Keeping Fathers In
By Allison Bell Psy.D.
You’ve been walking around like a zombie with your heart blown out. You move about your days in a fog, wondering how your life spiraled out of control. The blow-out you feel comes from the news that you are getting divorced. In your despair you may stay at work later, avoiding the scene of your shattered hopes and dreams, filling the uncertain space that’s become your life. Disorientation and preoccupation with the future may define your state of mind if you’ve just announced your need to leave the marriage. In the moments when you feel you can connect, you are doing homework with your children, playing video games together, telling them to brush their teeth, putting them to bed, kissing them good-night. It may be in one such moment that your little one whispers softly, “I don’t want to get divorced, daddy”.
Too often in our culture, men find themselves at the periphery of the family when a couple decides to divorce. Sometimes this is by choice; sometimes it is by design. I have heard fathers tell me fervently that they want to remain actively involved in their children’s lives, that not only is this their right, but that they are capable parents who can stand on their own two feet if only the mother of their children would offer guidance and support. The threat of loss that is often viscerally experienced, as the dissolution of a marriage becomes reality, frequently spurs fathers who have hitherto been workaholics to suddenly become present, active participants in the daily rhythm of caretaking children. I have had mothers express their shock, their joy, and sometimes, their fear that this man who was obsessed by work will suddenly lay claim to his right to parent his children the way he thinks it should be done, setting the stage for ongoing conflict long after the divorce decree is signed and filed away.
We possess an inherent belief that females “know” about parenting and that males don’t. There is a gender-based, anthropological, historical and cultural truth to this notion, given that boys are generally not socialized to identify their own caretaking capacities. When men become fathers, they may only be minimally aware of the importance of their voice in the balancing of parental influences. Research on early infant development suggests that a father’s vocal resonance is experienced by an infant as something totally separate and unique from a mother’s. A father’s nonverbal vocabulary, as expressed by his energy and physical actions in play, is different from a mother’s play interactions with children. From the earliest days of parenting, fathers bring distinct contributions to their children’s development. Yet, when spouses determine that their marital relationship has ended, fathers too often find themselves, and the value of their contributions to child-rearing, minimized or dismissed.
In litigated divorce, the issues surrounding custody of the children are frequently blurred, with the result that children are more vulnerable to being used as pawns and weapons. Too often, a mother will play the power card, decreeing that she is the keeper of the knowledge about parenting and that the father is ignorant and therefore not to be trusted.
Too often, a father will use custody as a ploy to avoid financial responsibilities to his children and the family, or retreats because he believes he is insufficient, or deficient, to parent on his own. In the best of circumstances, Moms who have been the traditional, hands-on parents may inadvertently interfere with a Dad’s wish to gain competency in child-raising, with all the good intentions of protecting their children or simply falling back on the familiar routines of habitual role distribution. Although the judicial mandate is for consideration of the best interests of the children, too often the developmental needs and requirements for children to sustain active, viable relationships with both of their parents fall by the wayside. This is most certainly not in their “best interests”.
The reality is that many fathers need the support of their wives in order to become more actively engaged parents. They need to learn where the medicine has been kept, who to call about a missing homework assignment, where the ballet class is held, and how to make macaroni and cheese just the right way. Divorcing fathers need advice on how to be with their children alone, and sometimes the act of divorcing makes their spouses the least likely advisors. Men need the recognition of how important they are to their children, but, having been socialized to be men, are less likely to identify or address this need than women are. Men and women need support through the emotional turbulence, regardless of who initiated the divorce, and parents need help in communicating and negotiating.
In litigated divorce, the turmoil and confusion that is the natural fallout of painful disengagement is replaced with anger and combat, a war in which everybody loses. Rather than problem-solving, the process of fighting it out in Court only tends to aggravate difficulties and highlight differences. Alternative Dispute Resolution has paved the way toward ending the war and returns the couple to a forum where the needs of the family take center stage. Mediation is a popular form of ADR that allows the couple to avoid the fighting stance of litigated divorce. However, mediation does not fully address the needs of the family.
In Collaborative Divorce, the team of attorneys, coaches, child specialists and financial advisors is guided by the mission to help preserve the integrity of the family unit, in part by fully understanding the contributions of each parent and the value that parental involvement has for each child. Rather than finding themselves locked into positions geared to defend against the experience of overwhelming loss, spouses find themselves involved in negotiation that is based on both their own underlying interests, needs and desires, and the larger interests of the family as a whole. They get help in figuring out how to negotiate, something they have often been unable to do in the marriage. In Collaborative Divorce, the voices of children are heard and honored. Requests for more time, or a certain quality of time, with a parent become part of the understanding that family life must continue beyond divorce if the children are to continue to thrive and flourish. A father has the support of his coach in defining and articulating the ways in which he needs to remain attached to his children. A mother and her coach get to flesh out the mother’s concerns and fears about letting go of control and allowing the voice of the other parent to be different while hing equal value. Parents have the support of the child specialist to gain a deeper understanding of how their children view them, experience them, want them, and need them to behave. Dads, in particular, can stay “in”.
Men and women fall in love, marry, have children, create families, dream of futures. Men and women become disillusioned, distant, defiant, disgusted, despondent. Dreams shatter, or shift almost imperceptibly. Chasms open wide, filling the space between those who once loved. Men and women begin and end relationships. Parents, on the other hand, remain connected by their children. This form of relationship cannot end, but must be reconfigured, renegotiated, and valued in its own right. Men and women divorce. Parents and children do not. Litigated divorce tears apart the fabric of family life and devalues parental relationships. Collaborative Divorce provides a new path, one that seeks peaceful resolution at the deepest levels of heart and spirit. It allows Moms and Dads to continue to partner in the joys and difficulties of parenting. It gives fathers and mothers a viable avenue of communication, a way to recognize one another’s value, a means of maintaining balance. It keeps Dads in.