This is an excerpt from the second article in a four-part series, written in partnership with TheAtlantic.com, examining the role of fathers in American families.
There are a few reasons why the state push for joint parenting is resulting in more single dads.
1. It empowers fathers to ask for more, and believe they deserve it.William Fabricius, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and chair ofArizona’s committee on child custody statutes, says that most men want to share parenting time equally, but assume courts have a strong maternal bias.
“Dads think that the courts will favor mom, and so they will settle for less parenting time,” Fabricius said. “They see other dads in the neighborhood who spend time with their kids every other weekend, and assume that’s the way it is. They don’t ask for more parenting time because they don’t think it’s the norm.”
Since only 5 percent of child custody cases ever make it to trial, these perceptions of the norm are important. If men realize that courts are granting more parenting time to fathers than they have in the past, fathers will be more likely to ask for more time with their child, and fight to get it. Men used to assume that there was no way they’d get custody of their kids, and that maybe it was for the best.
“When most of my friends started having kids 10 years ago, they all used to say, ‘I don’t know how to take care of a kid,’ and ‘that’s not what men are supposed to do,’” said Malliet.
But now attitudes are changing. More fathers are starting to believe that they have something important to contribute to their children’s lives. There might be a steep learning curve to single parenting, but men are much more likely to push through the three-in-the-morning screaming fits if other people — particularly the courts — think they can handle it.
2. Sharing is complicated. Joint physical custody can be a headache for two people who just don’t want much to do with each other anymore. It involves seeing your ex on a regular basis and living nearby so that your child can stay in one school.
“If you ask a woman what kind of custody deal she wants, she’d probably say that her first preference is for her to get sole custody, her second preference is for the father to get sole custody, and her third preference is joint custody,” said Margaret Brinig, the Fritz Duda Family Chair in Law at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of the Oregon study. “Most people don’t want to share.”
On top of their own personal issues with shared parenting, divorced couples might also worry about how it will affect their children. They don’t want their kids to feel confused or disoriented when they pack up and move to a different house every week.
These hesitations create an interesting paradox: legislation that supports joint physical custody is actually promoting single fatherhood. If fathers are empowered to ask for more parenting time than they’ve had in the past, mothers may be more likely to give up their part of the custody.
With the courts putting more faith in single fathers, Malliet thinks the next big hurdle will be those fathers having faith in themselves. Single dads are more easily discouraged than single moms, he says, because men suffer from a lack of parental training. While women often grow up tucking their dolls into bed at night, young men are rarely conditioned to take care of someone else. This lack of experience can make single dads begin to doubt whether they are really cut out for this, after all.