Monday, December 21, 2009

Daddy Custody: Another Loss for Feminism?

Mrs. Unknown considers me a feminist, and, aside from my damn-near ritualistic objectification of women, I'd tend to agree. For the vast majority of my adult life, you could find me Feminism's amen corner, agreeing vociferously with whatever the womyn said. However, I'm starting to wonder if I'm growing more and more conservative with age because I find myself growing less and less in agreement with more things feminists have to say. A wonderful case in point would be last month's feature on Michel Martin's Tell Me More when she had a panel of feminists talking about the rise in fathers' winning custody of their children in divorce settlements.

Basically, with women's gains in the workplace, garnering promotions and subsequent financial remuneration, they are more steadily becoming their families' breadwinners and their men are taking on more child-rearing responsibilities, some even becoming their children's primary caregiver. As a result, when such families go to divorce court, a growing number of these men are winning primary custody of their children.

Though light-years away from divorce myself, I did take an especial interest in the feature. As many of you who have read the ongoing Poohbutt Chronicles know, for some time I was a "stay-at-home-ish" dad. We felt it important that Pooh be home for her first year of life, and, if we could swing it, one of us would stay home with her. It was something I desperately wanted to give my wife, providing for her to stay home, but since I'm still a bum and unknown writer (see the title to this blog), it just wasn't possible. Mrs. Unknown is the breadwinner here. But, since my job is incredibly flexible (if not at all profitable), I stayed home with the kid for 12 hours a day and then worked a few hours at night, then on Saturdays, and the occasional Sunday. It was exhausting but well worth it. Those 16 months Pooh and I stayed together were the greatest gift any man can ask for. I hope one day to possibly be able to return the favor.

So, listening to Tell Me More that day, I was encouraged to hear there were more men like me shedding old gender stereotypes and stepping up to raise their kids. I was also encouraged to hear that the courts were gradually willing to accept that men could indeed fulfill that role--despite the consistently reinforced media message that we are complete, incompetent, bumbling idiots in that arena.

Of course, the women on Tell Me More were in exact opposition to my cheery Mr. Mom viewpoint. They saw these recent court decisions as a punishment against working mothers. They said that, despite feminism's gains, the court still viewed a woman's proper place to be the home. Therefore, if a women had the cojones to work outside the home while having children needing to be raised and have the temerity to earn more than their hubbies, judges were going to castrate these harpies by giving their kids away to their former men. They viewed this new child-custody trend as yet another defeat for feminism.

I don't know if I'm just being a contrarian here, but I actually view it as feminism's victory.

Despite the myths that we've been raised with, it's not as though women did not work outside the home before the '60s/'70s' iteration of the feminist movement. It's just that it was assumed that middle-class women would return home after they got married. Those who didn't were just assumed to be helping their husbands make ends meet. Therefore, women were stuck wading in secretarial pools and other "pink collar" jobs. It was assumed that they either did not possess the ambition, qualifications, and/or character to move up the corporate ladder.

The feminist movement did away with such stereotypes. There is still work to be done. Glass ceilings do still exist, but female doctors, lawyers, and executives are no longer people who raise eyebrows.

Feminism has gradually changed the workplace--though not as rapidly as we would like here in the States. There's still a lot of work to be done with maternity and family leave and childcare. Oh, to be Europe! But it has changed it so much that even men are asking for such things from their employers.

Some men are even asking it of themselves in the home. Though American women are still tasked with most household duties, it is changing for the better. According to a study published last year by the Council on Contemporary Families: "The average woman – employed full or part time – with children is doing two hours less housework per week than in 1965." So, there is a struggle for gender equity going on within the American home. So much so, there are even men willing to stay at home to take on primary caregiving responsibilities.

The fact that the courts are acknowledging these changes and granting men custody is not a sign of defeat for feminism, it is actually the fruits of feminism's victory. While I believe that gender roles have never been static, I think gender role stereotypes generally have been. Women were always supposed to stay home and tend to the house and children while the men always went out there and earned for their families. So, while feminists were out there tearing down the assumptions for the former, they created and encouraged the dismantling of the former.

This is not a zero-sum game, where feminists' victories created men's own defeat. In fact, I think both sexes have gained immeasurably by feminism's gains. In other words, the striving for equality can eventually bring about said equality. It does not confer equality while retaining certain privileges--making one side "more equal" than the other. If a woman is no longer assumed to be inferior in the workplace, it can also mean that she will no longer be assumed to be the superior mistress of the homefront. If a woman can be a CEO, why can't a man cook the meals, change the diapers, and provide "Daddy kisses" to magically heal all booboos?

One panelist complained that judges didn't understand that "a Mommy never stops being a Mommy." What she failed to understand is that a caring father never stops "being a Daddy," either. I know I sure as hell don't.

The main point of this argument, which one panelist pointed out, is that divorce simply is not fair. People are always punished for terminating the marriage contract. It's not fair to the father. It's not fair to the mother. It's not fair to the breadwinner nor the primary caregiver. Each side will have legitimate gripes before, during, and after any divorce settlement. But, most importantly, it is not fair to the children--who never, ever had any say in their parents' getting married nor procreating nor splitting up and forcing them to divide their homes, loyalties, and lives between their feuding parents.

Therefore, the paramount issue in any custody battle is not whether the working mother or stay-at-home father (or vice versa or whatever mutation each side happens to take) are being punished here because no matter how you slice it (absent of abuse, of course) the children are the ones who are ultimately punished here. The primary issue is in whose home will their lives find the most benefit. So, in all honesty, I find it an encouraging sign that our courts are more carefully weighing each family's individual circumstance as opposed to simply relying on steadily "outmoding" gender stereotypes to determine where a child will be happiest.


Terri said...

Couldn't agree with you more. I see feminism as working toward gender equality, not just equality for women. I also think there's room in the movement for healthy debate.

Thanks for the post!

Kristen {RAGE against the MINIVAN} said...

Yep! I agree too. It has to go both ways.