I was a stay-at-home dad. I still am a stay-at-home dad, but it is not the same. I cannot be a stay-at-home dad much longer.
I have been a stay-at-home dad since before my son was a year old, and always the primary parent responsible for his care. Even before I was a stay-at-home dad I was the parent who took my son to doctor visits or stopped by to see him during lunch break. When my son did not adjust well to his daycare, I wanted to stay home with him. His mother wanted to continue working. So I quit my job to parent my son at home.
When he was three and a half years old, his mother filed for divorce.
I do not know why she filed for divorce. We argued more towards the end, but no more than many couples who stay married and work things out. I have since learned that in families with children, women file for divorce the majority of the time. College educated women, like my son’s mother, file the vast majority of the time. I could speculate on a variety of factors that led to her decision to divorce — disagreements about parenting, difficulties with “role reversal” and possible loss of respect for me, interference from her parents who moved close to us, missing her single life — but all that would be speculation. In the end she left for same reason so many do — because it was easy for her to do it and obtain a favorable outcome. I did not want a divorce, but I had no say in the matter. With a divorce forced upon me, I would have preferred a collaborative divorce to an adversarial one; but, I had no say in the matter. I would have preferred to gradually change my son’s residential schedule over changing it abruptly, but I had no say in the matter. The divorce process was unilateral.
After my son’s mother filed, she presented me with a large stack of papers. Among other things in these papers, she wrote her opinions of my parenting ability. I learned that she was accusing me of some form of “emotional abuse” as well. This enabled her to bring papers before a judge for “immediate relief” prior to presenting them to me. I was fortunate that no immediate relief was granted. I have since learned that many men are not so lucky. We both argued with each other, and she was the only one to ever be physical in these arguments; but, only she leveled accusations of abuse.
In her papers she requested to be named the primary parent, and I be given visitation. I had a chance to respond, and she then had the final say with a response to my response. Lawyers took these papers to the court. They spoke in front of a commissioner with each of us standing next to our respective lawyers. Her lawyer spoke for about 5 minutes. My lawyer responded for about 5 minutes. Again she was granted the final say when her lawyer spoke for another 5 minutes. Immediately after this the commissioner ruled, and my son was taken from me half the time.
This was the “temporary arrangement” until the entire process was complete. The process took almost a year and a half to complete. Another part of the ruling was the commissioner telling me I should find work. I asked for a revision hearing to try to have this custody schedule revised. It was not revised, and I was told at the revision that I need to pay half the mortgage on the house until it is sold.
Throughout the divorce process I heard the phrase “best interests of the child.” The court used the phrase often. My son’s mother used the phrase often. I was coerced into signing documents with the phrase. Until the hearing my son saw me every day. We spent all day together most days. I would lie next to his bed every night to help him fall asleep. My son cried and cried and cried during the first weeks when he was taken from me. He didn’t sleep well when he was away. He was only 3. He still asks his mother if I can come over with him when she picks him up. The courts say they only act in the best interests of the child.
After filing for divorce, my son’s mother wanted to put him in daycare. I thought it would be a foregone conclusion that, if there was a parent that is willing and able to stay home it would be allowed, but because his mother wanted daycare, there needed to be a hearing. My son has certain special needs that led to his mother and I to have him evaluated by the university when he was 2, and by the public school system soon after. They made certain specific recommendations for schooling and care that I wanted to carry out. Both my son and I were fortunate for this. The court was compelled to follow the recommendations.
I believe without these recommendations my son would be in daycare today in order to comply with the mother’s wishes. The type of preschool I requested for my son was one where parents assist the teacher. My son’s mother said it should not be assumed that I would be the parent to do this. I made no such assumption. Nevertheless, the commissioner ruled that my son’s mother could replace me whenever she wanted and as often as she wanted, as long as she gave me one week’s notice. I was worried she would exercise this privilege all the time, and I would not get to participate at my son’s preschool; but, she rarely did.
My son’s mother requested a parenting evaluator. My lawyer told me I had to agree to this. Our parenting evaluator was a social worker. The evaluator writes a report with recommendations when he finishes, and my lawyer said the court almost always follows these recommendations. My lawyer also said the parenting evaluator will ask me to sign forms to waive my rights to privacy and confidentiality so that he can talk to doctors, therapists, teachers, and anyone else he might feel is relevant. My lawyer told me I should sign whatever the evaluator wants me to sign. When I met with the evaluator, I did. I was told by many, including my lawyer, that it is a good idea to keep a daily journal of what I did with my son and how I interact with his mother and her family. According to the evaluator, my journal consisted of over 500 typed pages. I don’t know what he did with it, and it was never returned to me.
I had two meetings with the evaluator. During the first meeting the evaluator spoke with me in an office. I told the evaluator I wanted to stay home with my son until he started kindergarten. He told me that children of divorce have to go to daycare. During the second meeting he watched me play with my son for half an hour through one-way glass. I am proud of my parenting skills, but this was still frightening for me. I felt violated by this evaluation.
Eventually, my son’s mother and I “settled.” I have since learned most adversarial divorces end with a settlement, and not a trial where information about the proceedings is made publicly available. I was afraid of the extra costs of a trial, and I was afraid that worse things could still be done to me and my son. I found nothing particularly “amicable” about our settlement. We reached an agreement where I only got to see my son half the time, but I could stay with my son during times when his mother was working.
Since the divorce I have had the chance to meet several divorced mothers through single parent groups. They had custody arrangements where they had their children at least 70% of the time – often more. They collect child support. I did not meet any stay-at-home mothers who had their children only 50% of the time. According to the most recent US census 5 out of 6 custodial parents are women. All the single mothers I have met so far initiated their divorces.
I noticed something else about the divorced women I met. They have a tendency to speak in the passive voice. Family court uses similar language. I asked one woman about her custody arrangement. She said it didn’t make sense for her husband to have custody. I recognized the passive voice. I asked her if that was what her husband wanted. She said he just wanted whatever he could get. The passive voice extends to the description of the process – phrases like “the divorce was finalized on this date” or “we’re divorced” – not “I divorced” or “I initiated the divorce.” The other person is thus put in the position of having to ask awkward questions for more information. It reminds me of governments that know they are doing bad things and wish to deflect attention and criticism. “People are being detained.” Who is detaining them? They are being detained. Some of these women also accused their husbands of abuse of one form or another. It seemed incongruous to me because, like my own ex-wife, these same women often seemed aggressive, angry, and intimidating to me – but they all had a seemingly instinctive and masterful grasp of social language.
People have been using passive language in divorce for a long that now. A friend of mine recently told me that my description reminded him of the separate conversations he had to endure as a teenager once a long time ago. The mom explained that it was just something that developed, that it was nobody’s fault. But the dad explained, she filed for divorce. Active versus passive voice. Same stuff, different decade. The courts encourage the use of passive voice when speaking to children, or an active voice with “we” to indicate the parents are on the same page about what is happening. The courts say to use the active voice would constitute blaming the other parent. To adhere to this standard leaves the parent who did not want a divorce (most often dads) in the position of saying he is ok with a scenario in which he is not permitted to have as active a role with his children as before. In effect, parents are supposed to tell the kids: I won’t see you as much, and I’m ok with it, and it’s no one’s fault — thus making these parents appear either callous or foolish.
Throughout the divorce I was told that I should seek work, and that I should be able to find work. This presupposition affected how assets and obligations would be divided. Income was “imputed” to me. I have been out of the workforce for nearly 5 years, and unemployment is very high. Finding work will be a challenge for me. If I need to move out of a state for work, I will be at the mercy of my ex-wife. I have been told that if it went before a court, I would lose what custody I have if I move. My ex-wife has a good job and is worth between 1 and 2 million dollars. I am worth a small fraction of that. Child support is determined based on the percentage of overnights the child spends with a parent. If the number of overnights are equal, no child support is warranted. I will not be getting child support. I have recently spoken with a divorced mom who decided to allow the dad to see his son half the time. In her case they determined child support based on the disparity of incomes. She gets $1000 a month. If I am forced to move because I can only find a job out of state, the likely outcome will be my seeing my son only for most of the summer — and I would have to pay my millionaire ex-wife child support. I would be reduced from a full-time, stay-at-home dad to a dad who only gets contact with his son for maybe three months out of the year.
I was a stay-at-home dad. I still am a stay-at-home dad, but it is not the same. I cannot be a stay-at-home dad much longer.
So that’s my story. It is probably not a particularly gripping one if you haven’t lived it. As for me, I still take medication for anxiety as a result of all of it. As a stay-at-home dad I went from full time with my son to half the time. I worry I might lose more time in the future. Working dads often go from part time to virtually no time. There are things that people can do to make a difference in the future though. The first thing is to talk about it and build awareness. Everything about divorce is designed to keep people from talking about it. That’s similar to any corrupt process. The only way to fight it is to talk about it more. Statistically speaking, men do not recover from divorce (Even if they remarry problems remain.). They die younger and have more physical, mental, and financial problems. Statistically speaking, children do not recover from divorce. They have deficits relative to other children, and they grow up feeling like they can never be themselves or never truly be at home. They have different selves for different homes. They feel they have to grow up sooner. They are more likely to have all sorts of problems.
Remarriage does not help them and may make things worse. Statistically, the only time divorce benefits children is when there is violence or threats of violence in the home. Yet as a society we make it easy and condone and even sometimes encourage people to do this to their children. Though I use the word “people,” the vast majority of people who file for divorce when children are involved are women. Ask them whether they filed. Watch for passive language. Watch for gender bias. Gender bias is still rampant through the process, even in states where the language has finally been changed to be gender neutral.
Many people recognize the system is broken and want to fix it. The best idea I have heard is this one: a rebuttable presumption of custody of any minor children to the respondent. What that means is if someone files for divorce when there are kids involved, there will be a presumption that the other parent gets custody of the kid. This would greatly reduce the number of divorces with kids. All of a sudden, the divorcer could not use the kids as pawns, and would face the possibility that she might not get custody herself. The divorcer could still get custody if there is evidence that the other parent did something bad, like abuse the kids or something — but we would have the presumption of innocence first — something we really like having in most other areas of the justice system. That presumption of innocence is still elusive in family court.
Even if we could enact this change to the family court system, it might still be subverted so long as the basic undercurrent of prejudice against men remains. Men are inherently as good at parenting as women. Men need just as much protection under the law as women. So long as people reject these notions of equality, the people who enact and enforce these laws will find ways to make sure women continue to receive favorable treatment at the expense of men and children.
Requirements for counseling prior to divorce would also be a good idea — but first we would need to change the secular counseling system as well. Right now it adopts a “divorce neutral” attitude despite mounting evidence that divorce is harmful in a multitude of ways. It is equivalent to having a neutral attitude towards whether the earth is round or flat.
We need to see to it that society has support structures for men equal to those women have. In my own case, at one point I went to my local community college’s women’s center for help because there is no equivalent men’s center. They were kind and tried to help, but did not have much they could offer me. The best word I can come up with to describe how I felt going through this process is rape. I felt raped, and I felt like I had to watch my son being raped as well. I felt we were violated, and I felt one person violently imposed her will on us with the aid of the court. I find it hard to believe we have support systems in place for the rapists, but not the victims.
There is a lot that needs to be changed, but there are entire industries built on keeping things as they are. The only hope for change is if people get over the built-in discomfort and start talking about it more.