Rethinking our old ideas about post-divorce fatherhood

It used to be the case that after a divorce, mothers would be awarded sole or primary child custody in most cases, and fathers would be given visitation. This was based on the assumption that women were naturally more nurturing and were better caretakers. And it coincided with the stereotype of the “weekend dad” – a disengaged, irresponsible adult who was more concerned with being fun than with being a parent.

It would be tempting to think that the “weekend dad” persona was proof that women were more deserving of custody. But many researchers now argue that cause and effect may have been reversed. In other words, lopsided custody awards may have created the weekend dad behavior because it left little time for kids to actually spend with their dads, and few opportunities for dads to practice solo parenting.

A recent online article highlights research showing that when custody agreements allow divorced men to stay more actively involved in their children’s lives, most actually become better parents than they were before divorce. There are numerous reasons for this:

  • They are forced to make parenting decisions that they may have previously ceded to their wives
  • They have/get to take on more executive parenting roles like feeding and planning activities, as well as nurturing roles like bathing, comforting and tucking in the children (tasks traditionally taken on by moms)
  • They are generally happier after getting divorced because they are not preoccupied with marital conflict (the same goes for the other spouse as well)
  • They become more confident making parenting decisions because their spouse is no longer there to second-guess their choices

Research shows that children of divorce who have regular time with and access to both parents tend to do better in school, have higher self-esteem, form better family bonds and experience fewer behavioral/emotional issues. In cases where both parents are fit and want to stay engaged, the custody split does not need to be perfectly equal to achieve these results. But it should be close enough that children get to see their non-custodial parent at least 35 percent of the time, according to the article.

Obviously, every family is different, and there are plenty of cases in which the healthiest (or only) option is for one parent to take sole custody. But in light of research like this, many divorcing couples may want to carefully examine their own custody agreements to see if a more equitable parenting time schedule may be the best option for their children.