My son is with me three to four days a week. I am responsible for getting him to school and picking him up. I do his laundry. I pack his lunch. We do his homework together. I read to him as he falls off to sleep. My son and I have a wonderful and deeply rewarding relationship and I have fought hard to insure that he remains in my life on an almost daily basis. For all intents and purposes his mother and I equally share the work of raising him. She is a wonderful mother. And I am a wonderful mother, too. There is not a single task typically gendered as “woman’s work” that I do not do. Sometimes when my son comes back to me from his mother’s house, he will call me mother a few times. I smile when this happens. For me, this is not an error, it is an affirmation.
But I will also say this. I stay firmly in my son’s life because I know that financial support is only one part of what will insure he can thrive. The relationships he has with both his birth parents—the valuation of which the court system has neither the manpower nor the expertise to quantify—are central to his development and well-being. And generationally, seeing his father as a caretaker as well as a wage earner will shift his view of what men are and how they can express emotion, connection and purpose.
As a divorced father, I know that payment of child support is an obligation I must fulfill. I am willing to do so because I understand that my son’s life experience is directly informed by that support and by all the other issues that go more smoothly when that support is in place. My reliable child support payments impact everything from my relationship with his mother to the access my son has to events and activities.
It’s important to note, however, that if the court thought my son’s child support was calculated to cover all his costs, it does not. None of what was allocated to my son’s care by the court is spent when my son is with me. I provide those funds additionally. And because I have chosen to focus on raising my son, my income level continues to be reduced. It is a trade off every co-parenting dad confronts. Being expected to provide financial support to his former spouse’s parenting while his daily work as a parent is financially invisible in the eyes of the court.
For generations, women have been battered by male privilege. Men have abused their position of power and walked away from their responsibilities. It is a narrative that continues to inform most of our ideas about children of divorce. “What if the dad fails to pay?” It also creates a model (changing slowly) where the default is that the mother serves as full time custodial parent and the father exits daily parenting to work and provide financial support. Yes, a child must be guaranteed adequate financial support, insuring safe and comfortable housing, education, and nutrition. But shouldn’t that responsibility fall to both parents?
In a time when more and more dads are not only paying child support but are co-parenting, the issue of who spends that child support should be reexamined. Yes, we need laws that address the longstanding issue of fathers who do not fulfill their obligations to their children. But we must also be mindful that the leading edge of positive parenting change not be blunted by these laws that unfairly punish divorced dads who are committed to co-parenting. Co-parenting that directly benefits our children, our families and our society.
We need new legal frameworks nationwide that encourage and value vibrant co-parenting and shared custody arrangements, putting in place more flexible, adaptive and sustainable divorce agreements that grow out of the life affirming spirit of collaborative divorce. Our legal system needs to empower fully engaged co-parenting dads and moms as equal partners in raising their kids. These parents should be paying into and receiving a fair share of designated child support funds and other rights based on what they are committed to do in support of their kids and their new post-divorce families.
We must create space, culturally and legally for the deeply humane and admirable child raising solutions that are evolving all around us. Or risk killing the very change we are seeking to create.