Why Have Fathers Disappeared?
For years, policymakers have known that a significant proportion of fathers have little contact with their children once their relationship with their children’s mother ends. Although fathers today are less likely to disengage from their children than divorced fathers in previous decades, 20% to 30% of children have little or no contact with their fathers. Disengaged fathers—those who have had no contact with their children in the past year—pose a significant problem for society, especially their children. Although some studies suggest that children are no worse off when they have no contact with their fathers, other studies suggest otherwise. These latter studies have found that children who have regular “quality contact” (defined below) with their fathers tend to
■ adapt better to their parents’ divorce
■ have higher self-esteem
■ suffer lower rates of depression
■ experience fewer behavioral problems
■ enjoy higher levels of cognitive development, and
■ are more emotionally stable than children who have little or no contact with their fathers.
There is also evidence suggesting that children who share close relationships with their fathers might be less likely to
■ use drugs
■ attempt suicide
■ drop out of school
■ be unemployed
■ engage in early sexual activity and become pregnant at a young age
■ engage in anti-social and criminal behavior, or
■ disengage from their children–become absent fathers themselves
Just as important or perhaps even more so, children want to see their fathers and feel rejected when contact is infrequent. They blame themselves for their fathers’ absence, believing that their fathers abandoned them because they were “bad” or because they are simply unlovable.
Not surprisingly, fathers who rarely see their children tend not to pay child support. Until recently, policymakers and scholars were primarily concerned with figuring out ways to make “deadbeat” fathers pay. However, scholars and policymakers have recently begun exploring the reasons why so many fathers, including those that were very involved in their children’s lives when they lived with them, have little contact with their children once they no longer live with them. The University of Wisconsin just sponsored a conference on “Noncustodial Fatherhood: How Law and Policy Influence Men’s Connections to Their Children” and the AALS Mid-year Meeting next month will hold a panel on “Maintaining Children’s Relationships with Both Parents.” Later this year, the New Zealand Family Law Society will begin their conference with a keynote address on paternal disengagement.
Why do so many fathers disengage from their children? It is not because they do not love their children; at least that is not the reason in the vast majority of cases. It appears that fathers disengage, at least in some cases, because the law has made it difficult for them to parent their children. Many fathers complain that the typical visitation arrangement of one evening a week and alternating weekends and holidays does not allow them to be effective and involved parents. They claim that by relegating them to the role of visitor, the law has taken away their parental authority and has made them into “Disneyland Dads.” Disneyland Dads entertain their children by taking them to fun places such as amusement parks and theme restaurants, buying them unnecessary toys and clothing, and basically showing them a good time. However, they fail to interact with them in the way that custodial parents do. They do not engage in authoritative parenting or do routine activities with their children such as reading, homework, watching TV, doing chores, running errands, or visiting friends and family. This Disneyland-type contact is not beneficial to children. It is also not very appealing to fathers who dislike the superficial nature of the relationship and hate feeling that they are more like friends or fun relatives than actual parents.
Many fathers blame their children’s mothers for their lack of involvement in their children’s upbringing. Above, I stated that children benefit from “quality” contact with their fathers. “Quality” contact refers both to the type of interaction between fathers and their children (Disneyland v. authoritative parenting) and the level of conflict between the nonresidential father and the child’s mother. The benefits of paternal involvement are minimal or non-existent when parents do not cooperate with each other and father-child contact takes place in a high-conflict setting. Unfortunately, approximately 25% of divorced or separated parents seem unable to be civil to each other and as many as 25% of mothers admit to interfering with fathers’ access to their children. Fathers in these cases sometimes walk away from their children, permanently.
I believe that fathers disengage from their children, in part, because legal and social norms of fatherhood have made it possible for them to do so. The social and legal norm of post-divorce fatherhood is primarily economic. Nonresidential fathers must pay child support but there is no expectation that they will nurture their children, help raise them, or continue to play a significant role in their lives. In many communities, a father who pays child support is a viewed as a good father even if he does nothing else for his children precisely because society expects and accepts that many fathers will abandon their children once they no longer live with them. In contrast, mothers are expected to nurture their children and those who do not are demonized.
Fathers themselves have defined their parenting roles after divorce in mostly economic terms. Many fathers believe that they have little influence on their children and that by paying child support and visiting sporadically, they are fulfilling their parental responsibilities. They compare themselves to fathers who do not pay child support and never see their children. By this standard, fathers who do anything for their children seem like good fathers. As Professor Terry Arendell discovered in her interviews with divorced fathers, instead of seeing their minimal level of involvement with their children as deviant, any level of contact evoked a “stance of self-congratulation” because they felt were doing better than most fathers.
In future posts, I will discuss what the law should do to change this norm of economic fatherhood and facilitate fathers’ involvement with their children.