Have you been a good parent today?
Have you been a good parent today?
By Rinaldo Del Gallo III
Saturday, June 14, 2008
2008 marks the 100th year that Father's Day has been celebrated in the United States. According to the Father's Day cards we will be getting, we're fat, balding, play golf all day and have an excessive proclivity towards the consumption of beer.
It hasn't been easy, as the "Father Knows Best" image of fatherhood has morphed into Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin ("Family Guy") or Ray Barone ("Everybody Loves Raymond").
With such a damaged image of fatherhood, there have been some efforts by government and large foundations to improve the father/child relationship by establishing so-called "responsible fatherhood" organizations. These groups often help the fatherhood movement by publishing data about the importance of fathers. This makes it easier for us, in turn, to argue to legislatures the importance of fatherhood when we pushed for shared parenting legislation.
By and large, however, these responsible-fatherhood groups largely undermine the very object of their efforts -- to promote the father/child relationship. By continually depicting fathers as naturally delinquent in their parenting responsibilities and therefore needing encouragement, they reinforce the very stereotypes of the missing or negligent father. These stereotypical images of fathers pervade our courts, usually resulting in a near automatic loss of custody if custody is opposed by the mother, unless the mother is grossly unfit. Because these groups refuse to acknowledge the tremendous barriers fathers face in the court system, they do not view their father-bashing conduct as throwing fuel on the fire.
Many of you may recollect billboards throughout Berkshire County with a black father laying on his back on a sofa, a young black girl resting on his chest, with the caption, "Have you been a father today?" The not-so-subtle message is that many if not most fathers have not.
While perhaps the warm-fuzzy imagery lessens the caustic blow, the message that fathers don't have their acts together reads loud and clear. Could you imagine a "responsible (insert ethnic group) movement," with billboards of members of that ethnic group at work, followed by the question, "Have you been a responsible hard-working citizen today?" The outcry would be unimaginable. The governmental agency that features the ads usually feature either black children wishing their dad was present, or black fathers to be role models for "irresponsible" black men. Think of it as Uncle Sam coming to understand the White Man's Burden.
Similar efforts to promote "responsible motherhood" are virtually non-existent. Bashing fathers makes for great politics. Bashing mothers is the proverbial third-rail of American politics. Yet the No. 1 reason fathers do not spend more time with their children is not because they choose not to, but because a mother obtains a court order preventing him from an equal ability to share in the parenting time.
Not only are these other reasons a far distant second in causing fatherhood absence, but they are infinitely less susceptible to a government imposed solution. Providing opportunities for fathers who want to be with their children by implementing shared parenting is highly likely to be successful in reducing father absenteeism. It's not rocket science -- the millions of fathers who want to be with their children but cannot because it is actually unlawful would be afforded a legal opportunity to be equally present in the child's life.
If the federal government really wanted to help, it could condition federal grants on state's implementing shared-parenting legislation. The precedent is set -- they have shown absolutely no apprehension in making child support a federal issue.
Intentionally erecting legal barriers so that fathers do not have equal parenting time with their children, in most cases, is the acme of irresponsible motherhood. Sure, sometimes Dad is a bum. But in 95 percent of all case (if not more), Dad is not that bad a guy. Simply because someone in a black robe on a dais tells the mother she should have sole custody hardly makes that the morally appropriate thing to do.
Fatherhood absence, while in many cases the result of irresponsible fatherhood, is far more likely to result from irresponsible motherhood. Mothers go to courts and seek orders preventing fathers from having meaningful, let alone equal, relationships with their children. Courts enable them to do so. Simply outlawing this practice unless Dad really is an abusive or neglectful lout would do light years more than billboard signs bespeaking the virtues of being a father and passing out token gifts to fathers with their children in shopping malls on Father's Day.
Have you been a good father today? Many fathers were not a good father today. It is not because they do not want to be there for their children; it is because the courts and their mothers will not let them. Have you been a good mother today and let the father have equal access to your children? It's a heck of a more relevant question.
Rinaldo Del Gallo III of Pittsfield is a practicing family law attorney and a spokesman for the Berkshire Fatherhood Coalition.
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