The other day, I read an article on The Huffington Post that condemned divorced dads for becoming the “fun” parent. According to the author, an “Uncle Dad” or “Disneyland Dad” is a father who 1) is preoccupied with his own needs over those of his children, 2) does not adhere to the “rules” of the mother’s house, 3) focuses on fun over discipline, and 4) in general does not take parenting seriously. Now, before I get into my rebuttal, I would like to make a couple of points clear. I have tremendous respect for single moms who have to shoulder the entire burden alone. My sister spent many years as one of them, and as an educator, I saw hundreds of examples of these women. Their dedication to their children is dazzling. This post is in no way directed towards them. Also, in every conceivable way, I am for equal rights and stand with women on issues of equality. No one should confuse this post with those issues because my umbrage is directed at the condemnation that article leveled at fathers like myself.
For my purposes here, I’m going to focus on a generic custody scenario in which the mother has primary custody and the father has every other weekend and one weekday evening on alternating weeks. Also, for the purposes of this post, let’s completely set aside which parent first wanted the divorce because I only want to focus on the father’s perspective as it relates to being the non-custodial parent. Also for the purposes of this post, I am focusing only on fathers who do regularly have their children during the court approved time. We all know that there are plenty of men who are fathers only in biological terms, and those men do not deserve consideration here.
For starters, the author of that article condemns fathers who are late to pick up their children. She does acknowledge that one of the excuses is being “tied up at work” but goes on dismiss this reason as a form of self absorption. Typically, the non-custodial parent pays child support to the custodial parent, and I will be glad to tell you from firsthand, intimate experience how financially crippling child support can be. Fathers who are current on their obligation do so to their own detriment, and that burden can be quite taxing. It’s not that we don’t want to provide for our children, but rather the simple arithmetic that after child support, health insurance, and taxes, we are often left with roughly half of our gross income. Therefore, we gladly jump at any opportunity for overtime or bonus pay, not because we are “self-absorbed” but because we need the money. So yeah, maybe we do run a little late from time to time because we are finishing up an important project on Friday afternoon. And maybe also because we don’t want to drag work home on our weekends with the kids.
Speaking of self-absorption, that’s another condemnation the author makes, fathers who are preoccupied with their own needs. My ex-wife has accused me of this crap, most recently when I expressed resentment over not being able to afford desperately needed dental work. How dare I put my own needs ahead of my children’s? Never mind that work thing and how important a decent smile is for public image. I was the bad guy for thinking only of my own needs (I still haven’t been able to afford the dental work by the way). Never mind the thousands of little niceties I do without to keep that child support current. Never mind the oil changes I delay to pay for the tire patch, or the worn out shoes I keep wearing so I’m not late on the electric bill. No, I’m preoccupied with my own needs if I do anything good for myself or answer an important email while the kids are with me or text with my girlfriend during that time in an effort to keep that relationship nourished. There is an impossible standard set for the non-custodial parent, one that supposes our lives should exist in an extended limbo where we are available at all times for the whims of the custodial parent and our children. I’m sorry, but in the process of rebuilding our own lives, we have to carve out our own existence in those long periods of separation from our children. We are not on hold.
The author goes on to blame the non-custodial father if grades are not maintained because homework is not completed. Typically, during those alternating weekday evenings, the father gets two to three hours of actual time with the child. Is that when the child should be completing homework? Doesn’t that idea contradict the condemnation of the father for being “tied up at work”? If one is going to criticize fathers for not focusing solely on the children during every moment of their time together, doesn’t that same standard apply to the child paying attention to the father? As far as weekends go, do most children spend their Friday and Saturday nights at the mothers’ residences riveted on their studies? I worked in education for 16 years. I know firsthand that the vast majority of students, regardless of home life, will wait until the last possible minute to begin their homework. To shift this blame onto fathers for their 6-7 days of the month with the children is ludicrous.
Along those same lines, the author blames fathers for self-esteem issues the children develop. First and foremost, correlation does not equal causation. Just because the father might appear to be the “fun” parent (more on that in a moment) that does not mean that he is to blame for his children’s issues with self-image. The current paradigm of most school systems to create a false sense of confidence in children by lavishing them with positive reinforcement and avoiding negative at each step deserves as much blame for self-esteem issues as anything, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. Fathers get 6-7 days a month with their children. That means the mother has 22-24 days, depending on the month. In this time it’s not possible that mothers could be to blame for their children’s issues? Only the “Uncle Dad” is to blame? Seriously? That just seems like an easy pass for the parent who does spend more actual time influencing the children’s environment.
But you know what? That’s pretty much par for course with that article as it places zero blame on the mother for anything. Maybe the mother is “exhausted and worried” because she’s an overzealous control freak who wants to micromanage every second of her children’s lives. Maybe dad missed that parent teacher conference because mom never told him which night. Maybe the teenage children are disappointed with their father because the mother has spent ten years painting a picture of him as a worthless bum, and the teen hasn’t experienced enough of the real world yet to understand the sacrifices the father has had to make just to keep a roof over his head and gas in his car to get to work. Nope, according to this article, only the dad is to blame.
The last point I want to address is the notion of “Disneyland Dads” having no rules. I take quite a bit of personal offense to this one. For starters, no one has a right to tell me what rules I can or cannot set within my home. My rights as a father are that in my home, bed time is when I say, not when my ex-wife says. That’s part of being an ex. You lose the right to dictate what goes on in my house. I’ll use my discretion as what games or movies my children watch under my supervision. Mom doesn’t like it? Sorry. I don’t like having limited time with my kids, but that’s my reality. You don’t like the kids playing outdoors in the dirt? Tough. My kids will get to enjoy and experience nature. They are my children too, and in my home, on my time, we have two rules: 1) Be safe and 2) Be happy. When in doubt, consult rule #1. Mom doesn’t like that the kids have to readjust to her rules when they return to her home? Oh well. I don’t like missing birthdays and holidays and having things scheduled when I can’t be involved and missing out on countless firsts and onlys. Just because my rules don’t look like your rules that doesn’t mean I don’t love my children more than anything or don’t worry for their safety every moment they aren’t with me or am emotionally damaging them. It just means that I have my own way of handling things, and maybe mom can be a little more considerate of me if she wants me to be a little more considerate of her because, unlike the narrative that author tries to push, life is about give and take.
Are there crappy fathers out there? Of course. But there are also plenty of crappy mothers. To attempt to shift the blame completely onto one side is not only irresponsible, it also creates a divisive wedge that engenders resentment. By this author’s definition, I am a “Disneyland Dad” but I know too well that I have suffered and struggled and fought to remain a vibrant part of my sons’ lives. I’ve endured more hardships for the sake of my children than I would wish on anyone, and I would endure it all again as long as they are safe and happy. I will not allow anyone, regardless of their intentions, to disparage my role as a father just because it doesn’t coincide with their vision of what a dad should be. My rights as a person and as a parent are just as valid as anyone else’s, and if my children end up resenting me because I fell short of their needs, then I’ll live with those consequences. But I’ll be willing to bet that if you look a little farther out beyond just the teen years, you’ll find some adults who come to realize that the sorry old dads did a little more than they were ever credited with by resentful moms and family lawyers.