Sunday is Fathers’ Day, which brings to mind the “Fathers’ Rights” movement. The New York Times magazine carried a big article (sorry–access will cost you) a few weeks ago about the movement, which is mainly composed of divorced and unmarried dads who believe that the current child-custody system discriminates against male parents.

I’m of two minds about fathers’ rights. On the one hand, I sympathize with divorced fathers when the child’s mother decides, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for pure spite, to move out of state, making visits with the child difficult and costly. Other mothers simply defy courts’ visitation orders, forcing the fathers back to court at great expense in order to be able to see their children. Still other mothers fabricate allegations of child abuse in order to bar the father from contact with his offspring. Some family-court judges may be too credulous in accepting the truth of these charges.

On the other hand, many of the fathers’ rights types with whom I’ve come into contact seem motivated primarily by ongoing anger at their ex-wives, which typically mutates into a generalized hostility toward women in general. Furthermore, many fathers in the movements seem to be using their claims of rights denied to justify their refusal to pay child support. Finally, it is my belief that the best interest of the child–the standard that courts are supposed to use in determining custody and visitation–trumps any claim of “right” by either parent.

Our regular contributor Cathy Seipp has an article about fathers’ rights on the IWF home page, in which she argues that there is a good reason why family-court judges usually award custody of children in divorce cases to mothers: Mothers simply have a natural instinct for nurturing and fostering intimacy with their children. There are exceptions, to be sure, but for most fathers, child-care is a learned art. Cathy writes:

“[F]athers’ rights types find any acknowledgement of these facts of life offensive. Worse, they’re trying to move custody disputes from what’s in the child’s best interest to what’s fair to fathers.

“‘You’re taking one person’s life and ruining it to make another person’s better,” movement leader Michael Newdow told the New York Times. Newdow, an athiest (and apparent control freak) who argued before the Supreme Court last year that every time his daughter says the Pledge of Allegiance with ‘under God’ in it she’s forced ‘to say her father is wrong,’ also laments that ‘women can choose to end a pregnancy but men can’t.’

“Personally, I don’t think Newdow should have any custody or visitation rights regarding his daughter, since he never married her mother — nor should he be therefore required to pay child support. The hard bottom line to these conflicts is that if abortion is legal and ultimately a woman’s decision, then supporting the child should ultimately be the man’s decision — unless he was married to the mother, which involves a contract and therefore an obligation. I can’t see why the state should get involved in disputes outside of state-recognized relationships.

“If we didn’t require unmarried fathers to pay child support, I suspect that the big heads of steam many of these fathers rights guys work up would vaporize. Morally, I think most unmarried fathers probably should help pay for their offspring. But not everything that’s morally correct should be legally required. 

“Among Michael Newdow’s many, many complaints are that he couldn’t take his daughter out hunting for frogs late one night because her mother said no: ‘It’s as bad as slavery.’ The solution, according to Newdow and his allies, is for each parent to make all decisions for the children during their own custodial time — which might sound reasonable for a few seconds until you consider the real-life applications: Mom RSVPs for a birthday party or class outing but the event is scheduled for dad’s time; Dad says that’s his time and he doesn’t feel like chauffering the kid to the activity. Children are reduced to pieces of property (property of their fathers, that is)  — which is indeed how they were historically regarded until the mid-19th Century.

“I suggest that any parent who considers ‘parental rights’ more important than a child’s best interest should be automatically disqualified from being the custodial parent.”

I’ve got to say that I agree with Cathy. What if Michael Newdow had the “right” to raise his child as an atheist on his time, while at the same time, the little girl’s mother, an evangelical Christian, had the “right” to take her to church every Sunday on her time? You can’t cut kids in half Solomon-style, so someone, the family-court judge, has to decide the best place for the child to live, which is usually with the mother. That parent, usually the mother, then ought to be able to decide how to raise the child without interference from the other.

This is why I’m opposed to the concept of “joint custody,” unless both parents agree to it and mutually work out the logistics remembering that their children come first and their personal grievances against each other second. Fortunately, many divorced and unmarried parents are that mature and selfless–but many aren’t.

Divorce is a tragedy, as is unwed parenthood, and one of the parents, perhaps both parents, will end up suffering. The children might not be exposed to the religious faith, or the books, or the art-museum trips that the non-custodial parent might prefer. But the point is to protect the children from suffering, or at the very least, from suffering any more than they must from the absence of a two-parent household. 

On a positive note, don’t miss Charmaine Yoest’s lovely tribute to the positive things that fathers do, also on our home page. Happy Fathers’ Day!