November 18, 2009

Working Mother Fans Sexist Hysteria Over Child Custody

Wow. I am just blown away by the incredibly sexist premise and alarming tone of Sally Abrahms' article in Working Mother magazine about supposed changes in divorce and family law. The magazine considers dads' increased involvement in parenting to be an shocking, unfair, new threat to women because family court judges might not be granting moms, particularly working moms, automatic custody of their kids as much as they used to.

The reality--surprise--turns out to be more complicated, but you wouldn't know it from the article. If I didn't know what a hopeless traffic-generating strategy it would be, I'd think Working Mother was deliberately flame-baiting dadblogs with an unnecessarily provocative attempt to discredit dads as either equal or primary caregivers.

Because that's exactly how it sounds. The only two anecdotes are uncritically and unabashedly spun from the mom's POV. Could you imagine the outrage that would rightly ensue if a mom who "had agreed to stay home with the kids so [her husband] could build [his] business" was painted as a lazy, unemployed deadbeat "for failing to help support them"?

And yet Working Mother's editor in chief was on NPR's "Tell Me More" yesterday when the guy was called exactly that. Then Mommy Warmonger Leslie Morgan Steiner cited her own kidless divorce from her crazy first husband as evidence of an epidemic of overburdened courts granting sole custody to child abusers. [Abrahms' article doesn't address abuse at all, actually; its claim is primarily that women will be "punished" in divorce court for working.]

Abrahms' most incendiary experts are celebrity divorce quote machines like Raoul Felder and--seriously--Britney Spears' lawyer. As amusing as it would be to see someone argue that K-Fed getting custody and child support constitutes a looming crisis for American Families, I can't see how Brit-Brit's lawyer has any credibility on large-scale cultural or legal shifts that affect real people.

Here are the three actual, factual changes Abrahms hangs her argument on:

The "tender years doctrine," a court presumption that mothers are the more suitable parent for children under 7, was abolished in most states in 1994...
Actually, the tender age ranged from 10 to 13, but it actually started disappearing in the 1970s, when courts repeatedly found it violated the equal protection clause of the constitution. The abolition of the statute on paper, if not in practice, led to the "best interest of the child" standard and the creation of joint custody. In other words, the basic divorce landscape of the last thirty-plus years. A history of these changes and how they are so closely intertwined with the rights and fights of working mothers might have been interesting and illuminating. So would a look at how divorce and custody has changed since all our parents did it. But that's not what Working Mother wanted.
...And, due in large part to the recession, women are poised to outnumber men in the workforce for the first time in American history. Job layoffs affecting more men than women have yielded a burgeoning crop of Mr. Moms.

"Men are now able to argue that they spend more time with the kids than their working wives do," says veteran New York City divorce attorney Raoul Felder. "This is one of the dark sides of women's accomplishments in the workplace--they're getting a raw deal in custody cases, while men are being viewed more favorably."

This is the real hook, the recession, and a warning to working women thinking of divorce that they might get "a raw deal."
Today, it's not uncommon for fathers seeking sole custody in a contested case to prevail at least 50 percent of the time. And Dad is asking for joint or primary custody more and more: Over the past decade, the number of fathers awarded custody of their children has doubled, according to the latest data. In the current generation of dads, gender doesn't dictate who changes a diaper or consoles an infant. And as fathers become more entrenched in their roles as cocaregiver, they're less willing to hand off that role when a marriage breaks down.
This is the crux of the crisis for Working Mother: the insidious "entrenchment" by dads into their kids' lives leads dads to want to stay involved after a divorce. Not that there is any actual study cited, or any detail about the data referred to, or any detail or context about other factors in these unnumbered custody cases.

The last paragraphs of the 6-page article feel like they're from an alternate universe i.e., they have actually positive, constructive advice for parents going through divorce: avoid court, especially for custody issues. Don't let anger at your ex drive your custody decisions.

Since it's obvious from the article but unacknowledged, I would add: "muzzle the lawyers who are the source for the most denigrating, combative, retrograde characterizations of the parents in question. Like Britney's lawyer, who literally whipsaws from "A mother's career can be a liability in custody battles... I have made that argument myself: 'Mom's not home--she's out working.'" to sounding like the sweet voice of reason: "[Their dad] is the one other person in the world who cares most about your kids." Too bad the editors of Working Mother only see dads as the deadbeat demons plotting with the courts to steal a mother's children.

Family Focus | Custody Lost [workingmother.com via their publicist]
Working Mothers Sometimes Frowned Upon In Custody Battles [npr.org]

13 Comments

What a bunch of crap!

A part of me wants to get all worked up about this and then I read a sentence like: "Today, it’s not uncommon for fathers seeking sole custody in a contested case to prevail at least 50 percent of the time." What does that even mean. There's an implication of a statistical analysis but the comment could be backed up by virtually any data. There may be a trend here but it's neither convincing nor as disturbing as the anger and sexism underlying the article.

what are you talking about? "the number of fathers awarded custody of their children has doubled, according to the latest data." the numbers don't lie! case closed!

Like most everything else in the parenting magazine world, I was fully prepared to ignore this article, but then not thirty minutes after I read and hated it, EIC Suzanne Riss was on NPR mmhmming all the worst possible distillations and implications of the story. Just outrageously irresponsible.

In my friends' cases, it seemed like it depended on what state you were in, what court, how small a town...

Case #1: Big city, CA... Mother gets 1/2 custody of boy and girl after divorce. Beats son and takes drugs. Loses custody of both. Petitions, gets 50% custody back of both. WHY?

Case #2: Small town WA... Mom cheats on husband, gets divorced. Husband works his buddy connections to get 100% custody of only boy. Mom out of the picture with little recourse.

I think it's hateful to continue to treat fathers (esp ones these days who ARE more involved) like they are interlopers. Just because I'm the mom doesn't mean I would be the ONLY choice for full custody, if it came to an all or nothing custody situation. It should be clear-cut if one parent is abusive or neglectful, but if both are caring and involved (working or not), WTF? What's the question here? 50-50, folks.

Great post Greg, outrage suits you.

You didn't comment on the fact that the article used the phrase "Mr Moms." That tells me they've lost the argument already. It's like calling someone Hitler. (See Godwin's Law.)

thanks, but no thanks. as my wife will surely confirm, I was a total bitch last night while I was writing this.

Surely, Greg, you don't need to use sexist slang while commenting on sexism in the law/media...

I assume you mean 'hysteria,' which I clearly understand to be a gendered word. It seemed apt.

I'm not sure what BB is talking about with sexist slang. I didn't see any. hmmm. anyway, You're my hero for writing such a comprehensive rebuttal while putting forth such a strong case for Dads. Thank you! I've been a stay at home dad for 5 years and I'm hardly lazy like so many moms have told me through the years. I also homeschool my kids and maintain a reasonably popular blog. Yeah, lazy I'm not. Thanks again

BB surely meant Greg calling himself a "bitch" while writing the post.

oh. sorry.

I can't help but think that you're right, Greg: this is yellow journalism at its lowest, the drumbeating loons at Working Mother shouting "Remember The Maine!" at dad writers and bloggers.

Maybe dad's are fighting more for thier kids because they are more involved ( is that a bad thing to this woman?). If they weren't more involved she would be complaining about that. This women strikes me as the type who would try to take the kids away from the dad even if he was a great dad.

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