Whenever we criticize the “fathers’ rights” movement, we get e-mails from…the fathers’ rights movement. This is as it should be. Unlike many an ideological website (e.g. the National Organization for Women), we welcome and gladly post dissenting views here at the IWF. Of course we reserve the right to throw in our own two cents–but our readers should feel free to continue the debate.

Our view of the fathers’ rights movement is: Sure, mothers going through divorce can be jerks, too–but that’s no reason for laws requiring family-court judges to bat the children back and forth between warring parents’ households like shuttlecocks in a badminton game–so Dad can tell the kids that Mom’s religion is bunk when he’s got them, while Mom can assure them that Dad’s going straight to hell when they’re with her. We also believe that young children generally belong with their mothers (when there are no issues of maternal fitness), who are biologically programmed for nurturing and fostering intimacy.

Last Friday, my Fathers’ Rights–and Children’s (June 17) made those points, as did our regular contributor Cathy Seipp (see her But Dad Can’t Do It All).

I wrote:

“…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.”

Cathy wrote:

“The solution [offered by the fathers’ rights movement]…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.”

Teri Stoddard, who runs the EgalitarianFeminist4Fathers blog, disagrees. She sent us this curt e-mail:

“I find the piece called ” Fathers’ Rights–And Children’s” offensive. I would appreciate it if you published or posted one or both of my articles.”

The links to Teri’s posts are here and here. They’re long, so I’m going to quote a couple of excerpts:

“Three of my children are in that 40 percent, the kids who never see their dads. They had fathers who it seemed, simply walked out of their lives. The thing to note is that of the four men, it was the three who I divorced, the three who had to deal with the family court system and the state child support enforcement who went missing, not the man who fathered a child with me when we were both unmarried, who wrote a parenting plan with me without involving the court system. I’ve successfully co-parented with that man for 18 years.”

“What I’ve learned in the last three years in the movement is that children want equal access to both of their parents and that parents of both genders want equal access to their children. I’ve learned that studies show children adjust to divorce best when they maintain the same level of contact with their parents as they had before the divorce and that in some cases shared parenting can actually reduce conflict between parents. I learned that other unmarried parents could successfully co-parent, even if they didn’t think they could. And I learned that society supports shared parenting and equal custody.”

You’re absolutely right, Teri, and Judith Wallerstein, author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, would agree with you: Children want the same level of contact with both their parents that they had before the divorce. That is to say, they don’t want their parents to divorce. That’s why parents ought to think twice about putting their own happiness, or imagined happiness, above the desire of their children to grow up in an intact family. I’ve been a reporter for many years, and I’ve never talked to a child of divorce who didn’t wish the divorce had never taken place.

Nonetheless, divorce happens, and there are many reasons why it can be the only option, such as domestic abuse or family abandonment. And, yes, the “co-parenting” or “shared parenting” that you extol, Teri, is the arrangement that all divorced or unwed parents should strive for. Questions of support, visitation, education, religion, and living arrangements for the children are all questions that the parents should arrive at by mutual agreement. No court need ever get involved. The converse is that no court can ever force co-parenting on two people who refuse to put their ideological differences and bad feelings about each other aside and who don’t know how to compromise on small stuff for the sake of agreement on the things that count. Efforts to shove joint custody down the throats of unwilling parents just don’t work–and they make the children miserable. Notice, Teri, that the testimonials on the shared parenting website whose link you e-mailed us, are all from parents who set up their arrangements voluntarily and made them work. Unfortunately, too many divorcing or unmarried parents have too many issues with each other to make decent co-parents.

I’ll let Cathy have the last word:    

“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. Parental rights are an absurd notion in relation to children anyway. It’s certainly a basic human right not be awakened several times a night by someone screaming at you — any guard who made the same demands on prisoners that all infants make on their parents would violate the Geneva Convention several times over — but if that ‘right’ took precedence over the child’s right to be cared for, humanity would have died out long ago.”