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Moms, courts share blame for absent fathers

August 7, 2008

Moms, courts share blame for absent fathers

Saturday, July 5, 2008 3:01 AM
E.J. Dionne declared Illinois Sen. Barack Obama "on target" on the issue of fatherlessness — especially in the African-American family ("Obama was on target on Father’s Day," Forum column, June 18). That seems right, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough.

It is welcome, of course, to see both Obama and Dionne emphasize the importance of fathers in the lives of their children and the tragic consequences of fatherlessness. But Obama and Dionne merely allude to the shameful history of (sometimes well-intended) government programs that have had the effect of weakening families. Obama’s Father’s Day speech — addressed, as it was, especially to the African-American community — appropriately focused on the issue of personal responsibility. That is important. But it is also important to understand the social context in which individual choices are made.

It is a context in which fathers have been devalued or valued only as support for mothers — usually, and most important in many people’s eyes, economic support. Advertisers and sitcom writers who have no true wit or creativity cash in on the icon of the bumbling, incompetent, selfish, loutish father — until recently without complaint. Family courts will stop at nothing to collect child support from the men they label "absent fathers" but do very little to protect a father’s time with his children from an angry mother who sees no value in the father having any relationship with his children.

According to psychologists Joan Kelly and Judith Wallerstein, 50 percent of mothers "see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children" after divorce (Surviving the Breakup, p. 125).

Researcher Sanford Braver notes that "40 percent of mothers reported that they had interfered with the noncustodial father’s visitation on at least one occasion, to punish the ex-spouse ("Frequency of Visitation by Divorced Fathers; Differences in Reports by Fathers and Mothers," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1991)."

Research recently published by Ohio State University professor Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and graduate student Elizabeth Cannon indicates the importance of mothers’ actions and decisions in influencing the degree and nature of fathers’ involvement with their children. "Mothers can be very encouraging to fathers, and open the gate to their involvement in child care, or be very critical, and close the gate. . . . This is the first real evidence that mothers, through their behavior, act as gatekeepers by either fostering or curtailing how much fathers take part in caring for their baby."

As Schoppe-Sullivan sums up, "Mothers are in the driver’s seat." So, while we’re in the process of making calls to personal responsibility, we must not call only fathers to task. We must also call mothers to task and condemn behavior that excludes or hampers fathers’ involvement with their children. When a mother getting a divorce seeks sole custody, we should question the reasons for this attempt to exclude the father from any decision-making role with respect to the children.

And we must call domestic-relations and juvenile courts to task for too often failing to protect the relationship between a father and his children. I’ll never forget listening to one of Franklin County’s highly regarded former judges lecture a father: "You’ll get two jobs; you’ll get three jobs; you’ll get four jobs. I don’t care! But you will pay your child support." How, I wondered, could this man be a father to his children while holding down three or four jobs? But the judge was unconcerned. And the mother was under no order to contribute to the financial support of her children.

While we’re noting the very real harms of fatherlessness in our society, especially to vulnerable populations, and excoriating those fathers who irresponsibly choose to be absent, we should not overlook those fathers who never had the opportunity to be a real father or who faced enormous barriers to do so. Fatherlessness is a multifaceted problem; solving it requires being on many targets, not just one.

Professor and chairman Department of Philosophy Ohio State University Columbus

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