By Marie MacCune (University of Massachusetts Amherst ’17)
*This is an abridged version of an honors senior thesis presented and approved in December 2016.
My research question was, initially, quite simple: what does the fathers’ rights movement look like in Massachusetts? While the movement has been active in the state for nearly 20 years, there is very little known about it in both academic literature and the media more generally. I wanted to study the fathers’ rights movement in Massachusetts primarily through the Coalition for the Preservation of Fatherhood. While members will occasionally refer to the group as C.P.F., the organization later changed its name to the Fatherhood Coalition and so I will be using this term throughout the paper. The Fatherhood Coalition is the Massachusetts based volunteer fathers’ rights organization. The Fatherhood Coalition has grown to encompass Dads Against Divorce Discrimination (D.A.D.D.) and Parents and Children Together (P.A.C.T.), which were two pre-existing fathers’ rights groups in the state. The Fatherhood Coalition currently operates a state-wide office in Boston and eight branches serving local communities. There are three inactive branches in western Massachusetts that the Fatherhood Coalition is working to activate according to their website. The branches perform grassroots advocacy, host meetings and support initiatives orchestrated by the state-wide office.
Throughout the research process my question evolved to encompass a much more theoretical inquiry: how do fathers’ rights movement members in Massachusetts view and interact with the law? This analysis was largely informed by the three meta-stories outlined by legal theorists Susan Silbey and Patricia Ewick: before the law, with the law, and up against the law (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 49).
It is important to understand how fathers’ rights movement members in Massachusetts view and interact with the law because their constant presence and consistent advocacy efforts are currently impacting family law. Their proposed legislation regarding shared parenting now sits in the state Senate awaiting approval, having already passed the House. I believe that by understanding how these men see the law as an institution and individuals’ roles within that institution, we can better identify the disconnects between their perceptions, reality and the solutions that they propose. Beyond that, the fathers’ rights groups have concerns that are worth addressing. Studying how they view themselves and how they use existing structures to try and meet their needs can inform policy solutions for the future.
I conducted semi-structured interviews with members of the fathers’ rights movement in Massachusetts to gather data for this paper. The data collected during these interviews informed my qualitative analysis of the groups’ actions in the state and serve as the basis of my interpretation of Silbey and Ewick’s framework as it applies to the fathers’ rights movement in Massachusetts. I interviewed individuals by phone who serve as the public contact for the various branches of the Fatherhood Coalition and one man who was the founder of the National Parenting Organization, a group based in Massachusetts that helps direct the Fatherhood Coalition’s advocacy efforts. I emailed these individuals via the contact information available on their respective sites. I was able to make additional contacts using snowball sampling. I received four affirmative responses to my requests for interviews from members of the Fatherhood Coalition and the founder of the National Parenting Organization. These interviews were conducted over the phone and took place between the months of September and November 2016. The interviews ranged from thirty to ninety minutes long. All of the men I spoke with were offered anonymity and all but one chose to be identified by their full name.
This paper will first discuss the existing literature regarding the fathers’ rights movement. As there was no literature specifically discussing the movement in Massachusetts, analysis presented in this section will largely refer to the general national landscape of the movement. Throughout the literature review I will draw comparisons to the data I collected and the story told about these groups in academia. Then, I will explore the themes that emerged from the semi-structured interviews with members of the Massachusetts fathers’ rights movement and include analysis of their perceptions of law through Silbey and Ewick’s framework.
OVERVIEW OF THE FATHERS’ RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Rough estimates put fathers’ rights group membership at about 100 members in one or more of each state’s largest fathers’ rights groups, or about 10,000 members per state (Crowley, 2008, p. 37). Because they emerge from the bottom-up, there is no consistent structure across organizations (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. 81). Most common, however, is the existence of a state-level structure with local branches (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. 81-82). This structure allows groups to pool all their resources to influence state legislatures and courts, where most family-related policy is made and enforced (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. 82). It is important to note that intra-group fighting is common in fathers’ rights groups, over both goals and approaches, which in turn makes short-lived groups also common (Crowley, 2006, p. 106).
The internet is key to the development of fathers’ rights groups, serving as the primary home of the groups’ activity and speech (Rosen et al., 2009, p. 513; Dragiewicz, 2008, p. 124). The internet enables intra- and intergroup communication as well as publicity for their causes (Rosen et al., 2009, p. 513). Rosen (et al. 2009) describes the environment it creates for scorned fathers as: “…a virtual location for like-minded men to reinforce their existing beliefs, expand their vocabularies, and share tactics that can be used to advance their political and personal interests” (Rosen et al., 2009, p. 520).
The current fathers’ rights movement emerged out of the intersection of three earlier types of men’s rights activism: the divorce reform movement in the 1960s, anti-feminist men’s activism in the 1990s and the conservative religious movement of the 1980s and 90s (Flood, 2012, p. 6). The divorce reform movement aimed to draw attention to what participants viewed as discrimination in the court system after a family broke down, arguing that divorce resulted in the financial and emotional devastation of fathers (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. 81). In the 1990s, anti-feminist and conservative religious groups emerged to promote male responsibility consistent with their religious – traditional and heteronormative – views on family order (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. 81). These pre-existing movements not only solidified men as a legitimate social and political group on the basis of their sex (at least in the eyes of fathers’ rights activists), they also legitimized fathers’ concerns that their rights as fathers or even as men more generally, were under attack.
According to the existing literature, the fathers’ rights movement focuses on a traditional, private, heterosexual family model (Collier, 2009, p. 359; Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p.16). Fathers’ rights groups typically insist on rigid gender roles within the home and a family model based on traditional paternal authority (Flood, 2012, p. 15). In fact, the literature claims groups want to protect society from the ills of single-parentdom and fatherlessness, with some groups taking the stance that the “survival of civilization depends on a father’s presence” (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p.16; Dragiewicz, 2008, pp. 126, 131-132). The available literature also claims their advocacy work is focused on campaigning against mothers as primary caregivers and reasserting a type of paternal privilege that can be exercised at will (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. ix).
In building their public policy positions, fathers’ rights groups draw on the legacies of the gay/lesbian movement, black civil rights movement and women’s movements in the United States (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. 90). This provides a foundation for their equality-based mobilization (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. 91). This comparison is surprising, however, because while these other movements are about groups gaining power they never had, fathers’ rights groups are fighting defensively against losing power they have held for centuries (Collier and Sheldon, 2006, p. 99). Historically, men have held literal ownership of both their wives and children. The fact that they are not the presumed custody holder is relatively new and strikes at a key pillar of historical patriarchy.
The bigger picture positions the literature takes on fathers’ rights movement aligns with the information I obtained in my interviews with movement members in Massachusetts. First, Fatherhood Coalition members certainly found validation for their concerns in the movement. Many of the men felt frustrated about the double standard that exists when it comes to support groups for women and mothers versus men and fathers. I also identified a pattern of equality mobilization and a call to the legacies of historical civil rights movements. Additionally, members in Massachusetts very much do believe that single-parentdom is almost always against the best interests of the child (at least when that single parent is the mother). Interestingly, no one mentioned the dangers of a single-parent household headed by the father.
Beyond these general descriptions of the fathers’ rights movement, the literature’s interpretations often seemed extreme in comparison to what I learned about the Fatherhood Coalition. In regards to the literature’s claim that the fathers’ rights movement pushes for traditional gender roles, I found this analysis not completely representative of the fathers’ rights movement in the Commonwealth. Some members of the fathers’ rights movement in Massachusetts insist that their advocacy points do not push for traditional gender roles but rather break down stereotypes for fathers, allowing them to be primary caregivers and giving mothers more freedom to pursue high powered careers. Furthermore, the idea of asserting “paternal privilege at will” is not at all how Massachusetts members themselves would describe their goals. They want access to their children not control of their wives.
THEMATIC ANALYSIS: THE MOVEMENT IN THE COMMONWEALTH
In undertaking this paper, I wanted to understand how members of the fathers’ rights movement in Massachusetts view and interact with the law. While interviewing members of the Coalition for the Preservation of Fatherhood, a pattern of themes emerged regarding how these men view themselves, the law and their interactions with the legal system and its operators. Interestingly, the men’s responses paralleled Susan Silbey and Patricia Ewick’s interpretations of how average, everyday people perceive their relationship with the law. In their article, “The Rule of Law – Sacred and Profane,” Silbey and Ewick (2000, p. 49) explain that Americans both fear the law and seek its protection. They outline three sorts of meta-stories regarding these types of interactions with the law – before the law, with the law and up against the law (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 50). Each of these stories were present in my interviews with fathers’ rights movement members and oftentimes all three were present in a given conversation with one man.
In a before the law perspective, people see the law as removed from their everyday lives (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 50). They believe that there is an equal chance between the haves and the have-nots and that the law (and thus its operators) is informed and impartial (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 50). In the with the law meta-story, the law is a game and one has to play it right in order to win. People see the law as “porous and fragile” not the untouchable ideal as those with a before the law perspective see it (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 52). When people see themselves as with the law, they acknowledge that the haves more often come out on top (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 53). Furthermore, they believe that the “most crucially consequential resource one can mobilize in a legal encounter is a lawyer” (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 53). The law is a game in which you must be strategic to win. Lastly, those who view themselves as up against the law feel as though they cannot maintain a distance between the law and their everyday life (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 53). They self-identify as the have-nots and feel as though it is impossible to play by the law’s rules (Silbey and Ewick, 2000, p. 53). Throughout this chapter I will be identifying instances where Fatherhood Coalition members’ stories align with Silbey and Ewick’s meta-stories as a way of understanding how these men view and interact with the law.
Silbey and Ewick’s work is useful in understanding the fathers’ rights movement because they provide us a framework to which we can apply the members’ often-contradictory stories and experiences in the family law system. How people view and interpret the law dictates how they interact with legal institutions. It is not enough to study what fathers’ rights members do when confronting the family law system. We must also try to understand how they interpret the power dynamic in such interactions. Not only does this provide a deeper knowledge of their political views and personal beliefs, it also enables us to better predict their actions in the future and perhaps even create lasting solutions for some of their concerns.
When speaking with members of the Fatherhood Coalition, it became apparent that many of them fell into Silbey and Ewick’s “against the law” meta-story. This was especially so during discussions of who the operators of law are. Because family courts are without juries, individual judges are the final arbiters. Members believe these judges have a strong gender bias favoring women and more generally operate within a liberal system that, in their eyes, favors women. Under the Silbey and Ewick framework, we can understand this as members seeing themselves as being up against the law. They are the have-nots whose lives have been penetrated by law whose rules and games they cannot follow. Brian, who started a Fatherhood Coalition branch in Peabody, provided a picture representative of other men’s stories:
“You know the first day we walked into court and the lawyer walked up to the docket and he saw our judge and he just went, ‘Ohhhhhh sh*t…‘Well we have judge so and so and he’s very geared towards women.’ I said, ‘Well get another judge if you know the guy’s bias,’ but at the time he goes, ‘there’s nothing we can do we can’t just change judges….I could tell I was just screwed.’” (Brian, personal communication, 28 October 2016).
The idea that judges, both male and female, but especially female, demonstrate intense gender bias was held by almost all of the men interviewed. A few of my interviewees were sure to elaborate that not every judge committed such acts of bias but that overall, the family court system has a general culture of bias against fathers. They were also upset with the seemingly singular role judges had in utilizing and applying the law. This was especially because of the lack of recourse available to them if they felt the judge was biased against them. For these men, the actual judges and the law as an abstraction were one in the same. They were up against these judges and so they were also up against the law. Jason Skinner, a former coalition member based in central Massachusetts, explained that when it comes to custody decisions, once a couple asks for it to be decided in court, the arrangement is left up to the individual judge. “I understand why people are upset at the system. If you get a bad judge you feel powerless,” he said (Jason Skinner, personal communication, 23 September 2016). Other fathers also expressed distress about this perceived lack of agency. Many used the term “screwed” to express how they felt treated by family courts. This sense of powerlessness, a key component of the against the law meta-story, is important to note. Silbey and Ewick argue that those who partake in this meta-story often see themselves as being forced to operate around the law in order to solve their problems. When members of this movement feel as though the law is not a legitimate way to solve their issues we must try to understand what alternative actions they might take and what the consequences of those actions may be.
Members also expressed frustration at the liberal context under which the law and its operators exist, further participating in the against the law meta-story. One man claimed that the Commonwealth’s biggest problems in regards to family law stemmed from the “liberal agenda”, saying it is “geared towards most men (being) the problem in a family that is broken and women are the victim.” (James Marques, personal communication, 3 November 2016). Problematically, none of these men provided concrete examples of where liberal candidates or politicians outlined such a stance in their campaigns or position statements. For them, the “liberal agenda” is much like judiciary bias, it is a very strongly held perception – but they only have anecdotal evidence to back it up. Fathers’ rights members seem to feel as though mitigating the impact of the “liberal agenda” on the operators of law is unlikely. They believe that liberalism is so rampant throughout every system in Massachusetts it would be impossible to get truly unbiased judges (Jason Skinner, personal communication, 23 September 2016). Even if they could change the individual actors, many members feel as if that would not make a difference. The new judge would be just as liberal and just as biased because the liberal Massachusetts electorate is always going to pick the liberal judge. For the record, judges in Massachusetts are not elected however are appointed by the generally elected governor following an application process. This view is particularly interesting because it does not fall squarely within the against the law story, it also relates to a before the law perception. While members are incredibly frustrated with the status quo, they do believe that if they could just change the context in which the system exists, then the system would be the answer to their problems. Feeling as though the legal system can provide true restitution is a clear example of the before the law meta-story.
Even more interesting is that even the third meta-story, with the law, is demonstrated in members’ discussion of the biased judiciary. Patrick McCabe, co-chairman of the Coalition, focuses much of his advocacy on influencing the judiciary. In this instance, McCabe takes a with the law approach. He sees the family court system as a game and if he can utilize the proper resources in the right way, he might be able to change how the game is played. McCabe targets judges because he believes they are the ones who hold the power. He says he is most proud of his work
“reaching out to the judiciary to make sure that they understand what our concerns are. Make sure they understand that we know what’s going and we know where the faults are and we know where the improvements can be made. We try to really look forward and encourage the judiciary to behave better and serve the people better” (Patrick McCabe, personal communication, 5 October 2016).
McCabe did not clarify what this better behavior would be but following his logic perhaps it would be acting without bias. But what does that really mean? Simply grant more custody to fathers? And as stated before, there is simply no data available to either substantiate or refute those bias claims. For now, they are perceptions. It is clear that in the minds of the fathers’ rights movement members the state judiciary plays a significant role in the discrimination and injustice they feel while going through the system.
“You can somewhat forgive the court for how they have behaved up until 20 years ago,” said Ned Holstein, founder of the National Parenting Organization, trying to explain why the courts typically award one parent custody and the other parent visitation. “They were simply carrying out what they had been taught by the ‘experts’” (Ned Holstein, personal communication, 10 October 2016). According to Holstein, in the 1970s and 1980s the prevailing theory was that children do best in one home with one parent and one set of rules after a divorce. He argues that this has changed but the judiciary has been slow to transition. Because psychologists do not run the courts, Holstein feels that fathers fall victim to the judges’ slow learning curve. This view of law also aligns with Silbey and Ewick’s with the law meta-story and the idea that the law is porous and fragile – open to influence from the outside world in this case influence from trends in the field of psychology.
Interestingly, Holstein does not see an inherent problem with the current best interests of the child standard. The problem for him lies in that fact that judges do not view shared custody as being the best interest. Again we see the importance of the law operator to these men. The law is not the problem, but the way it is being interpreted and applied is.
Lawyers as Manipulators
Similarly, members of the Fatherhood Coalition expressed frustration about lawyers who practice family law. However, their concerns were different than those they had about the judiciary. While judges were seen as operators of the law and the ultimate enemy, lawyers were their accomplices – failing to help fathers navigate the system effectively so that the lawyers could be continuously employed. “The only people who seem to be against (shared parenting) are the bar associations because (if) there’s less tension in the divorce obviously they’re going to lose all that money,” Skinner claimed. Holstein identified bar associations as the fathers’ rights movement’s “politically most powerful of (their) opponents.” He even said that the biggest opposition in the Senate to the proposed shared parenting bills are divorce attorneys. This is interesting because under Silbey and Ewick’s framework, lawyers are the essential component of the with the law meta-story. Those who hold this perception of law try to utilize the best lawyers they can in order to better their chances of winning the game. However, while members of the fathers’ rights movement do see divorce attorneys’ role as having a critical effect in the family law system, they do not see them has an essential tool to be utilized. Instead, often times these men view divorce attorneys as scammers mean to be avoided.
“Basically when you look at a divorce lawyer there’s a reason to question a lot of them. Are they really helping people out? I’d say no … there’s a reason to keep this thing going” said McCabe, who also held the belief that divorce attorneys have an interest in prolonging custody disputes and ultimately victimizing fathers. But is it true? I think that these claims made by fathers’ rights movement members need to be contextualized. The vast majority of custody disputes are handled outside of court. Lawyers may be involved in just the divorce filing or even the mediation sessions to establish parenting plans – regardless, it is clear that they are not using custody disputes as an income driver – lawyers do not need to cause familial disputes to get business. This is especially true since only 20 percent of divorce cases nationwide ever make it to court, an even smaller percentage of those cases then cannot be settled in the pre-trial phase and then an even smaller percentage of those end in a fully contested custody trial (Tabachnick, 2010). Of course, divorce attorneys do need a constant flow of divorce cases in order to stay employed, but the leap from needing divorce to practice their area of law to prolonging and perpetuating complicated custody dispute battles in court to accomplish this goal is simply too large to make. This skepticism of attorneys, in part, lends members of the Fatherhood Coalition to hold both with the law and against the perspectives. While they see attorneys as playing the game of family law, they see themselves as locked out of it and/or exploited by the attorneys themselves.
Victims of the System
Another primary theme throughout the literature on fathers’ rights movements was that members view themselves as victims of the family law system. This further emphasized the against the law perspective seen earlier. In fact, this victimization is really just an expansion of the perceived biases explored in the previous subsection. While the articles I originally reviewed consistently touched on this idea of victimization framing, these interviews provide invaluable insight unavailable in the existing literature. The Fatherhood Coalition members not only revealed that they felt like victims of the system but also in what ways and in which situations they felt that they had agency to change that.
McCabe framed it succinctly, arguing that in the current system, courts “pick a winner and a loser” when it comes to a custody dispute. Even the wording, a parent is “awarded” custody, implies this dynamic. To these men, fathers are almost always the loser or in Silbey and Ewick’s framework, the have-nots. This view is problematic however because members of the fathers’ rights movement in the United States are dealing with a common law system – it is inherently adversarial and meant to have a winner and loser. Anyone who fails to fall into the with the law meta-story is going to feel powerless while operating within our system – it is specifically set up like a game, a game in which one has to play in order to win.
McCabe expressed particular frustration at temporary custody hearings that establish arrangements for the duration of the trial. “It’s just what judges do,” he said. “And it’s a great way to start a fight. That’s what it’s really all about, it’s about starting a fight between two people who are having a hard time and totally exploiting them.” Exploitation is a big claim and it is a claim that fails to take into consideration that custody hearings are not starting fights. They are not the cause of a fight, they are a result. The couple goes to court because they are fighting about custody arrangements and they ask the judge to end the fight. When fathers do not get the arrangement they want, they feel like the loser. But losing is the risk you take when asking a third party to end a fight and make a decision. I think it is important to recognize the nature of a divorce that ends up going through the court system – because not every divorce does. Many of these men did not want to get divorced in the first place and certainly do not want to lose any access to their kids. With this understanding, it seems inevitable that these men will fall into the against the law meta-story because they did not want to participate in the process in the first place. By the very nature of those two things, they are going to walk away from court disappointed by the outcome, but not necessarily exploited as they have often claimed.
It is important to note that not all the fathers I spoke with fell into this meta-story when it came to victimization framing. In fact Skinner disagreed with the movement’s victimization framing in general. During his interview he explained why he drifted away from the advocacy roles he held in the movement to focus on more personal one-on-one support for fathers who use the Coalition’s hotline. “They were just too angry. They were playing the angry victim role, and I don’t think that’s always the best way,” he explained. His point is an important one: is the victimization framing effective? Perhaps in garnering attention, but not in executing advocacy points. Shared custody is not an actual solution to the perceived gender bias, it is simply a way around it and I believe that fathers’ rights members know this. Creating a presumption of shared custody does not make judges unbiased, it just stops them from acting on it. They believe it is a safeguard against the bias. It appears impossible to ever really solve the “victims of the system” problem because in some ways the problem is a perception, not a reality.
Additionally, it appears the movement and its members have done little to learn how to better operate within the system. Most people have little legal literacy or experience in navigating the court system, which favors those who know how to play the game. Fathers’ rights members are no exception. In this with the law mentality, these fathers’ rights members saw the law as a game and yet did not appreciate the efforts of the game’s most skilled players – attorneys. None of the men I talked to were attorneys, mentioned interest in becoming attorneys or mentioned attorneys in their ranks who helped members in court. The movement works as a network of sorts to connect struggling fathers with other men who have experienced similar troubles. However, this is problematic. Because most men in the movement are men who were wronged by the system – men who played the game wrong or felt like the game was rigged against them from the outset (men who held with the law and up against the law perspectives) – there is only so much advice that can be gleaned from them.
No Support or Organizations for Fathers
I want to acknowledge that this gap is not entirely fathers’ fault. Most of the members I spoke with expressed a frustration with the lack of men’s groups or services available to fathers. I believe this to be a legitimate concern. Understanding that many women’s and mothers’ groups emerged because of systemic sexism, wanting groups to support and provide services to fathers does not diminish the weight of women’s struggle. The two are not mutually exclusive. Being a parent is difficult regardless of gender, as is navigating the court system. In addition, stigmatization of male emotions and of men reaching out for support and help plays an important role in fostering male violence and poor familial relationships. “When a man goes to these places (legal services and parenting support groups), and often he does not, he’s not encouraged,” said Marques. “He doesn’t get a victim advocate when he goes to court, he doesn’t get anything, there’s nothing that he gets. He’s alone. He has no allies except for his lawyer who is charging him money. No one is sympathetic to him.” It makes sense that within Silbey and Ewick’s framework these men often fall within the against the law meta-story when they feel as the though there is no external support to help them navigate the system, and they are not wrong.
Members also expressed frustration at what they perceived to be bias against them as an organization because of their cause – fathers’ rights. Marques described a conversation he had with a female state legislator who suggested if they changed their stance from fathers’ rights to children’s rights they might have more success – and her vote:
“There’s been opposition to us for years and years and years. If I came to you with mothers’ rights would you think the same? Just think about that. If I came to you with something called mothers’ rights would you have the same objections? Or women’s rights would you still have the same objection that you do right now?”
Holstein, whose group changed its name from Fathers and Families to the National Parenting Organization in part to appeal to a wider audience, felt similarly. “No one immediately jumps to conclusions when you say, ‘I’m interested in women’s rights,’” he said. “That’s not the case when you’re talking about fathers’ or men’s rights more generally.” He argued that while a lot of progress has been made since the 1960s to break down stereotypes of gender roles for women, no similar effort has been made to break down those stereotypes for men.
Focus on Formal Equality
Another interesting theme from the literature that was reflected throughout my conversations with members of the group was an emphasis on formal equality between men and women. While not a member of the Coalition, Holstein’s views aligned almost perfectly and he provided the most succinct phrasing: “We believe in equal treatment of both parents before the law.” Tying back to the discussion about victimization and gender/liberal bias against them, currently members of the fathers’ rights movement see themselves being treated as second class citizens – one father even claimed that what fathers are going through now is a parallel to what people of color experienced in the 1950s and 1960s. This again relates strongly to the against the law meta-story. It is important to note that quite often the equal treatment they call for and the bias they perceive fails to account for systemic disadvantages women face in the workplace and elsewhere. It also fails to acknowledge the different levels of caretaking involved in being a stay at home mother and being a father who financially supports a family. The level of physical caretaking is important when experience providing caregiving activities is part of the criteria for considering which parent will be able to meet the best interests of the child. This is an important divergence from the against the law meta-story and instead is very much a before the law perspective of what an ideal family law system is – where the law should be removed from the nuances of everyday life and each individual is seen has having equal access and opportunity when utilizing the law.
Members take the position that a parent is a parent – regardless of the reality of gendered labor divisions in the marital home. “I think treating everyone equally is something ingrained in all of us,” said McCabe. “I think what has happened, what’s going on in the family courts, is just so far away from what most people want happening.” There is little recognition by the Fatherhood Coalition members of the nuances of every familial relationship and the intricate and important differences men and women face in life because of their gender. Beyond that, there is little recognition that “most people” for members of the Coalition may be a very specific subset of peers jaded by the system and not representative of the people of the Commonwealth.
One area of family law where this push for formal equality is particularly discussed is in regards to child support. Some members believe the push for shared custody ought to mean a push to end child support – in this vein of logic, child support is meant to supplement caregiving that the noncustodial parent cannot provide in person through financial support. Brian held this view and explained that “…the kids should be with each parent equal time, but when you’re gonna do that then there shouldn’t be any child support because you should be (financially) responsible for them when they’re with you.” This position is too superficial. Childcare costs do not work per diem. For example, children cannot be covered under different health care plans depending on which week of the custody arrangement it is.
Conflation of Fathers’ or Parents’ Rights with the Rights and Interests of Children
A very important aspect of the fathers’ rights movement in Massachusetts is its conflation, albeit not deliberately, of fathers’ rights with the rights and interests of children. Holstein argues that the best interests of the child and shared parenting are compatible standards. For him, the problem lies in the fact that the court does not recognize shared parenting as equivalent to the best interests of the child. He explained that when no-fault divorces emerged and custody arrangements had to be established between two present parents, the psychoanalytical theory of the day said children did best in one home with one set of rules. Holstein claimed that more and more empirical studies have come out suggesting that children want/need deep bonds with both of their parents. He called 2014 a “watershed year” in terms of published evidence for shared parenting. However, what I was able to find (including the sources Holstein directed me to) in regards to this evidence was much more about the importance of children maintaining relationships with both parents after divorce, not both parents maintaining custody of their children. One does not mean the other has to happen.
Members feel that the current system of custody awards harms children. McCabe’s comment about the courts starting a fight between the two parents is relevant again: “it’s about starting a fight between two people who are having a hard time and totally exploiting them and it’s usually to the detriment – it’s always to the detriment – of the child.” McCabe argues that this winner/loser system is “never in the best interest of the child.” Holstein believes that shifting out of this system to a presumption of shared parenting will bring a more “positive vision for a better America, particularly for children.” Again, members are expressing a frustration with the inherent nature of the U.S.’s legal system, a playing out of the against the law meta-story. He posed questions such as: where do the criminals/drug addicts/homeless people come from? And answered that it is disproportionately from single parent families. But those claims also need to be contextualized. Is Holstein considering the socioeconomic status of these single parent families, both before and after divorce? Or whether they were ever married at all? It is also important to point out that shared parenting does not result in a complete household again. It just forces children into having two. A noncustodial parent can still create a strong parental bond with their child without seeing them 50 percent of the time. Just as having their child 50 percent of the time does not ensure that a parent will have a bond with them at all. So much of what is in the best interests of the child is circumstantial. Applying an arrangement standard such as shared parenting assumes too much – especially when the existing system already allows for that arrangement in and out of court orders.
The fathers’ rights movement in the Commonwealth is as multi-faceted and complex as the men it is composed of. This paper has shown that academia’s current understanding of the movement is limited and at times biased. Because of the inflammatory language and actions of the most extreme and vocal members, the literature wrote the whole movement off as a backlash-driven patriarchal craze. The data I collected through my interviews demonstrates the limitations of that perception. The literature centers on the extreme, not the everyday fathers, like Skinner for example, who just want to man the hotline and help other lost fathers navigate the system. These fathers underwent real loss. Their feelings of pain and sadness are legitimate, and so is their frustration with the lack of services available to them. Apply Silbey and Ewick’s theories, we gain a framework to which we can apply and dissect members’ often contradictory perceptions of the system they are trying to change. Understanding that members of the Fatherhood Coalition can all at once see themselves as before the law, with the law and against the law helps us make sense of why they do the things they do, including why they push for the reforms of family law that they do.
The understanding of the fathers’ rights movement in both Massachusetts and the nation more generally would benefit greatly from further research. The organizations make serious claims about gender bias in the family court system. Hard numbers about rates at which custody is granted to mothers versus fathers is not widely available at the state level. And beyond that, neither is a statistical analysis of those numbers that takes into consideration all the factors that could lead a judge to make a certain decision that cannot be attributed to gender bias. The fathers’ rights movement may not have the data to back up their claims, but I also found it nearly impossible throughout the research process to gather data to refute those claims. I also think an even more in depth legislative analysis that tracks the intricacies of the Fatherhood Coalition’s advocacy could better illustrate just how effective the organization is in lobbying the legislature.
It is hard to find a solution for the members of the fathers’ rights movement because many of their problems stem from their own perceptions of the law and how they view their place within it. These men have written the family law system off as too liberal and too biased to work for them. We cannot give every scorned father an education in privilege, domestic violence and legal studies theory to help them understand that while their concerns are legitimate, their perceptions are warped and biased themselves. Their stories are heartbreaking, their desperation to see their children is real. But, they cannot see beyond themselves. How do we tell someone who feels he has lost everything to look beyond his own experience? Throughout my interviews I realized that these men have not, or perhaps cannot, understand the ways systemic sexism exists today and how it limits mothers in ways fathers are not limited. They do not understand that if shared custody was going to work for their family they and their ex-wives would have reached that agreement long ago. Furthermore, they do not understand the reality of domestic violence, its nuances and intricacies. They believe the abuse exception in the shared parenting bill solves the problem of forcing an abuser and their victim into a collaborative custody arrangement. As we know, that is not true. I cannot say whether this lack of understanding is from a lack of knowledge or self-imposed blindness – both would be incredibly difficult to change. The solutions that the Fatherhood Coalition presents are both unrealistic and, even if somehow put into place, incredibly harmful to certain parts of society. One parent wanting shared custody is not enough to make it work and forcing two parents who could not reach an agreement on their own into that kind of arrangement is no solution. It is another fire waiting to start.
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