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So you want to be more than a Weekend Warrior Dad? Fighting for Father’s Rights – Part One

Part Two of this 2-Part Post is found Here

Years ago at a family celebration, after observing me with our four-year-old son, my aunt said to me, “You’re JR’s primary caregiver, aren’t you?” After I got over a seventy-something woman using the term “caregiver,” I was surprised that it was so obvious.

My wife and I are partners, but with our youngest boy I have always been the one who took the lead. I was the one who instantly woke up when I heard him call out at night, or heard the thump two floors above during the day. He was a sleep walker, and I would wake from a sound sleep hearing his door open. I changed countless diapers.  I did the early morning feedings and changings. He brought his new creations to me to show. I went on all the school field trips, and until middle school was always the parent involved (my wife took over in middle school, where she became a force to be reckoned with in the PTA and fund raising). I fixed his boo-boos. He still cries on my shoulder, not mom’s (I won’t embarrass him by giving his age now).  I had the luxury of working from home so was always there for him.  I sang him to sleep and calmed his nightmares.

Yes, dads can be primary caregivers, even for young children.  I’m living proof.

There was an ad campaign in 1968 for women, linked with images of women’s progress that proclaimed, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Unfortunately, it was for a cigarette for women. Looking back over 40 years later we know that women have certainly come a long way from the roles that they were expected to perform and limited to through much of history.

Yet stereotypes about roles men and women fill in life remain, and these stereotypes impact how the rights of fathers are mishandled by lawyers and the courts today.  There still remains enough reality to traditional roles to support this prejudice, however, making it more invidious.

In our “enlightened” society too often fathers are still seen in the role of secondary caregivers for children, particularly young children. There is a bias in many courts that young children especially need to spend the majority of their time with their mother who is “better suited” to care for them.

Like many stereotypes, this one has a basis in reality. Frankly, most dads in my experience are willing to let mom handle the majority of the child raising responsibilities while dad takes care of his work and starts his new life, integrating the kids on his schedule.  This is true whether mom works or not.

If you are a dad who will be content to have mom take care of the kids most of the time and you will have them a night or two a week and every other weekend and alternating holidays, then read no further.

If you are more concerned about the time the court assigns you for support calculations than actually being involved in raising your kids, most attorneys can serve you well.

You will find that this is what the courts and most lawyers will produce almost by rote.

But if you are a dad who wants to be actively involved in your kids’ lives, who doesn’t want his gender to be the dominant factor in the court deciding who the primary parent should be, then read on.

Recognizing that there is a bias against you is a start.

American culture actually celebrates bias against fathers. Watch TV on any given night. Start with the commercials, then move to the “family comedies.” In most depictions in ads or comedy, dads are buffoons or befuddled. Kids know so much more than out-of-touch dads. Moms are practical and work around the impractical dad to hold the family together and make everything work.

My father first pointed this out to me over 30 years ago. It’s not anything new.

What does this matter for your divorce? In a culture steeped in disrespect for fathers, there is an unthinking prejudice, an unconscious bias against dads that people bring with them to their daily decisions.

Replace “dads” with any other group. Would advertisers feel that they could successfully market their products by making fun of how stupid and impractical mothers are? Or replace dads with specific minorities such as African Americans or Native Americans? The disabled? Muslims? Jews? Hindi? Would these groups be caricatured in the same way on such a regular basis with no backlash or outcry?

The fact that American society tolerates such a stereotype and it apparently sells products (why else would it be continued for decades?) means that it is an accepted archetype.

Dads (of every race, color and creed) are somehow less competent than moms. Dads don’t fight back. We grin and bear it. Ha ha. Very funny. And we buy their product after they insult us.

Men are not necessarily less competent than women in other areas in life in commercials or comedies. These same dads may be shown coming home in a nice car to a nice house to a mom who appears to be a homemaker – so he is apparently financially successful. But as a dad he is less competent than the mom.

Our culture also celebrates the “single mom” but rarely the “single dad.”  The single mom is honored by politicians and other public figures, in TV specials and by song and movies.  To be sure, many (most?) single moms face special challenges, often caused by “deadbeat dads” who neglect their duties and responsibilities as fathers.  But those dads are not you, and you should not be demeaned, overlooked or tarred by the brush of their irresponsibility.

The title of “single mom” which is bestowed on any mother in divorce who doesn’t instantly remarry after judgment should not influence the court any more than your title as “single dad” does.  You face your own unique challenges, some shared with mom, some different but just as daunting.

No judge is going to articulate this to you. No attorney, on your side or opposing counsel, will make this argument. But it lies underneath your entire case.

You had better understand it. This is the elephant in the room, the cultural bias you must overcome if you want to effectively assert your rights as a father and win the time with your children that you want and deserve.

Dads are not as good at raising kids as moms. It’s built into our culture.  It’s an assumption that underlies decisions made by judges every day in courts across the state of California.

And it’s nonsense!

You need a lawyer who understands that and rejects that bias, who will fight for you to win the custody rights you want and deserve.

Now – how do you go about doing that in your divorce?

Continued in Part 2

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So you want to be more than a Weekend Warrior Dad? Fighting for Father’s Rights – Part Two

Continued from “Fighting for Father’s Rights – Part One”

Recognizing that there is a cultural bias against dads, which cannot help but seep into the subconscious of lawyers and even judges, your next step is figuring out how you deal with the problem.

I’ll list some steps, not in order of priority or even execution; they are all part of a cohesive plan you need to consider. Whatever stage you are in the divorce process (thinking about it, filing on your own, just got served, have a lawyer, have a lawyer you are unhappy with, have been handling divorce on your own and realize you are in over your head, etc.), here are the essential steps:

1. Locate and retain the right lawyer who understands your desires and needs as far as your kids are concerned, and who will fight for your rights

2. Document, document, document

3. Plan your life around your kids and work

Again, depending on where you are in the process, the order you do these will vary. You may start with 1 and work through them in order. Or you may start with 2 and 3 simultaneously and then move on to 1, and so on.

I’ll address them in numerical order, but you have to use them based on your own life situation.

1. Locate and retain the right lawyer who understands your desires and needs as far as your kids are concerned, and who will fight for your rights

There are a lot of fine family law lawyers out there (and a lot of terrible ones). If you are a dad who really wants to maximize your time with your kids because of a deep-seated desire to be a part of their life rather than wanting to minimize the amount of child support you pay, you want to be careful how you approach hiring your attorney.

Most attorneys who have been practicing family law long enough to become competent (10-15 years) become somewhat jaded. Their experience is that most working dads want to minimize child support while having some quality time with the kids, generally on weekends and maybe one or two nights a week. They want some time in the summer and alternating holidays. They are “Disneyland Dads” who want the fun times without all the worries about homework and driving to and from soccer practice and sitting up with sick kids and clothes shopping and getting them up and fed and to school.

This fits a lot of dads, who have gotten used to mom taking care of these things while they work during the marriage. Even in families where both parents work, here in the 21st century this stereotype often still holds true.  I’m sorry, feminists and emos and enlightened males, we’re still not that far from Ozzie and Harriet in terms of traditional roles in a lot of cases.  If you want to break that mold, you have to step up your game and show the Court you can handle it.

It is a system of role models that harkens back to when Og left the cave hunting each day while Ug stayed with the little trolls. We say how far we’ve come but that model still persists with variations a good majority of the time.  It’s the major reason we have to fight against the bias in the court system.

And lawyers see it most of the time with their male clients, so they aren’t necessarily sensitive to the dads who want more, and are not skilled and prepared to fight for them.

How can you spot a lawyer who truly understands you and your desire to be more than just a Disneyland Dad?

Tell your story and see how they respond.

One of the major ways to choose your divorce lawyer is how you emotionally connect, because this is a person you will be exposing to the deepest personal parts of your life. You will need to trust her or him and they will need to trust you. You want to be confident in their intelligence, skills and experience, but also need to be able to relate to them.

Don’t be afraid to explain what your children mean to you, how important they are to you, and how much you want them to be in your life. Explain how you want to make them a priority.

Moms do this all the time. They will come in and say “I don’t care about the money, all I care about is the children.” They are wrong, whether they know it or not (money is always important, if only to provide for their kids), but it’s a common theme I hear from moms.

Not so much from dads. Even when the kids are very important, they come in and their spoken concerns are almost always all about money first, about how much this will cost, about what will they end up paying her.

Before you meet with lawyers, get your priorities straight. Money is huge, no doubt about it. But your kids are… huger. Lead with your kids, and see how the attorney reacts.

If they are puzzled, then they probably aren’t for you. If you see a spark of understanding, if they nod and express some agreement or understanding, then you may have found someone who will be as dedicated to getting your result as you are.

Explain what you are able to do with your work and life schedule, and what you want out of custody – joint legal and physical, half time with you and mom, how you can make this happen. Go in with a plan (more on that in point 3). See their reaction. See if they come up with ideas on the spot to make your plan better or acknowledgement that they can make that plan work for the judge.

If they tell you that the courts rarely give joint physical custody, that your kids are too young, blah blah blah, you probably don’t have someone who will fight to get you what you want. A dash of caution, an acknowledgement of the bias is OK, a bucket of cold water is a flashing warning sign.  Better to move on and interview some more lawyers to find a better advocate for you and your kids.

2. Document, document, document

This is critical to all phases of your divorce, but parents often don’t think about it with their children, or may even think it is tacky. If you are separated, or even if you are not, you should keep careful records of the time you spend with your kids.

This may prove critical in supporting your claims that you are a primary caregiver or co-parent. Given the court’s natural tendency to assume that the mother does most caregiver duties, especially for very young children, keep a record (it can be hand-written on a calendar, or recorded on your phone or tablet or computer, or in a binder – however is most convenient) on a daily basis of what you do with your kids.

Record as much detail as possible.

     Monday 10/2

     Got kids up at 7

     Prepared breakfast and lunches for school

     Drove to school

     Took late lunch, picked up from school 2:45, took to sitter

     Suzy had bad cough, left work early took her to Urgent Care 4:30

I’ve had very good luck with toddlers and even infants with neglectful mothers when dads have kept logs of neglect and their care:

     Jan 20           Sharon showed up on doorstep with Clara, said could not care for her asked if I could take her for now

     Feb 12        Sharon only visited Clara once since 1/20.  Clara eating regularly now.  Rash cleared up. Wearing proper size diapers now, was in too small when dropped off.  We read every night. She points to words and I read and she laughs.

     Feb 15      Took Clara to nurse practitioner friend for checkup. Completely healthy.

     Feb 17       Have been able to rearrange work schedule so Clara always with me. Everybody loves Clara, many “aunts and uncles” to look after her in her play area when I have to step away

Record events, times you spend with them, the mundane as well as the big deals. You want to show that you help with the homework, not just the trips to the amusement parks. You want to record the dentist trips, not just the movie nights. Driving them to Staples to get the poster board for the science fair is probably more important than the amusement park.

Also note where you’ve been flexible, covering for mom when she asked. Flexibility whenever possible is important, not only because it is a reasonable thing to do as a parent, it helps your kid out, and it looks good to the court, but you will need it yourself at times and you don’t want mom to say “Remember when you said ‘No’ when I really needed you?  Payback is a bitch.”

Judges want to see mom and dad acting like adults, setting aside their personal animosities that generally accompany divorce to work together for the sake of the children. If you can demonstrate that, even if she cannot, you stand a better chance of getting what you want from the judge. Document that as best you can, as often as you can.

Keep a file of events, pictures, handwritten notes, copies of permission slips, programs of field trips you went on, etc. Take pictures of documents on your phone or tablet if you need to. If the kid comes back from a visit with mom and she is incredibly filthy, take a picture. No scanner? Take pictures of permission slips, etc. Be prepared as much as possible to show how active you have been in the kid’s lives, so when the judge says, “You’re a busy man with a job, how can you have half time or more with these kids?” your lawyer can pull out the documents and say, “Here’s how, your Honor.”

3. Plan your life around your kids and work

If you are still reading this, you are either really into pain or really love your kids and want to be a big part of their lives going forward.

That will mean setting priorities in your life, with work and your kids coming first. You may have a significant other by this time (who may even be the cause of the divorce), but at least for the divorce proceedings you need to work with them to understand that they will need to make some sacrifices and fit into your twin priorities of work and kids.

If your kids love your new partner, this may not be a problem. If you are wealthy and work is not an issue, again your partner may not be a problem.

Often, however, there is at least some friction between a new love interest and children. It can be a real test of a relationship to see if your new love is flexible enough to understand that your kids must come first for the time being.  Your new partner, as the adult, must be the one to make accommodations, not the children.  And you want to keep your new amour out of the picture and unmentioned with the Court wherever possible.  Generally if they get mentioned in a court proceeding it doesn’t help you.

The harsh reality is that your kids will always be your kids. You cannot be certain how long your partner will be with you. Your divorce tells you something about the permanence of romantic relationships…

Hopefully your partner will understand and will be able to adapt. Hopefully it won’t cause much of a disruption to your life. But it is a factor to be considered. I won’t lie to you.

To be more than a Disneyland Dad you will have to juggle work and kids. You will have them during the week, will have to figure out how you will get them to school or daycare some days, pick them up, deal with homework, provide rooms and sleeping arrangements, etc. Your cool bachelor pad will be a nursery or a hangout for noisy, messy teenagers or the rumpus room for a bunch of visiting toddlers. Where you may have only been an observer in the past you will be performing all of the duties without a net.

Your Friday date nights will be spent sitting at home waiting for that guy with the tattoo to bring Charmaine home by 10. Your Saturday golfing will be working on the volcano for the science project. You chose this. I think it’s wonderful. Hopefully you will, too.

You’ll have to figure out how much and where possible work can bend. Is flex time possible? Can you work from home at all? Shift your hours? Work longer shifts when you don’t have the kids? Does your job even lend itself to that kind of change?

If it doesn’t, how do you plan your schedule with the kids? The judge will not be happy if you have to wake the kids at 4 AM to get them to a sitter so you can catch a commuter train to Sacramento. You will be asked, why not have them stay with their mom instead during the week? You’d better have a good answer.  “Because I don’t want to pay more child support” is not a good answer.

Your answer will always have to take the best interest of the children first, and your desires and needs a distant second.

A good lawyer on your side can work with you to craft a plan to get you what you want and will then fight for you. They will understand that it is an uphill battle against the bias and prejudice of a society that underestimates how dads can be just as successful as primary caregivers as moms, even for young children.

A good lawyer will be your advocate for you as Father of the Year.  You want the judge to see you as Father Knows Best, not Homer Simpson.