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We’ve Come a Long Way, Daddy?

How involved are fathers in their children’s lives these days?  Are we changing our fair share of diapers?  Helping our kids with their homework?  Putting them to bed?  Are most of us full, if not equal partners — or are we timid, taking all of our cues from Mom?

Obviously, there is a spectrum, from “stay-at-home dads” to those who abandon their children.  So, where are you, Padre?  And how much has parenting evolved in the last generation or two? 

Carrie Fried Sutton, Psy.D., a psychologist and marital and family therapist (and former president of the Metro New York Chapter of the New York Association of Marital and Family Therapists) in Bayside, sees big differences in how men parent today, as opposed to 35 years ago, when she first started out.  Generally speaking, she says, a large number of fathers are taking an active role in their children’s lives.

Additionally, of the fathers who come to Dr. Sutton’s office even reluctantly, most are open to the idea that they can be better, and more active parents.

Some dads who aren’t very involved “don’t take the initiative,” she reports.  For instance, “It is usually the mothers who are tracking needs.  Fathers aren’t thinking of . . . when to change diapers, what to eat.  They may be willing to give the child a bath, but are waiting for the mother to tell them it’s time.”  The mothers can be resentful:  “They say, ‘He should know when our son needs a bath.  Why should I have to tell him?’”

Dr. Sutton adds that, “Women often do feel overloaded.  It gets pretty weary having to keep track of all that stuff.  A lot of men will say, ‘Just tell me and I’ll do it’ . . . and she’ll complain, ‘He should know.’  But, I tell people, ‘Even if he doesn’t know, if you ask him and he will do it, ask him . . .  If you want something to work, you need to speak up.’”

Sometimes, Dr. Sutton points out, tensions arise because the mother wants the father to do things her way.  “With one couple, he was putting the kids to bed in a different way, and she felt it was disrupting her routine; but he worked long hours, and he wanted to have a little time with the children.  He was looking for more contact.  His needs were different from hers.”

In such cases, says Dr. Sutton, “I may let the wife know that the husband may do things differently, and that’s OK too.  I have the wife step back and give him a little more freedom.  If he wants to dress or feed their child a little differently, so be it.  Instead of saying, ‘That’s wrong,’ say, ‘It’s just a different way,’ and leave it be.”

Fathers who want to stay involved, and who are separated/getting divorced, are often aware that mothers are more likely to win custody, and may be scared off by the legal system.  Matt, from Kew Gardens, is 39, with a son, aged 10, and a daughter, 13.  He has been divorced for four years.  Matt, referring to the court system, says, “My lawyer said I could fight for joint physical custody, but I’d probably lose.  I spent a lot of time with my kids before the divorce, but she was home with them more.  Maybe I should have fought it — but I didn’t have the money, and the lawyer thought I’d lose.”

Matt calls the time spent with his children these days “really important to me,” but also “strained”.  Getting reacquainted after not seeing them for the better part of two weeks is “tough, like starting all over again each time.”  He adds that he’s luckier than some other divorced dads he knows, who, “after of couple of years don’t see their kids at all — or hardly ever.”

If many fathers want to raise their children, others feel differently.  There are fathers — and mothers — who abandon their families.  Dr. Sutton says that when this happens, “There is a huge hole in their lives, and I see a lot of adults who are still grieving about that.  Growing up, girls may be looking for a father figure.  In a couple, a woman may be hoping the man will provide for her what she did not get, and that puts an added strain on the relationship.”

Or, Dr Sutton says, after a father has left, “a mother may want a son to fill in, to be the ‘man of the house’.  I see people years later, decades later, where men become responsible for their mothers, and they’re still taking care of their mothers in a lot of ways because their fathers did not.”

A father’s absence, while very difficult for almost every child, regardless of age, may appear to be easier on a younger child, say under 2 or 3 years old. The greater part of their childhood memories will be after the separation, whereas older children have had a longer history of experiences which include the father, so that they may acutely experience the loss of the family unit they have been accustomed to.

There are those with a mindset that sees fathers as unnecessary altogether — or at most, less than crucial.  Consider the women profiled in a March, 2006 New York Times Magazine article, “Looking for Mr. Goodsperm”:  “They’re single women.  They’ve decided to have babies on their own.  And they’ve developed some pretty weird relationships with the guys who fill the test tubes.”
Dr. Sutton comments that these children, like ones who are adopted, may well be left wondering about the other parent, what he looks like, and so on.  She expressed the hope that these children will have loving adults of both sexes in their lives.

She underscores that, “it really benefits children when their fathers stay involved,” assuming the father is not abusive.  “In most cases, even if the father isn’t paying child support in a divorce, I still think that father should be involved with the child’s life, and the mother should deal with the money as a separate issue.  Child support shouldn’t be used as leverage.  The kids still need to see their father.”

Lee Chabin, Esq. is a divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer whose aim is ultimately to help clients end their relationships without going to court. He can be contacted at [email protected] or 718-229-6149. Learn more at


Helpful Websites

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Helping Children Cope With Divorce, Edward Teyber

Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Children, Isolina Ricci

(There are also numerous, very good books for children on divorce).

Divorce Support Groups
—Samuel Field YM&YWHA: Support groups:  for adults; for children; and for both adults and children (“Parent Child Supper Club”). 58-20 Little Neck Parkway, Little Neck; (718) 225-6750.

—Shelter Rock Church: Support group for adults, offering a Christian perspective. 626 Plandome Road, Manhasset; (516) 627-2270; Ask for Steven Avalos-Bock.

For many kinds of assistance
EAP (Employee Assistance Program): Some employers offer this program, which can be extremely helpful in a crisis, and on a short-term basis (several months, for instance).  Ask your employer if they have an EAP program.  Often available on a 24-hour basis, calls are usually both free and confidential.


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