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.

You may also like...

18 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Wow! Thanks for such an insightful and provocative post on an extremely important subject, whatever one’s political ideology: I very much look forward to more.

  2. Frank says:

    I agree with Patrick, and I think this line of research can also buttress theoretical critiques of the modeling of human relationships on input-output exchanges. There is a real problem with reducing a parent’s role to “check writer” or “cruise director.”

    The interaction between law & norms here is also very intriguing. Should there be economic incentives for expanded parenting roles for fathers? I.e., less demand for monetary support from fuller time fathers than from “Disneyland dads”?

  3. jeffrey a. parness says:

    One thing we could do is decrease the numbers of kids born to unwed moms where there is no father designated under law at birth (i.e., usually meaning no father named on the birth certificate).

  4. Family Law Courts suck says:

    Given this empirical evidence, isn’t there an equal protection problem inherent in the presumption that children are better off with their mothers?

  5. Hans Bader says:

    I think that failure of family court judges to enforce fathers’ visitation rights is a large part of the problem.

    Many fathers who want to be involved in their childrens’ lives can’t owing to interference with visitation rights by their ex-spouse.

    They are reluctant to use their power to hold the custodial parent in contempt when she refuses to comply with court orders providing for visitation.

    Criminal sanctions for even blatant defiance of court visitation orders are often nominal at most; the law often treats systematic refusal to comply with visitation orders as at most a misdemeanor, while treating failure to pay child support as a more serious matter, even it results at least in part from the the loss of a job and related income.

    Prosecutors very seldom bring criminal charges for interference with visitation even when there is a criminal law on the books. They are much more interested in pursuing payment of child support.

    And in many states (certainly not all), courts can’t revisit their grant of sole custody to the mother based on her refusal to permit visitation, even though refusal to comply with the law and permit a continuing relationship between the child and the other parent can be provide circumstantial evidence of unfitness to have sole custody, and logically should be grounds for reconsideration of who has custody as an example of a material change of circumstances since the original custody order.

    So that avenue for encouraging compliance with visitation rights is also absent in many states.

    (Note: I am not, and never have been, divorced).

  6. Mark McKenna says:

    Very interesting post. Having recently watched a close friend go through a divorce proceeding and custody battle, much of this resonates with me. This is anecdotal, of course, but many of the actors involved (particularly the lawyers who do this work) suggest that his experience has been very typical.

    First, there is an incredibly strong presumption that the mother be given custody, even when there are other circumstances that suggest that’s not a good idea. In situations where the father is connected with his child, that gives the mother an incredible amount of power because everything else in the agreement begins from a baseline where the mother has control over access to the child.

    This power is, in practice, essentially unchecked. As Hans notes above, and as has been the experience of my friend, there is very little sanction to the mother for not cooperating. This is very frustrating for good fathers, and makes them feel like they’re constantly beating their heads against the wall. On top of that, the “Disneyland Dads” phenomenon is real – you can’t really develop a parental relationship in 2 hour chunks of time or in time periods separated by long lapses.

    So Solangel, it may be the case that some class of fathers separate because society has made it acceptable to do so. But I think there’s a large group of fathers (probably a lot larger than generally acknowledged) who consistently get the short end of the stick in the system and give up.

  7. In my jurisdiction, the family courts have established a “mediation” process, wherein the parties sit down with a social worker (without their attorneys, usually) to discuss what is in the children’s best interests regarding custody and visitation. The idea is that the social worker can look at the situation from more than a mere legal perspective and make recommendations to the court based on his or her assessment of the situation. Those recommendations can then either be adopted by the parties as a consent agreement/stipulations, or they can go to the judge as recommendations, which the judges rarely depart from, even after a full hearing.

    However, and here’s the rub, despite the legal presumption for joint custody and equal physical custody/visitation (where possible given the logistics of the situation), the social workers do not like to recommend equal physical custody. They say that equal time between the parents is ultimately not good for the children for a number of reasons, including (the two most-often cited reasons) that (1) the children never really have a sense of where “home” is if they’re “bouncing back and forth” from week to week, and (2) only parents who don’t really need the court system to tell them what to do in the first place are really willing and able to make a 50/50 arrangement work.

    Thus, because of the predilection against 50/50 time between parental households, even where joint custody is recommended (which is most of the time), the parents are seldom given equal access to the children. Instead, most families end up in the situation where one parent (the domiciliary custodian) gets the bulk of the children’s time, while the other parent (which is often, but not always, the father) gets the “Standard Visitation Schedule” of one evening per week and every other weekend, with alternating or shared holidays, etc.

    The “mediation” system in our jurisdiction is very successful at settling many cases outside of the courtroom (which is, at least in the short term, good for everyone including the children), but the system has an inherent prejudice of sorts against allowing divorcing/separated parents to have equal access to their children. And I would be very interested in seeing studies that tackle that angle directly — that is, whether 50/50 arrangements are more often good or bad for the children, and comparing those results to other “standard visitation” arrangements.

    Great post, and I look forward to reading more on the subject!

  8. CM says:

    I was a Disneyland Dad. Ex hired an attorney who wanted to and did bury me under inuendo and accusations “subject to interpretation”. It was so outrageous and expensive that it was easier to capitulate. Custody was not even an issue – in my state it is expected the children go with the mother.

    It has taken some time to heal and establish our new relationship, but with the dismissal of Ex’s attorney (read fired), we have begun to work out 50/50 living arrangements. I see where the children are blossoming and engaging in both households. I encourage every father to pursue an arrangement “for the children”.

    You will find they have questions about divorce – after one year my son asked me “are you and mommy going to move back in together?” Gut wrenching, but I had the opportunity to speak with him and talk through it with him. If I were a weekend Dad, with our weekends packed, I guarantee you that I never would have gotten to this level of understanding with my son.

    I vehemently disagree with most of the Family Court rules (mom is always best parent), the misapplication of Deadbeat Dads sins as criminalization of the father’s parental rights, and the general fervor of “Family” Lawyers for attacking the assets of a family who has lost its way by “running up the bills.”

    Fathers are truly the ones who lose in divorce; Especially when all they really want is to be Dad and spend time with their children as they grow.

    BTW, yes women can get caught up in this too, but the 80-20 rule applies. Where is the fairness in that?

  9. Hirbod says:

    Great post. In my experience there is another factor in most cases in which parents give up on their children both financially and otherwise. New relationships are often the cause of the problem. Any time or money spent on the first family — which necessarily entails dealing with the 1st wife/girl friend/baby mama — is viewed as time and money being taken away from the new family.

    This, at least in California, ends up in resulting in higher child support orders because visitation is a big factor in calculating the child support amount. The logic behind the formula is not to punish the parent that does not see the child, but to account for the fact that when the child is in the care of the non-primary caregiver (usually the father) he/she is supporting the child in kind.

    And there seems to be a correlation between high child support orders and likelihood that a parent will not pay.

    Look forward to reading more.

  10. Deadbeat says:

    What most father do not understand it that it is all about EXPLOITATION. This is how the courts “niggerize” men and use children as the conduit. If you want to really scare the system then men has to call for the SOCIALIZATION of child rearing and child support. Otherwise what you really have is a system of PATERNAL PECUNIARY not child support. It’s time for men to see the bigger picture in all of this.

  11. Deadbeat says:

    What most father do not understand it that it is all about EXPLOITATION. This is how the courts “niggerize” men and use children as the conduit. If you want to really scare the system then men has to call for the SOCIALIZATION of child rearing and child support. Otherwise what you really have is a system of PATERNAL PECUNIARY not child support. It’s time for men to see the bigger picture in all of this.

  12. the other side says:

    Father’s have a choice whether they want to be fun dad or a normal parent. Just because you don’t see you child around the clock doesn’t mean you have o lavish the child with gifts.

    Here’s some ideas father’s could actually apply instead of playing the victim and blame game. (Be part of the solution instead of the problem)

    1. Call and check on your kids, ask how their day went, did they get their homework done.

    2. Every weekend doesn’t have to be about play. Anytime or activity can be quality time, whether it’s teaching table manners, or doing yard work toghther or reading a book or guess what sometime kids bring their homework home over the weekend you could participate then. Couldn’t you?

    3. Attend school events. Kids like to see you there.

    4 Stop playing the victim and take control over your life. Your ex can only do so much. Are you a man or a cope out. You decide

  13. Michael says:

    Very good article!

    My perception is that the problem is wrong thinking. Our society has come to think that fathers do not nurture their children – even in intact marriage – but mothers do inately. All parenting skills are learned.

    Judges aren’t making custody decisions unless a couple will not come to an agreement. The attorneys are driving the agreement. They are not interested in what’s best for the children involved. They are interested in making sure that niether attorney comes out looking like they’ve lost. So they work together to do what is easiest – coercing the father to let mother have custody and accept that father will have to provide money while only seeing their children 4 to 6 days a month. So father isn’t present when school work needs attention, or when the school bully attacks, or to tuck them in. How can anyone be an effective parent in just a few days/month?

    Fathers are often labeled “deadbeat” when they don’t provide the child support ordered. There are numerous reasons why they may not be. Is it any better if a mother is spending the support funds on more television sets, refurnishing rooms in her house several times a year, continually landscaping her yard, or paying $200/month to have her hair done? However, most states have precendent against auditing use of child support funds. Shouldn’t both parents support their children?

    In the end, it shouldn’t be about the parents. It’s still a family, even if broken. To remove one parent from a child’s life begins the alienation thought process in the child’s mind. The children are the biggest losers from the fallout of the current thinking. Children want and need BOTH parents.

  14. Rosiemom says:

    I am a mother in the process of getting divorced; my almost 12-year-old daughter has Autism. My STBX and I have a good relationship, we share costs and custody 55/45% (She is w/ me a little bit more).

    My ex is a wonderful father, which BTW, I tell him all the time. And I applaud fathers who want to spend time with their kids, and I think the system should support them to do so more often.

    But I have several other friends, whose kids also have Autism, and those ex’s are just, well, jerks. There are five other moms in my divorced autism moms group; these men have either abandoned their kids, or think that all of the kids’ problems are because of the mothers.

    One isn’t paying child support at all; he is unemployed, won’t go to his daughter’s school concert because he puts his two “new” (read: not disabled) kids to bed at night. (I guess his 2nd wife can’t put them to bed one night so that he would be there to support for his daughter.)

    Another father has tons of family money, used it to buy a boat that he painted with the Autism puzzle signs and he calls the boat “my little buddy.” Oh, wow, doesn’t that make him a great dad? But he refuses to pay for his son’s therapies, and doesn’t think his son his non-verbal because he is 6 and can say a few words.

    Another father took his bipolar son off of psychotropic meds for a week, didn’t tell the mother and she of course gave her son his meds when she returned. Luckily he didn’t have a horrible reaction, which can happen if you don’t taper on and off those kinds of meds. Oh, and the legal system — clearly not a justice system — didn’t grant her medical decision-making power. Every day I get another email from these women with another story of these men being neglectful in nurturing and financing their children.

    How do we create a true “justice” system that actually supports children? When we have a legal system that may favor mothers for custody, but not for anything else that I can see.

  15. Joe Goldberg says:

    Goldberg & Associates is a medical legal consulting practice

    that helps protect children from a unique form of Child Abuse

    known as Parental Alienation or Parental Alienation Syndrome.

    Please visit our website for help:


    Our phone number is 905-481-0367

    Cases of Parental Alienation, often include false allegations of

    abuse against a non-custodial parent.

    Many times the police and the CPS are contacted to investigate

    these reports, but most of the time the finding is that the reports

    were unfounded.

    The reason there are so many false abuse reports, is because

    the abusing parent, is trying to deflect attention away from what

    they are doing to the child.

    The truth is that the abusing parent is covering up their abuse by

    discrediting the non -custodial parent. Only Court intervention will

    be able to stop this form of abuse. Find an expert Medical -Legal

    Consultant to help your family law attorney make the right moves

    in your case or risk the chance that your child will continue to be


    If you need help contact us today.

    Joe Goldberg

    Goldberg & Associates


    Tel 905-481-0367

  16. Megan says:

    I am really facinated by this topic.I currently have a daughter by a man who decided that he wanted nothing to do with me after I said no to an abortion. He does send money without fail every month but has seen her 5 maybe 6 times since she was born (she’s 4 now). It is so hard on her. We call, send emails, pictures, etc. but he never responds. We see his family (whom I never know before my daughter). We have a very healthy relationship and they have seen all that I do to help facilitate a relationship between my daughter and her father. Nothing works, I can’t force something but I can’t give up either.
    I am currently pregnant. I had thought that this situation would be different…and it was. Shorly after I found out I was pregnant he began to get really aggressive. He called me names, tried to limit the amount of time I spent with friends and family (his and mine), made me account for every minute that I was not home, etc. Hindsight, is of course 20/20, and looking back I know it was happening much longer. I opted to break up with him. He is now very angry with me-wants to be involved then doesn’t, depressed (mentioning suicide) then fine. He calls me names, questions paternity, bad mouths my family, bad mouths my daughters family, etc. Worse than any of that though is the way that he treats my daughter. He had told her that she could call him daddy and now he ignores her.
    So what about this situation? I have a lot people who can verify my actions and his-but where do we stand? I know he has rights and I want him to be involved with this baby. I will bend over backwards to try and make that happen as I have with the other one, but I have to protect my children too. He is someone that hits and degrades when he gets mad. Said that his parents did that and it taught him respect. He never hit me (though I feel he would have eventually), but he has hit the dogs, the wall, his friends, etc. He also refuses to speak to me then lashes out at me when we do speak. I have told him I will talk when the attacks stop-so now all conversation has ended. If we can’t hold a conversation, if he can’t let me have an opinion, how can we parent together? How is that in the best interest of the child? My greatest concern is my child, my children. I am an educated person, I know the risks involved with sex, I also know that the pill isn’t quite as effective as I once thought it was. So blame me if you would like, bad taste in men, whatever-but the situation is what it is. Where do we go from here?
    My point is this, the legal system is like every other system, there are loopholes, potholes and sometimes gaping holes, but it is what we have for now. How can we help the people who legitimately need it and sift out those who take advantage of it? I wish I knew the answer.

  17. celeste says:

    The Family Law issue that was discussed in the Herald Weds 20th 2011 about all the money the government is wasting. Is the quite understandable. There is nothing in place to stop devious people using the system to get their way.
    Here is a classic example of which my partner is going through…I’l try write in short…but can guarantee you it has not been short!!!
    My partner we will call Mr G and his ex partner called Miss T separates June 09 live in different houses. Get on well as parents.
    Partner met me Miss C in March 2010. His ex partner Miss T starts demands with kids and harassing Mr G and threatening to move etc. Mr G went to courts to find out what to do about behavior. Courts said a order should be in place to prevent removal and demands etc.
    Mr G asks if he needs lawyer courts say no try to work out through counciller as it is better than to waste courts time. Mr G goes to court counciller ( at cost of court ). Nothing was resolved. Harrasment continues…. G gets a lawyer to contact her Lawyer to ask that the harassment stop so no more contact unless emergency with kids. Child Lawyer gets involved (at cost to courts) and it doesn’t look to good for Miss T. Five days later Miss T goes to police station and drums up a old common assault charge from 8 years ago on Mr Mr G. In which Miss T had lied and changed her statement back then. Miss T now puts a protection order on Mr G and decides that she and kids scared of Mr G (in which Mr G has emails and evidence showing her enticing him to house etc) if someone would look at it no order would have lasted. Child lawyer gets involved again (at cost to courts) and it is shown by childrens own statements that he is not scared of father, even though child states his mother said a few brainwash things to him. Anyhow as a result my partner has to go to Anger course ( at cost to Courts). And barnado’s for visitation with his kids….which is about $80 a session at (court’s cost). Mr G has not seen his kids now since last year and it is now next week may! We know that when Judge sees all evidence, he will take protection order off. But you all wonder why it is costing so much????Comon!!!!You need to put a system in place that if a protection order is put on someone, they can defend it much earlier without all the rigmarole….And if it is proven that there is a chance of violence, maybe then proceed with the experts.
    Also put the bill on the person that said all the crock…..Im sure if women (and men) that hide behind the law to be vindictive new that in the end if they get found out to have no evidence but that of their own lies.Then they wouldn’t proceed with the lies.And there is places for these people to go if they apparently fear like womans refuge etc.
    Now this has cost the government, Mr G and his kids dearly. Because no one has thought about the ramifications of it all.
    If you put the cost on the people defending the behavior…A lot of children will be brought up by one parent which is not ideal. As my partner is in overdraft for the first time in life and if he had to pay to go to Barnado’s then he wouldn’t have been able to see his kids. Not ideal again.
    All I can say in my opinion if a judge is quick to put an order on….It should be just as quick to take off!!!!Save families uneccessary trouble and government a lot of money.
    This is all because of a woman that didn’t want man til man got another woman!!!!Scorned woman syndrome everyone pays.

  18. L. Horn says:

    I was fascinated by the comments. I would like to say that I’m a ghost dad. I found the vindictiveness, courts and peoples views on divorced fathers as hopeless. I recommend that father’s keep doing what works for most – they walk away because no other real course is open for them. Most can’t afford the costs of child support and live in poverty or close to it. Many want to have a life after their divorce but can’t. Almost all want to have a relationship with their children. It’s better to just walk away and face the heartache of losing a child. Build a new life, forget them or sink into misery, depression and poverty. That’s life as it is for divorced fathers!