When you work with teen parents, you’re overwhelmed by the stories of young mothers. There’s the quiet girl who had sex with the first guy who winked her way and with no concept of contraception, became pregnant. There’s the class secretary who temporarily abandoned her dreams because she didn’t support abortion. There’s even the rebellious party girl who planned the whole process at sixteen because she believed no one else truly loved her the way her own offspring could. But for every fifteen girls seated in one of my parenting workshops wanders in a young father struggling to find his way, but frustrated by the support he often ends up not finding elsewhere. We’re familiar with deadbeat fathers, but what about the ones who are trying to take care of the kids, but meet nothing but barriers?
Evidence proves that in family court, time and time again, custody decisions are biased in favor of the mother. Across a wide range of jurisdictions it was estimated that mothers received primary custody 68 to 88 percent of the time, fathers received primary custody 8 to 14 percent and equal residential custody is awarded in only 2 to 6 percent of cases.
But numbers don’t tell stories, dads do. These dads are juggling picking up, dropping off and dance recitals starring their daughters in between dating and part-time jobs. They are making plans to take their sons to Philadelphia 76ers games only to be met with resistance since it’s not “their weekend”. They’re carrying car seats and shopping for diapers while their children’s mothers are dating a real dead beat, but rarely do we hear about all of the obstacles they face just trying to be there for their children and defeat the stereotypes. And when we do it’s usually accompanied by celebrity and publicity as the case with both musician Usher and basketball player Dwayne Wade recently receiving full custody of their children.
Not to take anything away from what may be those men’s great paternal qualities, but what happens when you don’t have wealth and fame on your side? What could be happening is the perpetuation of stereotypes where women are automatically labeled as nurturing caregivers and fathers are simply looked at as the providers. Although we are slowly progressing towards equality, pregnancy and raising children is still looked as woman’s work especially in the eyes of the law. I can’t help but think about cases like the Camden, New Jersey woman who decapitated her child before killing herself or six-year old Philadelphia boy Khalil Weims who was beaten and starved to death by his parents. In both cases the children were either taken out of the family’s care at one point and the families were investigated for abuse, but the children were returned. I can’t help but wonder if cases like this only involved single fathers, would the circumstances be extremely different.
Times may be changing, though. According to “Lost Custody”, a package of articles published by Working Mother Magazine that takes a look at the effect being a working mom has on gaining custody, in 2009 there were 2.2 million divorced women in the United States who did not have primary custody of their children. An estimated 50 percent of fathers who seek custody in divorce disputes are granted it. More and more courts are taking into consideration both parent’s employment and lifestyle and finding ways for children to have equal access to parents who are seen as fit and want to be involved. In any case, the law needs to recognize that it’s no longer safe to assume that the one parent is the best candidate for the job because they falsely believe their gender says so.
Toya Sharee is a program associate for a Philadelphia non-profit that focuses on parenting education and building healthy relationships between parents, children and co-parents. She also has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog BulletsandBlessings.