Former First Lady Michelle Obama managed to impugn a sizeable population of fathers this week when she compared Trump’s presidency to living with a divorced dad. Speaking at an event in London, Obama suggested that America was a troubled teen: “We come from a broken family, we are a little unsettled,” she offered before rolling out a tired and easy parenting stereotype. “Sometimes you spend the weekend with divorced dad. That feels like fun but then you get sick,” Obama continued. “That is what America is going through. We are living with divorced dad.”
The characterization of a divorced dad as a frivolous parent who puts fun above a child’s health is insulting. Obama was trying to make a point about irresponsible governance but miffed it. It’s certainly popular to come up with apter and less insulting metaphors for the Trump presidency (see: John Mulaney’s “Horse in a Hospital” bit). Frankly, it was a bit disappointing to hear the quote. I admire Michelle Obama. I admired it when she said we should go high when they go low. It felt like a strange, unforced error for her.
The reality of fathers affected by divorce is far more complicated than the pitiful, simpering, rule-averse caricature continually trotted out by popular culture. The fact is that divorced dads are doing the job of dads, and more and more they are doing that job in partnership with their ex-partner. And all of that is in spite of the fact that they face massive inequality in custody arrangements.
Still, when Michele Obama speaks of “divorced dad” she is talking about the fathers of 50 percent of American children whose parents will ultimately split. According to the last census, there were nearly 900,000 single dads in America raising children after a divorce. Another 400,000 were raising children after a separation. And depending on where that father lived they are unlikely to get equal custody with their ex. The national average shows that a father will receive about 35 percent of custody time, but 24 states routinely give fathers less than 30 percent custody time.
That means that divorced fathers have to get a lot done with a child in a lot less time. Back in the 70s and 80s, when custody arrangements were even more restricted divorced dads might have spent time with kids at McDonalds and Chuck E. Cheese to maximize bonding, but fatherhood has changed. Compared to the 1960s fathers engage in four times the amount of childcare and twice the amount of housework according to Pew Research Center. More than that, a full 63 percent of dads acknowledge feeling that they are not doing enough for their child.
Most modern divorced fathers understand that stability, consistency, and normalcy are key to their children continuing to thrive after a divorce. They understand that along with maintaining firm rules and boundaries with their child, they need to over-communicate with their ex-partner while taking time to keep their own stress levels and depression in check.
Fatherhood is not somehow less intensive after divorce, it’s more intensive. That said, not all divorced dads are great and Trump actually is a divorced dad who has gotten heat for treating Tiffany Trump, his daughter with Marla Maples, as an also-ran. So there’s that.
The problem is that as long as the idea persists that single fathers raise children in a way that is damaging, fathers will continue to struggle for equal custody, which is becoming a legal norm in more and more states. And that’s not just bad for fathers, it’s bad for their children as well (and potentially their former partners). As a first lady who was deeply concerned with the health of children, Michelle Obama needs to find a better way of expressing her frustration.