redefine fatherhood for themselves, both in marriage and in postmarital life.

There are important voices in the law and social sciences arguing that policy reform should begin with the assumption that men will increasingly distance themselves from their obligations to offspring, and that child support reform, visitation policies, and other issues in domestic policy should begin from the assumption that fathers will be absent or disinterested.73 But this is a defeatist attitude and one that may encourage a continuance of the conditions which led to these proposals. Because the law expresses as well as institutionalizes social values, roles, and relationships, divorce policies that treat fathers primarily as economic providers and not as caretakers will tend to reinforce these roles in private life.

As an alternative, public policy could be devoted to creating incentives and roles that make fathers an integral part of the postdivorce lives of offspring: through nontraditional custody and visitation arrangements that ensure fathers a meaningful parenting function; through the availability of nonadversarial modes of assisted dispute resolution to negotiate difficulties in visitation, economic support, and other issues with a former spouse; through child support procedures that assist lower-income fathers with their economic obligations while providing guaranteed assistance to all children; and through divorce procedures that encourage (indeed, require) former spouses to recognize and structure their mutual postdivorce commitments to offspring and to each other. Policy reform that encourages a meaningful parenting role for fathers in postdivorce life provides the best hope of redefining paternity in the twenty-first century.