How Divorce Makes Men With Joint Custody Better Fathers

New research suggests that divorced men become better caregivers when their custodial arrangements don’t push them out of their children's lives.

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Elliot Katz always thought of himself as a good father. He gave his two young daughters baths after he got home from work, put them to bed, and did pretty much whatever his wife asked of him. Then his marriage took a turn for the worse and then came the divorce and then Katz had to recalibrate. Take stock. Keenly aware of the hazards faced by girls growing up without fathers present in their lives (lower earnings, higher penchant for sexual risk, anxiety, low self-esteem), Katz decided to redirect the resources he had put into his struggling marriage toward fatherhood. He successfully petitioned for more time with his daughters. He stopped looking for guidance from his wife. He set goals for himself as a father.

“After my marriage ended, I realized that just doing whatever your wife tells you is leaving responsibilities to her,” Katz told Fatherly. “Becoming a single parent made me a better father as it forced me to step forward and take responsibility for dealing with situations that in the past I probably would have just left for my wife to handle or to tell me what to do.”

Katz, who wrote a book about what he learned from his failed marriage, is the antithesis of the unengaged, beer-swilling, and girlfriend revolving “weekend dad” cliche— a construct a growing number of social scientists argue is a product of lopsided custodial arrangements, not fatherly apathy. In truth, Katz may be far from alone in finding divorce empowering as a parent. If Katz was unusual when he got divorced a decade ago when the de facto demotion of divorcing dads into uncle-figures was taken for granted, he’s far more representative now, as more men advocate for themselves and learn to better advocate for their children. Where divorce used to turn dads into peripheral figures, research suggests that it can provide them with room to become better fathers. And that research itself is driving changing custodial norms.

Clinical psychologist Richard Warshak, who’s studied divorced families for over a decade, knows a lot of men like Elliott Katz. When divorced parents take an informed and research- based approach to co-parenting, that tends to be the result. And assuming that mom and dad were always better parents to their kids than they were spouses to each other, it makes sense that they flourish in their new roles when they cast off their old ones. No longer drained by marital conflict, they’re able pursue parenting with focus.

And, yes, some of that is just about being happier. Divorce often makes people happier.

“It is easier for parents when they can cooperatively co-parent and share both the joys and the challenges of raising their kids,” Warshak says. “But I have heard many dads say that it is a relief to be able to make parenting decisions without their ex around to second-guess their choices. “

Parenting expertise is mostly acquired through experiential learning, and fathers tend to have a more multifaceted experience with children after a divorce. Divorced dads take on more of what researchers refer to as executive parenting tasks such as meal and activity planning. In addition, fathers spending time alone with their kids can no longer delegate nurturing roles to their partners, which means divorced fathers get more practice connecting with their kids emotionally than they did before. And without a teammate to tag in, they’re left to do the basic stuff as well: They comfort babies at night, sing lullabies, soothe ailments, and read Goodnight Moon over and over again. Even the many dads who did these all of these things while married stand to benefit; they get far more reps in and become stronger, more adept caretakers.

“I have no doubt that fathers learn parenting on the job, just like mothers,” Warshak says. “Men grow in self-confidence when they make child-rearing decisions and ably meet their children’s needs.”

This has a particularly profound effect for dads who sought to avoid marital conflict prior to divorce. Many of these men find themselves discouraged from being proactive or, more to the point, lack the courage to assert themselves. Separation can open the door for independent growth and to new parenting tactics a former spouse might have taken issue with.

All that said, research does not precisely support the claim that divorce makes men better dads. It’s more complicated than that because children of divorce have worse outcomes and outcomes are clearly the best way to measure parental success (which is obviously a bit nebulous at best). Children of divorce are more likely to underperform academically, act out sexually, and struggle with their mental health into adulthood. These are not signs of excellent parenting. Still, some scientists argue that the adverse effects of divorce are overstated and that while negative outcomes have been linked with the breakdown of traditional family structures, the differences between children of divorce and children with married parents are pretty slight overall. Marital conflict, these researchers say, is the problem. As such, divorce is a symptom and also a solution. Symptomhood explains the worst outcomes without suggesting that divorce itself is necessarily harmful.

Warshak argues that divorce research actually best demonstrates the consequences of father alienation. This argument is premised on data suggesting that divorce does not have particularly negative effects on children of divorce if and when they have significant time with their dads. Significant time here is defined as roughly 35 percent of allotted free time, which seems to be a sort of cutoff for abandonment and alienation effects. Studies suggest that children of divorce do better when they have regular overnights with their fathers, at any age. According to the American Psychological Association, children who share time evenly with both parents grow up with higher self-esteem, do better in school, have better family bonds, and are less vulnerable to behavior and emotional problems throughout their lives, compared to kids who only get to see their dads on weekends.

Given that children with divorced parents who spend ample time with their fathers tend to be as well-adjusted as their peers whose parents stay together, it’s not unreasonable to suggest not only that fathers step up in the wake of divorce, but also that the dynamics of divorce are causing more problems for fathers than the actual act of fathering.

In short, not all divorced dads are “weekend dads.” But that doesn’t mean that divorced dads can’t be a somewhat laughable group. Because many divorced dads haven’t been decision makers in their homes, they make unforced parenting errors. Dr.Victoria Shaw, a psychologist, says she sees this frequently. She recalls one specific patient who reminds her of many newly single dads. Early on into his divorce he screwed up and sent his kid to school when they were sick.

“While this behavior may have seemed uncaring, he simply lacked the appropriate skill set to manage this tricky situation. He really had no idea what to do,” Shaw explains. “These are hard situations for everyone, working moms too, but are often situations that dads have not had to deal with prior to divorce.”

Of course, sending his kid to school was unfortunate, but it was a mistake he did not repeat.

“This particular dad rallied and became an awesome and attentive single dad. It just took some time,” Shaw adds.

State by state, custody laws are gradually changing as the underlying assumptions about male and female caregivers give way under the weight of data, but even in states that call for 50/50 the crawl toward more equitable schedules has been slow, delayed by heightened emotions as well as deeply ingrained gender norms. The traditional idea that divorced mothers should be the sole custodian who grants fathers “visits” remains pervasive despite some progress. This is in part because men are more likely to be violent towards their children, but seems to be mostly a matter of habit. Perfectly capable fathers are regularly denied equal time. Psychologist Linda Nielsen, who has debunked decades of cherry-picked research indicating that fathers are expendable after divorce, suggests that fathers who have been breadwinners are unfairly treated in courts where they are not taken seriously as caretakers. Custody decisions end up being premised on explainable past behaviors rather than on potential.

“Even if you had that division of labor when you were married, you can’t use the same model for a family after you separate,” Nielsen, who recently published a textbook on the importance of father-daughter relationships, says. “You can’t pour the same wine into a different vessel.”

As much as society has shifted away from certain gender roles, other nuclear family norms for men and women remain oppressive. Fathers are still seen as breadwinners and mothers as nurturers, and people who skirt these norms are often judged harshly, which isn’t good for anyone. Divorce dismantles this dated system by allowing moms to realize untapped potential as providers and dads to realize potential as caregivers.

Studies on gay fathers challenge the idea of “maternal instincts” and show that parenting ability has little to do with being a woman in the same way that professionalism has nothing to do with being a man. Gay dads developed the same expertise when they were given the the same hands-on training as mothers in traditional marriages. This seems to indicate that differences in parental acuity mostly come down to differences in social and cultural conditioning. Most girls grow up playing house, caring for dolls, and babysitting for younger kids. Once grown, these women are primed for parenting in a way that most men are not. A gender gap in parenting confidence exists, but it is more a result of socialization than a biological imperative. Women get a huge head-start as caregivers, but men can catch up and do when given an opportunity.

“Surprisingly, divorce gives dads the opportunity to parent their children without day-to-day interference from the other parent,” Lisa Bustos, an Austin Texas based divorce attorney, told Fatherly. In Bustos’s experience, divorce can often make both moms and dads better parents because they have more down concrete downtime to recharge in shared parenting scenarios.

Bustos speculates that most divorced dads probably want more time with their children, but cannot get away from work and live up to their financial obligations. Despite the myth that many fathers advocate for more time in order to reduce their child support payments — in most states it doesn’t work that way — there’s an interesting tension between earning and parenting as a divorced dad. In states that default to 50/50 custody, fathers typically have to meet costly requirements like having a certain amount of bedrooms and living close to children’s schools, on top of paying as much child support they would have to pay if they saw them every other weekend. These financial obligations can push some fathers into even more traditional breadwinner roles and further out of their children’s lives. Again, the issue isn’t parenting. It’s constraints around parenting.

“As for being willing to play a significant role, usually fathers express the most regret that the need to work in order to financially support the family keeps them from being more present for their children,” Warshak says.

At the same time, divorced dads aren’t exactly victims either. Less than half of custodial parents, over 80 percent of whom are mothers, receive the full amount of child support they’re owed. More than a quarter don’t receive any money at all. Some dads who protest child support payments do so in order to ensure they don’t have visitation rights. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 39 percent of children between first the 12th grade do not see their dads, and despite many men taking on greater roles at home, rates of fatherlessness are on the rise across race and class. There’s also evidence that some of the biases against fathers in family court are overstated and that most men who seek out more time are typically awarded it, provided that kids are safe in their care. Warshak admits that court decisions increasingly reflect the research on what’s best for kids, comparable time with both parents. (That said, it’s important to note that the vast majority of custodial matters are handled outside of court and it’s possible that dads in these situations have less agency, acquiesce to less time with children, and internalize that they’re inferior caretakers.)

“Men have been programmed to think they’re not capable of taking care of a baby the way a woman is. That their baby needs it’s mommy more than it needs them,” Nielsen says. “If the fathers have already bought into it too, a lot of them aren’t going to feel entitled to be equal parents.”

Nielsen compares this internalization to what girls endure with STEM. There is no scientific evidence that boys are biologically predisposed to outperforming girls when it comes to math and science, but conditioning has made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Performance gaps between boys and girls are in math and science are now more attributed to a lack of confidence in the research. Men grow up with similar messaging about being the second-string parent, and that they should potentially be downgraded further if their marriages end.

To Bustos, every divorce is uniquely complicated, but what most of them have in common is that they’re emotionally and financially draining and some fathers (and mothers) may not be capable of stepping up after going through that. That doesn’t make them bad parents, it just means that divorce probably will not change their approach to parenting for the better either.

“It’s not fair to the kids to expect their needs will be fully met with one parent but only partially when with the other parent. But sometimes it does not make sense to do 50/50,” Bustos says. “Doing all of the small tasks of parenting takes a lot of time and mental energy. Not every parent is up for that.”

None of this is to suggest that fathers should use their children as guinea pigs to improve their parenting after the trauma of divorce. Rather, decades of research on divorce families, many of which had traditional weekend dad arrangements, reveal that most kids wish they had more time with their dads growing up. So the best thing divorced parents can do is give them that and accept that they don’t have to get along to act in the best interests of their children. There are a lot of myths about custody and fathers following a divorce, but one of the most pervasive of these is that shared parenting only works when exes are cordial. The reality is that children are happier and healthier when they spend at least 35 percent of their time with their dads regardless. It’s about love, not consensus.

And maybe that’s fine.

“If the other parent doesn’t want to cooperate, it can make you a better parent,” says Katz. “It pushes you to take responsibility, use your judgement, and deal with situations involving the children.”

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