Monday, September 29, 2008

Fathers' Rights

I'm way behind on Newsweek, again, so I missed my opportunity to respond to Dahlia Lithwick's article "Rethinking Fathers' Rights."

It's a good article, for the most part. Custody rights are a very difficult issue to tackle.

Because scientists and sociologists have done studies and written papers, we all know that women make less money than men. We also know that, after divorce, women fare much, much worse that men do, financially. And we know that married women bear a disproportionate amount of the burden for running the household and caring for the children, regardless of whether or not they work outside the home.

Part of what makes the issue of custody rights tough is that divorce can often be hard on everyone involved. It's rarely a black-and-white issue. And most of us probably know good parents who feel that they've been screwed by the system as well as by their exes. Sometimes those good parents are dads, who pay a lot of child support and see little of their children, or have ex-wives who talk negatively about them to the kids. That sucks for everyone.

But it's still hard to let go of that "children need their mothers" thing. Most of us know that continuing to paint fathers as incompetent ninnies when it comes to child-rearing is counter-productive. But given the other factors stacked against women in divorce situations (see above, remembering that with money comes power) it must be hard to give up that one big piece of power.

Because most of us can't bear the thought of losing our kids.

So, yes, it's an interesting article tackling a difficult issue.

But Lithwick misses a major point. She makes a significant logical misstep, and she repeats it twice in the short article. It goes like this:

"Many good fathers will be downgraded from full-time dads to alternating-weekend-carpool dads. They will be asked to pay at least a third of their salaries in child support for that privilege."

Umm. No.

When you have sex, you are taking the risk that you might become a parent. And when you do become a parent, you bear a financial responsibility for your child, regardless of whether or not you have whole or partial custody of the child.

You're not paying child support so that you can see your child. You don't get off the hook and get to stop paying if you forfeit your right to see your child. You're still responsible for your child financially, if in no other way.

Sure, there are plenty of examples of men who skate out on child support payments, complaints that the payments are too high, etc.

A couple of things. First, it's lousy. Second, yeah, kids are expensive. Really, really expensive. And if the dad's not paying, the expenses don't go away. It's just harder to see the way the day-to-day expenses add up when you're not right there every day.

And maintaining two households is significantly more expensive than maintaining one. So . . .

I won't get into my feelings about how we should handle the problem of divorce in our society, at least not in this post, though I find the conversation fascinating. I just couldn't resist pointing out Lithwick's offensive suggestion that non-custodial fathers "pay for the right to see their kids on alternating Sundays."

No. Fathers pay so that their children can eat, wear clothes, have shelter, afford school fees, and, perhaps, go on the occasional field trip once in a while.

It's true that withholding visitation rights is sometimes the stick to get deadbeat dads to pay. But would you say that the main reason you don't murder your annoying neighbor is because you don't want to lose your right to vote? No, that's just one possible consequence of the action, and probably not even the most significant one.

If you want to prove yourself a good parent, then withholding money your kids need for food and shelter is not such a great idea. That is, after all, what you're paying for.


Stushie said...

Giood response, Sarahlynn.

When I counsel couples who are going through marriage troubles, I initially inform them that it will take just as much money, effort, and energy to save a marriage as it will to be divorced.

Most of them are then willing to save their relationships. It's a long process, but a worthy one.

Sarahlynn said...

I have found it to be so.