EVERY other weekend for the past four and a half years, I've spent three precious days with my two adolescent daughters. We play tennis in summer, ski in winter, travel when the school schedule allows. But no matter where we are, we're all keenly aware of the thin membrane of secrecy that keeps us from being as close as we were before their mom and I divorced.
Like most divorced fathers, I'm caught in exactly the kind of nightmarish situation that experts on stress say to avoid — a great deal of responsibility, but very little power. I'm the major source of support for my children; my financial obligations are set by the state, and my wages automatically garnished. (If I lost my job tomorrow, and couldn't keep up with my payments, a warrant for my arrest would be issued within two months.) But my influence over how my daughters are being raised is limited, sometimes by decisions their mother makes that I have no input into, and sometimes by their allegiance to her when she and I are at odds.
In fact, there are times when these two girls, whom I've loved for a decade and a half, seem like little strangers to me. They'll forget to tell me some detail of their lives — or downright lie if they have to — so I won't feel sad that I've missed something they shared with their mom, or raise issue over some decision she's made with which I might not agree. As a result, I sometimes come away from visits or phone calls feeling shaken, saddened and angry.
My ex and I have been to court over support issues, and we've been to court over custody issues, and the legal battles inevitably trap our children in the middle and force them to choose sides. Sadly, this is exactly what not to do if you want to foster a loving parent-child bond. In a study by a child psychologist, Robert E. Emery, divorcing parents were assigned — by flip of the coin — either to mediate or litigate their custody disputes. Twelve years later, he found, that in families that went through mediation, the noncustodial parent was several times more likely to have weekly phone contact with his or her children.
Unfortunately, the system that our government has set up essentially forces divorced parents into litigation. We need to bring children and their divorced parents, especially fathers, closer together by revisiting our reckless support and custody laws, and the haphazard approach we have toward enforcing them.
Since 1998, the federal government has provided matching funds based on a percentage of money the states collect in child support — a powerful financial incentive for states to mandate and maximize support payments. As a result, parents are discouraged from negotiating a settlement: only 17 percent of current support agreements deviate from state-imposed guidelines, even though studies show that when couples set their own support figure, it's more likely to be paid (and tends to be higher than the state's figure).
And the court's involvement doesn't stop there. If Dad gets a raise, Mom takes him back to court to get more money; when Dad suffers a financial setback, he sues Mom to get his support decreased. Each time, the acrimony — and the legal fees — grow.
But while courts will jail men who can't meet their support payments, mothers who interfere with a father's custodial rights rarely face similar penalties. Often, the only recourse for a dad who wants to see his children more often is to sue, and sue and sue again.
Some fatherhood advocates argue that when mothers fail to carry through on a custody ruling, they should face fines and imprisonment, just like fathers do. That's started to happen: last fall, an Arkansas court sentenced a woman named Jennifer Linder to six months in prison for "willfully and wantonly" refusing to obey visiting orders and awarded custody to her former husband. But sending more mothers to prison can only result in more anger, and more confusion and alienation for the children in question. What is needed is less court involvement, not more.
The first step toward fostering a father and child reunion is to make private mediation of the parenting provisions (physical custody, legal custody and visiting) the standard procedure. Allowing parents the chance to negotiate their support — and possibly give fathers more of a say in how their support is spent — will decrease the vitriol, and let fathers feel more like parents, not just paychecks.
Second, we need to enact and enforce sensible penalties for interfering with visits. Jailing a mother is no way to solve the dispute; neither are financial penalties that hurt her ability to care for the child. But mediation — perhaps compelled by the threat of financial penalty — might be the solution. It's estimated that one in five children of divorce has not seen his or her father in the past year. Without substantial rethinking of our current support and custody law, children will continue to be alienated from their fathers, and lawyers will remain on hand to soak up the resulting legal fees.
Just this month, I received a summons to attend a custody conference at the Allentown, Pa., courthouse, and another letter informing me that an accounting error has left me short on support payments, and that my passport may be suspended. I want to shield my daughters from these harsh truths. So these are the secrets I'll be trying to keep from them as we gather together for Father's Day.
What secrets will they be keeping from me?