Do men really want to be equal partners?

From Voices section of Times Colonist July 10, 1997

by Karen Lapprand

As a divorced, single mother with her own perspective on family breakdown and custody and access, I and a male friend ( also divorced with children) attended an evening recently sponsored by the Victoria Men's Centre, at the University of Victoria. I thought I might learn something.

Dr Warren Farrell, American author of The Myth of Male Power, spoke on the topic "The Future of the Missing Father." Joining him was Canadian Senator Anne Cools, feisty but suffering from jet lag after a long trip, and proudly vocal about her role in stalling Bill C-41, which earlier this year amended the Divorce Act to establish child support guidelines, among other things.

Fatherless families, say Farrell and Cools, are hurting our children. Not only that, they say, fathers seek and deserve nothing more than equal involvement with their children.

To a mostly male audience that looked ready to go out and shoot their ex-wives at any moment, Cools focused on the "myth" of male violence, stressing that women, more often than men, kill and abuse children and that this distortion of the facts is shaping legislation and social policy, and destroying lives.

Dr. Farrrell spoke strongly of how fathers toiled to provide for their families, only to find themselves disconnected emotionally and left out in the cold on the home front. ("Sure," nagged my little inner voice. "But no matter how much we missed our dads and vice versa, we can at least look back with pride that they loved us enough to provide, something a lot of children today can't vouch for.")

It is time, concluded Farrell and Cools, that men put a stop to this damage and socially accepted deprivation.

Who would dispute that children need a father? Study after study shows that children raised without fathers perform less well in school, and are more prone to becoming delinquent and the criminals of tomorrow.

Who can deny that two effective and committed parents are better than one and that children would prefer to be raised by both parents?

What I do take issue with is the pronouncement that men want to be equal parents.

Since my divorce, I have spoken to countless divorced and married women about their experience with their partners.

Although each relationship is unique and my casual research in no way scientific, just about all of the women had this complaint about their partners: The men did not do their 50 percent share of housework and looking after the children when at home, even if their wives were working outside the home.

When the fathers did tend to their children and household duties, too often it was done half-heartedly or begrudgingly, as if the tasks were beneath them. Or it was done in the spirit of "helping" his wife (after all, this was still "women's work") and with the expectation of a reward, be it a simple thank you or some form of added attention from his wife.

Interesting. Few husbands would expect their wives to feel they deserve the same kind of recognition.

If not addressed, differences and misunderstandings like these create real tension and resentment in a marriage before too long. In fact, I am convinced that it is this feeling of being taken advantage of -- the man by the woman, the woman by the man -- that sadly, causes each to withdraw to his and her corner and only come out with boxing gloves on. I will even venture to guess that in nine times out of 10 the driving force behind the affairs, drinking and fighting that are symptomatic of marriage breakdown.

Sorry, but my response, admittedly callous, to the angry and frustrated divorced dads of today is: "You say you want joint custody, equal rights to parenting. Where was your joint commitment to parenting while in the marriage?"

How about tackling the issue of commitment and custody not in hindsight, as too many divorced dads seem to do, but before the marital dysfunction sets in?

There might be fewer divorces, and less of the anguish and isolation that goes with it, if more men realized that parenting is not just enjoying the good times with your child and walking away when times get tough. Parenting is getting down to the nitty-gritty, mundane, all consuming and often soul-searching tasks of every day living with one's family that women seem to more readily accept as their lot.

It is recognizing what you've got when you've got it and understanding that adventure lies in the intimate, and not always off somewhere else.

In his talk at the University of Victoria, Dr. Farrell brought up the valid point that men's traditional role as family provider has, in fact, worked against men on custody issues. Judges generally award custody to the primary care giver, usually the woman.

It is not unfair, ran the argument that men have been penalized by the courts for fulfilling their obligation to provide for their families? The mention drew angry nods, grunts and applause and the comment that men are tired of being just "wallets" and of "paying women to love."

As a mother, I am the first to admit that to live without the children you love must be excruciatingly lonely. I can accept that men want to be with their children, have unrestricted access or joint custody.

But the kind of talk I heard that evening at Uvic was, as my male companion put it, "inflammatory." It reinforces age old stereotypes: women are parasites, women don't work, fathers bring home the butter. It presented women as living comfortably off the labor of men (who, as we know, slave away for no self-serving purpose). It presented women as having the unmitigated gall to then turn around and deny their provider what is rightfully his.

At no time did it acknowledge that families can't be bullied and bought. At no time did it acknowledge that full-time moms work and work hard, often at great sacrifice to their self-esteem and their earning potential later in life. It did not acknowledge that the sheer physical and time-consuming demands of child-bearing and rearing do put women at risk of being dependant during their child-bearing years.

Nor did it encourage the men in that audience to look at themselves and consider for one moment what they might have done to get themselves in the emotionally starved position they are in today. It put the blame on everyone else - the media, politicians, the courts, traditional roles, feminists and ex-wives - but themselves.

If men are tired of living outside of home life and really want "in" as they say they do to enjoy the full range of emotional rewards, they're going to have to take their head out of the sand and put their money where their mouth is. That means:

-Getting after "deadbeat" dads and having them pay their fair share of what it costs to financially raise two children. Too many men childishly take their anger out on there ex-wives by withholding support, choosing to ignore that if her standard of living suffers, so does that of their children. Let's be honest: Currently, custodial moms are bearing the brunt of financial and emotional costs of raising their children.

-Condemning and actively working to stop male domestic violence, which has far-reaching implications for families and society.

-Stop pretending you're there for your family when you've really been doing an emotional and/or physical disappearing act, and then expect to be welcomed back with open arms. Families aren't just there when it's convenient for you.

-Making the commitment to meet women half-way, once and for all. How many men now, when the opportunity is there, are taking time out of their careers to be full-time dads? How many, for that matter, in their marriages are working part-time to spend the rest of the time with their children? Men are not exactly breaking down the home doors.

Maybe when they do, women will take the pronouncement "Men want equal time with their children" more seriously. At this stage of the game, the pronouncement smacks of convenience and sounds all to easy to say, after the fact.

Let's face it: as long as married men had a wife to count on to pick up the slack on the home front, they were happy enough with the status quo. If they weren't, then what prevented them from changing it?

Studies have shown that married men are the happiest in society. Divorced men are the unhappiest. So, men, have some foresight and work with your wives on being united in marriage to avoid the division of divorce.

And women, stop feeling slighted and let your man know in no uncertain terms that you're happy to meet him half-way, as well as invite him on to your traditional territory.

Ask any child and they will tell you they prefer the togetherness.

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