Thursday, May 12, 2005

Should we Let Dads get Near our Kids?

After the recent NYTimes article on father’s rights, Cathy Seipp’s article on same, and a dinner conversation I had last night with a divorced Dad, I decided to weigh in on the subject.

In my married days, my husband used to insist that I give him directions while he was driving. Without my directions, he couldn’t seem to distinguish north from south. Except, of course, when I wasn’t in the car, in which case he could navigate perfectly well on his own.

You get where I'm going. Parenting is similar. Dads often show their incompetence in fathering to the extent that we Moms enable it. Or in other words, to the extent that we’re willing to take up the slack and play out our mothering instincts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If we like it that way, it’s fine. Although I certainly didn’t enjoy giving driving directions on how to reach the mall.

Divorce changes all this. Suddenly both mom and dad are driving on their own. Suddenly the differences are sharpened and each side needs to become a jack of all trades. Are mothers usually the more competent parents? Perhaps. They also tend to be more competent in whipping up a quick meal. And more attentive in following up on their children’s needs. But that can quickly change, as fathers realize that they no longer have a better half taking care of the driving. And surprisingly good results often emerge.

Let’s consider legacy: Up until a few years ago, child custody was almost exclusively awarded to women. The result was that divorced dads saw very little of their kids...

I contend that encouraged fathers to move away, both physically and emotionally. I have adult friends who saw their father only once or twice a month or even less while growing up. With limited visitation, the lure of another job and a fresh start in a different city became overwhelming, and the fathers moved away and saw their kids even less. Ok, I acknowledge that some fathers move away even without this incentive, but...

The catch is that now that they’re in their 20’s and 30’s, these children of divorce often remember their father more fondly than their mother. They prefer his company to hers. A double loss for the mothers. On the one hand, they put in the vast majority of the work. On the other hand, they’re confronted with their children’s obvious preference for the X.

Is this preference for dad the result of the relative personality merits of a certain mother and father, or is it that distance makes the heart grow fonder? I think it’s largely the latter. The intensity of single parenting encourages the child to idealize the absent dad over the ever-present and budensome mom.

In the end, as mothers, we often have a lot to gain by making sure that our divorced husbands have a large part in the lives of our kids. Even if it means ceding control. Even if it means letting Daddy decide whether Jr. can go to a b-day party while under his watch. We gain our time, the freedom to pursue our social and vocational aspirations, and in the end, we probably gain better relations with our kids as well. Our kids gain too. Instead of feeling that they lost the experience of childhood with their father, they know that they got their fill, sometimes even more than their fill…


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