Fathers, Only Equal in Marriage?
Divorced and unmarried dads still face judgment and gender-based expectations
We’re coming up on Father’s Day and even though we’re in the middle — or maybe still the beginning — of the coronavirus pandemic, dads all over will be feted as best they can on Sunday.
A lot of couples have been struggling during months of 24/7 togetherness and especially parents with minor children. As the stay-at-home orders have shown us, for parents who have been lucky enough to be able to work from home, dads have still not been doing their share around the house and with the kids. Granted, they are doing more than before, but still not enough — no doubt leading many wives to be even more frustrated than they might have been before the lockdown. And maybe even thinking about divorce.
But when it comes to divorce, the desire for an equal partner — a dad who is doing his share — seems to disappear, even though more fathers are asking for joint or primary custody than ever before.
We should applaud that — dad’s an equal partner, exactly what women want! (Sadly, nonmarital fathers fare worse, still not having achieved parity with married and divorced dads.) Yet we still aren’t used to seeing dads being so hands-on with their kids in public.
The stereotypes are challenging. All dads — whether stay-at-home, single, co-parenting or full-custody divorced dads — are likely to hear comments rife with judgment, such as, “Are you babysitting today?” or “Giving mom a break?” if they’re out with their kids. And they are suspect if they volunteer in classrooms, hang around parks while their kids play, or try to join in a playgroup.
But divorced dads often experience another layer of judgment and gender-based expectations. “When men parent as single parents, they’re expected not to be as good at it,” says Wendy A. Paterson, author of Diaries of a Forgotten Parent: Divorced Dads on Fathering Through and Beyond Divorce.
And they also become suspect. As clinical psychologist Richard Warshak wonders
If we value dad reading ‘Goodnight Moon’ to his toddler and soothing his fretful baby at 3 a.m. while the parents are living together, why withdraw our support and deprive the child of these expressions of fatherly love just because the parents no longer live together, or just because the sun has gone down?
I had hoped that, in 2020, we might have a more enlightened view of divorced dads.
Maybe not. Just last year, former First Lady Michelle Obama, a woman I greatly admire, made a disappointing and stereotypical comment about divorced dads, alluding to the fact he’s the “fun” parent but not the one who will take care of us when we’re sick.
As I wrote at the time, while divorced moms have some pretty obnoxious stereotypes, divorced dads have more — in part because there aren’t as many studies about divorced dads as there are about divorced moms, who traditionally have had sole or the bulk of the custody. We don’t really know how they’re doing.
Except that we know many fathers want to be more hands-on than having the kids every other weekend and a few weeknights a month. Divorced dads increasingly say they want more meaning and connection with their kids, and some research suggests they become better dads after divorce.
Of course, one wonders why they aren’t becoming became better dads in the marriage. If that happened, there might not even be a divorce.
Want to have an equitable 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 it’s now on Audible.