In recent weeks, I seem to have become a bloke magnet. Two weeks ago at the State Library cafe and one night last week at my usual watering hole, I’ve had men in my ear. Sweet men, sad men, vulnerable men – some recently divorced, others single for years – crooning variations on the same tragic tale. A tale about children they love but no longer see.
Once, I would have called them deadbeat dads. My own parents split when I was young but my father maintained scrupulous contact with my brother and me, and was dismissive of men who didn’t. And I knew the facts: that about 30 per cent of Aussie kids rarely or ever see the father who doesn’t live with them; and that before 1989, when the law gave men a choice about chipping in financially to support their children, only about one-third did. But as I listened to the stories of these grieving men, the moral issue was no longer clear. There is no shortage of grievances, legitimate and otherwise, when a couple splits. But when fathers want to share care of their children but
are granted access only on weekends – leaving the Child Support Agency as the only institution affirming the role of men in their children’s lives post-divorce – something seems amiss.
“I was more than a wallet to those children,” the man in the cafe told me. “I parented them.” Later, a diary he had kept of his daughter’s first words and subsequent language development would arrive in the mail: proof of his commitment and grief.
The bloke at the bar, let’s call him Barry, was less certain of what he had to offer to his daughter who is three, no four, no three. He hadn’t seen her in years. “I don’t even have a place to live at the moment,” he confessed. “Had all my ID stolen a few months ago and been couch-surfing for the past three weeks.”
I heard the rest of his sentence as if he’d spoken it aloud. “I wouldn’t be good for her, anyway.”
“She told me to bugger off,” he continued, speaking of his former partner, a girl he’d got pregnant, then agreed to support. He sipped his beer primly before cracking a wooden smile. “So I did.”
But here’s the real question. Does the fact that many men feel sad when made to feel surplus to requirements in their own children’s life – disenfranchised by the legal system or their former spouse – mean they’ve been wronged?
Not necessarily. The terrible truth is that when relationships break down, what is in the best interests of children may not be what’s best for men.
Research by Australian researcher Jennifer McIntosh finds that shared care is not the best arrangement for very young children and only works well for older kids where parents are emotionally mature and get along well. Men incapable of resolving the substance abuse, anger management or emotional issues that can contribute to relationship breakdown in the first place may not be the best influence on children, including their own.
And according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, there is “compelling evidence” that it is parental conflict and the negative economic consequences of divorce, not fatherlessness per se, that is costly for children of divorce.
Deadbeat dads, or desperate, defeated and driven-away ones? You decide.
Tales of desperate, defeated or just deadbeat The Sydney Morning Herald