Monday, July 16, 2007

Divorce is good mostly for the lawyers. They make a lot of money from divorces, working out alimony, child support and custody while the meter keeps ticking. These issues are never easy to resolve, but the “best” divorces are those where the parents can keep the best interest of the child always in sharp focus.

That’s always more difficult when rancor trumps reason and the concerns of the children give way to spite and ego, and a spouse’s anger with the other surpasses sensitivity and common sense. This is the stuff of countless books and movies. The literature begins with Medea, who murdered her children to punish her husband. Less spiteful parents impose softer gradations of suffering on children when a marriage fails. It doesn’t have to be so. Customs, like time, can change.

“Blended” family holidays are increasing, where remarried husbands and wives with a mixture of children celebrate together. Divorced parents share summer houses (hopefully at separate times) so that their children can enjoy an extended stay in the same house where they’ve developed friendships and familiarity.

But lurid headlines about “deadbeat dads” still identify delinquent parents who refuse to pay child support, even when affluence puts no strain on pocketbooks. Circumstance always alter cases, but David Levy, director of the Children’s Rights Council, blames a social system that emphasizes the importance of financial support without focusing nearly the attention that emotional support should get. When child support laws began to tighten in the 1980s, fathers were often kept out of the child’s life. Fathers weren’t needed, but their dollars were.

“The country saw wage withholding, liens against property, interception of federal and state tax returns, publication of ‘most wanted’ lists of child-support delinquents, and arrests in the middle of the night, where dads were handcuffed in the pajamas and hauled off the court,” Mr. Levy says. Sometimes this was warranted; many angry men were in fact withholding support because their wives were withholding access to their children.

“Men were offended by the idea that a woman could initiate divorce, obtain custody and support, and reduce the father to the role of Disneyland Daddy in his own child’s life,” he says. Fathers saw themselves unfairly treated, and some of them organized the Children’s Rights Council to lobby Congress for joint custody laws and for what’s called “shared parenting” — one parent may be held responsible for financial support but both parents are held responsible for emotional support. Children’s rights, as fathers argued before congressional committees, meant fathers’ rights, too.

Joint custody, like sole custody, can work well or not at all. What matters is the mental health of the parents and the quality of child-parent relationships. Needs can often change with a child’s age.

While one size does not fit all, it’s difficult to object to an increased emphasis on shared parenting for divorced parents. This doesn’t necessarily mean equal time, but an amicable commitment of time and cooperation. Governments spend $4 billion a year to collect financial support but only $109 million annually on parenting education, counseling, mediation and other things.

The emotional benefits stemming from a parent’s psychological participation in a child’s life are harder to measure than the benefits paid for by hard cash. Mr. Levy objects to such a facile interpretation. “The lack of two parents in a child’s life is the most significant fact producing more crime, drugs, lack of school performance, and teenage pregnancy in young people,” he says.

Such data has been used in campaigns to foster fatherhood in single-parent families, but he doesn’t think enough has been said on behalf of those fathers of divorce who remain vulnerable to vindictive wives. Preliminary data even suggests that certain states with high joint custody rates have lower divorce rates, suggesting that if you can’t get your “ex” out of your life maybe you might as well consider reconciliation. This might be the greatest benefit of all for the kids.

The Children’s Rights Council has become more mainstream — perhaps even mellower — than when it was founded 20 years ago, reflecting the mellowing of feminists who sought “liberation” from the home, directing venom at men and delivering it through the children. Divorce has declined or flattened since as post-feminism attitudes have revived the importance of family life for both men and women.

It’s difficult to find someone to disagree with the council’s mantra: “The Best Parent is Both Parents.” How to accomplish that is another matter. We’ll be working on that for as long as children are the rewards of marriage.

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