Are Divorced Families Troubled Families Or Just Plain Trouble?
Policies that ignore dads say a lot about marital and post-marital equality; the subtle message is that dads are second-class
I thought I was pretty prepared to become a divorced mom. Once I had decided that I could no longer stay in my 14-year marriage after months of therapy, soul-searching and self-help book reading, I put all my energy into exploring how to create as happy and healthy a life for my two boys, then 9 and 12.
After a few sessions of relatively amicable meetings with a mediator — mostly because we were too cheap to rack up a several-hundreds-an-hour attorney bill — we decided on 50–50 shared custody. A week with Dad, a week with me.
In the month or so after our divorce was final, it seemed to be working well until a previously benign event threatened to be its undoing. The back-to-school packet arrived one mid-August day, stuffed with colorful forms, fundraising requests and permission slips, including the contact form requiring the address and phone number of my kids’ primary residence.
I was stumped. Now, this was not the first time in my life as a mom that I have been stumped; try explaining why the sky is blue to a 4-year-old or quartiles, boxes and whiskers to a middle-schooler and you’ll know what I mean. So, like most parents, I’d developed a few tricks to sound reasonably intelligent when, honestly, I had no clue — fudging, half-truths, diversion and the ever-popular “Because I said so” among them.
But I couldn’t rely on my tricks this time because my kids didn’t have a primary residence anymore — they had two residences, aka Mom’s house and Dad’s house. And this is a constant dilemma that faces any parent sharing custody: Who’s the main contact?
It seems like a no-brainer to me: There isn’t one. There are two, Mom and Dad (or Dad and Dad or Mom and Mom).
Why, with around 30 to 40 percent of marriages ending in divorce, are we still thinking in these terms? Why do so many still treat divorced people as if they’re an intact unit? Why do we continuing using a system that excludes a parent, usually the father, and burdens the other, usually the mother?
It isn’t just school forms and notices, of course. It’s almost anything the touches our kids’ lives, from permission slips for gymnastics competitions to schedules for post-Little League game snacks to postcard reminders from the pediatrician of an upcoming appointment to birthday party invitations.
And you can pretty much guess whose mailbox or voicemail it all ends up in — Mom’s.
Not that I minded — it was information I wanted and needed to know, and was accustomed to handling. But, I’m pretty sure dads want to know, too, especially if Billy’s birthday party happens to fall on a day when he’s in charge.
What it does is force moms to be micromanagers and messengers. I happily took on those roles when I was married. When I wasn’t, it just seemed exhausting, amicable divorce or not. And if something fell through the cracks — and things are always falling through the cracks when you’re co-parenting — it created unnecessary stress, disappointment and frustration between former spouses, and maybe even some passive-aggressive behaviors. If I wanted to live like that, I would have stayed married!
By continuing to think in terms that diss dads — and sometimes moms — what are we really saying about marital and post-marital equality? The subtle message is that dads are second-class, that they don’t care — or care enough. I know lots of divorced dads who would disagree.
Granted, having to mail two sets of paperwork, send two Evites or leave two voicemails is a bit of a burden. It isn’t always eco-friendly, either. Maybe that’s what’s behind the idea of “troubled” divorced families; what people really mean is that we’re just plain trouble.
I suppose it would be nice if we divorced types could divvy up the parenting duties according to our interests, availability and strengths, and then share what we need to. Honestly, though — if we could do that, we probably wouldn’t be divorced.
Want to know how to have a more equal marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore (please do) or order it on Amazon. And we’re now on Audible.