Opinion: Father Figures

Juan Miguel Gonz‡lez would never have risen to national prominence had he not been the father of an elfin, jug-eared little castaway named Eli‡n, who floated into Florida waters on an inner tube. His mother drowned trying to escape with him from Cuba on a leaky little power boat.

You know the story, and it’s one so overexposed that we would all be happy to consign it to the graveyard of media overkill, except for one thing: the story provides a cautionary tale for feminists. One of the core tenets of feminism is that women can never achieve equality with men until men do their part in the family. And that means doing what we can to encourage responsible fatherhood, in and out of marriage.

Eli‡n Gonz‡lez’s father-who was eventually allowed to take his son back to Cuba-certainly seemed responsible and involved. Yet as Eli‡n’s Miami relatives continued to fight for custody of the boy, the silence from feminists was deafening. Fathers’ rights organizations—which range from reasonable men wanting to share their children’s lives to militant feminist-haters—showed vocal and visible support for Gonz‡lez in his custody battle with the Miami relatives. Why weren’t we more vocal in our support of the father? To use one of our own techniques, turn the situation around. If Eli‡n’s mother were left in Cuba fighting for her son after the father had taken him out of the country, we’d be screaming from the rooftops.

Capitalizing on the visibility of fathers’ rights in the media and public support for Gonz‡lez, conservatives were able to push the Fathers Count Act through the U.S. House of Representatives. The act, which has nothing to do with Eli‡n or his father, establishes a grant program for low-income fathers. It also touts marriage as a one-size-fits-all solution to welfare and poverty and gives money to religious groups to sell the marriage agenda. Groups working to end domestic violence point out that such a law could be dangerous because some men are batterers, and it would be wrong to codify practices that perpetuate abuse of wives and children. On the other hand, with close to half of all marriages ending in divorce, it’s impossible to believe that the majority of divorcing fathers are violent, and it would be wrong to base public policy on the notion that they are. Indeed, Juan Miguel Gonz‡lez is a perfect example. He had no record of abuse to disqualify him from maintaining custody.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a man, by law, owned his wife and children. Feminists at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 petitioned for shared domain over children—joint custody, if you will.

But somewhere on the path to equity in the family, many feminists bought into the polar opposite of father ownership, presuming mothers to be the rightful caretakers of kids.

Though both sides claim bias in the courts, mothers get custody 85 percent of the time-probably because men do not assume equal responsibility for child rearing. However, when men do challenge custody orders, the patchy studies that are available suggest that fathers get custody or joint custody 50 to 55 percent of the time.
In the case of custody disputes, feminists revert to the mother-caretaker/father-provider stereotype all too readily. If more men did share custody, women would have more time to pull themselves up economically after divorce.

In fact, it’s all the more reason for feminists to try to erase the sexism against men found in family courts. Too often judges hand out visitation agreements that don’t work for fathers, and we look the other way when the father is denied time with the kids or the mother moves them far away, effectively ending contact. But we’re first off the block when that same father misses a child-support payment. Is it any wonder that some men join militant fathers’ rights groups whose purpose is to bash feminists and duck child support?




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