Contrary to popular belief, Father’s Rights is about equality, not misogyny. The mission of the Father’s Rights movement is to achieve equal access and participation for men in the parenting process. While that all sounds good, or perhaps it would make a good poster on a teacher’s wall, equality can be hard work. There are a lot of men who feel the pain of exclusion, but they fail to capitalize on opportunities to engage in parenting. If you want equal rights, you need to take on an equal burden. This is the meaning for my law practice mantra “Being a Dad is not an every other weekend job.”
Oklahoma law contemplates equal rights for both men and women in custody cases. However, a more accurate statement would be both men and women have the possibility of equal rights. In other words, you are entitled to equal rights when the circumstances show it would be in the best interests of the children. If you demonstrate that you are willing and able to exercise equal rights, the law cannot deprive you of that right just because you are a man. So what can you do to demonstrate willingness and ability?
Seeking to bear a greater portion of the parenting burden is a good place to start on your journey toward equal rights. As you begin this journey, it’s important to shed all preconceived notions of gender-specific parenting roles. As a child, I had one of the best advantages that a future father could have: a good example. When my Dad would come home from work, we would fight each other for a chance to pull off his boots for him. After boots and socks were properly removed, my Dad would ask my Mom what needed to be done. Did someone need help with homework? Did everyone finish their bath and teeth brushing? My Dad was a powerful example of a maxim he often uses: “Everyone works until all the work is done.” I think this sort of tireless vigilance in parenting embodies what being a Dad is all about. My Dad was a parent in everything from Pop Warner football to poopy diapers – the good, the bad and the ugly.
As a Father’s Rights attorney, I deal with many men who are stuck in antiquated viewpoints about what a man should or should not have to do. I say “antiquated” because that’s the way most people understand these norms. In reality, I think good Dads throughout history would not refuse to do something just because others would perceive it as unmanly. In any event, I think all men can relate to discomfort and frustration with certain activities. For example, I attended a church meeting recently with my wife and son. My wife was handling musical numbers in the program, so I had to take care of my son by myself out in the congregation. Now I’m sure my experience of what amounted to a two-hour wrestling match with me as the clear loser is not unique. At the end of the program, as people were shuffling out the door, an older gentleman stopped by me and said “They left you all alone didn’t they? Makes you feel like a woman doesn’t it?” I wasn’t really in the mood to deal with him, so I managed a forced chuckle, then I looked the other way. If I could live this experience all over again, I would change my response. I would respond that taking care of my son and supporting my wife does not make me feel like a woman, it makes me feel like a Dad. Maybe that sounds too self-important, but I think we often fail to recognize the importance of our roles as fathers.
Ask yourself how many times have you turned down or avoided opportunities to participate in parenting? What about taking a sick child to the doctor? When the mother offered to take them, did you just sigh with relief and return to the ball game? When a recital or band concert encroached on some other activity you preferred, what was your choice? I confess that I’ve been on the wrong side of these decisions more times than I’d care to admit. However, as men and fathers we should always strive to do better with the time we have.
But what if your attempts to engage more often in parenting triggers conflict? For example, suppose in the sick child scenario above, you inform the mother that your child is ill and you are going to take him/her to the doctor. You inform her in advance about when this will take place so she can attend also if she chooses. She then demands that you stay where you are until she comes to pick the child up to take him/her to the doctor. She contends that she has always handled doctor visits, so your presence would only make things awkward. What do you do? Any sort of resistance is bound to provoke conflict.
For these situations I like the analogy of a bull fighter. You might be tempted to match a charging bull with a charging bull of your own. You respond to the mother stating that it’s your time, so you inviting her to be there was only a courtesy. You add for good measure that you don’t care what she thinks, and you won’t tolerate any violation of you rights. The result would be proverbial grid-lock; neither party makes any advances other than increasing the level of conflict. I have seen cases where the police were called over things like this. It doesn’t have to be that way.
What is a better response to a charging bull than an equally ferocious charging bull? A bull-fighter. You would never see a bull-fighter take on a bull head-to-head. Successful bull-fighting requires finesse and foresight. A bull-fighter will artfully dodge each charge until the animal finally tires out. So how does this apply to conflict in custody cases?
Let’s return to our hypothetical. The mother demands that she and only she can take the child to the doctor. You respond saying you understand her wanting to be there, but you want to be there for the same reasons. You are willing to compromise by letting her drive the child to the doctor, but you will be there too. You ignore any traps or baiting techniques where she says you only want to be there so you will look good in court and that you have never been involved as a father. Your response to these insults, if any, is you disagree with her assessment and you will see her at the doctor’s office. She will most likely tire of the exchange and leave the matter alone. Your job in this situation is to stay focused on what matters. In the immortal words of Pops, a rebel-fighter from Star Wars, “stay on target!”
Sometimes these situations have unavoidable conflict. Some people just don’t quit, and they will raise you one level of acrimony in perpetuity. I think these situations would be far less frequent if one parent used constructive conflict resolution, but some are unavoidable. If the situation does not jeopardize the health and safety of your children, then it might be good to make a record by text messages, emails or recordings, then just give in. You will paint a picture of someone who tried his best to deal with an uncooperative co-parent to no avail. You will protect your children from destructive conflict.
I often hear clients complain “why do I always have to be the bigger person?” The answer is “because your kids are too important to risk their well-being just to satisfy your pride.” I realize the response to this question is nauseatingly simplistic, but sometimes facing hard truths is just that simple, at least in knowing what to do. I think oftentimes the most difficult part of facing a hard-truth is accepting it. Living it then becomes much easier. If you need another reason, following this pattern will be better for you strategically if you go to trial. Judges will look at whether one party has been more flexible and compromising. If joint custody can’t work, then sole custody is the only option. You will be the better choice for sole custody because you are more likely to put the children’s needs first and keep the other parent involved. Additionally, taking advantage of parenting opportunities as often as possible will show the Court that you can undertake any and all parenting responsibilities necessary to sustain an equal or sole custody role. More importantly, it will give you more opportunities to bond with your children and build solid relationships.