I recently watched a TED talk from a woman who – like me – is a divorce attorney. Unlike me, though, she has built her career on representing dads in divorce and custody cases. Her talk was entirely about the importance of a dad in a kid’s life, and, essentially, all the terrible things that can befall a child who finds himself or herself without a dad.
I get it. I have a dad. I have a godfather, too. And I’m married to a man who is a great father to my children, and I know that his presence in their lives is incredibly important.
It’s very easy to say, in a picture perfect, pie in the sky world, a dad is important. Equally important, even though probably fundamentally incredibly different.
In the TED talk, the presenter said that there were certain questions that mom’s attorneys often used in custody and visitation cases – like, who is the child’s teacher, the child’s pediatrician, etc – where dads tend not to do so well. But she asks other questions – what is the child’s favorite superhero, what scares him, how high can he push his daughter on the swing – where a dad excels.
But I think there’s also some fundamental flaws in this talk. Flaws that not only sell a mom short, but sell the entire divorce process short.
First and foremost, I feel like I have to say this:
A family law attorney is not an expert in child wellness, or development, or mental health.
We’re just not. So, if you’re looking for help on how to help your child weather the divorce, or to establish a healthy relationship with one or both parents, or to succeed at life in general, well, you’re probably not going to find the answers talking to an attorney. A pediatrician, a therapist, a teacher or someone else would be much, much more appropriate. I do suggest you enlist as many professionals as you can to help your children through the process because, regardless of the unique outcome of your specific situation, you children are undoubtedly your biggest concern.
Though I can read reports and tout statistics same as anyone else, the place to really look for information about what is best for your children, in your situation, with your child’s father, is not in an attorney’s office.
And another thing:
A good dad is great. But a bad dad is not.
Look, it’s easy to say, generally and without any specifics, that dads are critical. But not all dads are good dads, and an abusive, neglectful or otherwise bad dad is not good for a kid. And if you’re feeling like, for whatever reason, you really need to pursue some kind of custody arrangement that maybe doesn’t include him, or includes him to a lesser degree, you should feel comfortable at least asking the questions and getting the answers.
It’s never easy to find that you’ve married or had children with a man who is a terrible dad, especially if you’ve been blindsided.
Physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse are real; it happens. It’s gaslighting to pretend that it doesn’t, or to suggest to you that a dad’s role is so critical that you should allow him access to your children without at least attempting to protect them through the judicial process. The courts aren’t perfect in this respect, and you may find that you’re facing an expensive uphill battle, if you make allegations like these, but, as a mother, sometimes you also have no choice at all.
Maybe he’s an alcoholic, or a drug addict. Maybe he has serious, untreated mental health concerns. It’s not like a dad is a dad is a dad, and they’re all the same. There are bad dads. There are bad moms, too – my critics, or advocates for father’s rights groups, will point that out as if it negates the fact that there are bad dads out there. There are parents who do more harm than good, and you probably already know that, if you find yourself in this camp, you cannot ignore it.
It’s not easy. These cases are challenging. And you’ll want to work with an experienced attorney, but you should at least have the opportunity to ask your questions, get your answers, and make choices accordingly. You should feel that you’ve been heard, that you’re not dismissed out of hand, and that your attorney has the time, energy and attention to devote to your concerns. Maybe the answers you get won’t be ones that you like, particularly, but keep in mind that custody and visitation are always modifiable on a material change, too. So, if the judge isn’t convinced on the first go-round, it’s not game over.
And that brings me to my third point, which is this:
Good dads are important – but so are the mother’s socioeconomics.
In fact, money is one of the biggest concerns for a mom in divorce.
It’s all well and fine to say a dad is important. But there are other considerations that affect how divorce impacts a child, and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the biggest factors is the socioeconomics of the mother.
In the TED talk, the speaker addressed homelessness, criminal convictions, and the overall academic success of children without dads. Though I’m sure her statistics are correct, I’d be curious about how many of the mothers of those children lived in poverty. Is it a lack of a dad that causes issues, or poverty?
Studies also show that children suffer when their families live below the poverty line. Single mothers are more likely, as a demographic, than any other group to live in poverty. Divorce is one of the life events that might lead to that point – to a single mom living in poverty, while her children suffer.
So, as far as I’m concerned, a mother has to protect her children, but she also has to protect herself. In many ways, the divorce process is a protection in and of itself. But a consideration of the mother, beyond custody and visitation, has to be the financial arrangements, including spousal support (or alimony), division of the retirement assets, child support, and real estate.
Making good, informed decisions can help set you up for a post divorce life that allows you to support your children. I’m not saying that we can make magic here; if the money just doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist. But I am saying that you shouldn’t ever accept less than your due for the sake of getting the custody and visitation arrangement that you want. If nothing else, remember that custody and visitation are MODIFIABLE, but the terms of your agreement (or court order) as it relates to your finances are NOT modifiable.
There’s a lot to unpack here. And you may have concerns above and beyond these I’ve listed here, but I think it’s important that you don’t let guilt, or the desire to NOT get a divorce, trap you in an unhappy, unhealthy situation. Ask the questions. Get the answers. Formulate a plan that takes your needs and priorities – and those of your children – into account. You have to protect yourself, and you have to protect them.
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