Societal Vengeance Wreaked Upon The Deadbeat Dad, by Wade Mackey, Ph.D.
A look at the myth vs truth behind the "Deadbeat Dad" image that society and the media
Recent concern on fatherless families in (especially) the U. S. has created what would otherwise be viewed as a scapegoat: the Deadbeat Dad. The imagery, approaching the mythological in character, of the Deadbeat Dad has cast such individuals as the villainous cause of the plight of the American family. By what is close to a definition, the Deadbeat Dad is viewed as a man who has fathered a child, deserted the mother and her & his children, and then refused to share the economic responsibilities of nurturing his child to independence. Thereby, were Deadbeat Dads to shoulder their financial responsibilities toward their children, then family problems would vanish or at least be ameliorated. It is suggested that such imagery camouflages a reality more difficult for the populace to accept, much less to devise an appropriate public policy which would cope with the reality. While Deadbeat Dads do create financial burdens for the mother, mothers' choices, in the main, create fatherless families.
Within the last few years, the rise in the number of children in the U. S. who are being reared by a single parent has gravitated from a descriptive demographic statistic to a matter of some concern to governmental officials as well as to the professional and popular presses/electronic media. The single parent is overwhelmingly the mother. In 1995, 28% of minor children lived with mother only, 4% with father only, and 5% with neither parent. Sixty-three percent of the minor children lived with both parents (U. S. Bureau of the Census 1996). Framed differently, 75. 7% of children who were not living with their two parents were living with mother only, 10. 8% were living with father only, and 13. 5% were living with neither their mother nor their father. Note that more minor children were living with neither parent than with the father only. Hence, the bulk of the changes in family structure which have occurred have involved the abrading of the father-figure from the mother-child dyad.
The net costs of fatherlessness to the child have been a source of some debate. For examples of emotional, psychological and social deficits in children which are aligned with fatherlessness, see Blankenhorn (1995), Hanson, McLanahan & Thomson (1996), Hofferth et al. (1 994), Phares & Lum (1997), Popenoe (1996) (of Adams, Milner, & Schrepf 1984). In what may be a barometer on how the folklore of the society operates, the reaction to the abrading is most interesting.
The focus upon ameliorating those problems which would flow from fatherlessness has not been on the causes of the abrading. The focus has tended to be on the economic (ir)responsibilities of the "father" afterthe man has been precluded from or peeled away from the role of social father. Furthermore, the wrath of politicians and the literati and the academics has been directed at the biological father's dereliction of his economic duties to the child he has sired. A new bogeyman was invented in our urban mythology: the Deadbeat Dad. Of interest is the fact that, if 100% of the Deadbeat Dads fully carry out 100% of their financial responsibilities, the problem of fatherlessness is not addressed at all. Only the financial burdens of the mother are lessened. The family is still sundered. The child is still fatherless.
Women's choices and fatherlessness. It is argued here that "fatherlessness" is very much a function of women's choices. In only a small proportion of incidences do men/fathers have even a marginal opportunity to affect the choices made by the women. If such an argument does have a dollop of eternal verity, a most intriguing problem then presents itself: Can the U. S. , or any society, analyze the eventuality or even entertain the possibility that women's priorities for their own independence trump that of the welfare of their children?
The persona of the Deadbeat Dad. A search in one of the current data bases -- Infotrac -- found that there were 38 sources which included the key word "Deadbeat". Of those 38, 20 were aligned with "Dad", hence Deadbeat Dad. A search for "Deadbeat mother" found four sources. All four described how mothers deal with Deadbeat Dads. There were no sources which used the phrase "Deadbeat Mom". Some of the more lyrical titles of articles related to Deadbeat Dads included: "Collecting from deadbeat dads" (Mansnerus 1996), "Deadbeat dads under fire" (Cross 1996). "Triumphing over a deadbeat dad" (Anonymous 1995), "Clinton cracks down on deadbeat parents" (Laabs 1995), "Dunning deadbeats" (Van Biema 1995). Van Biema's abstract is informative: "The Clinton Administration has taken aim at deadbeat dads, and Congress has given new child-support enforcement tools to the states. The new form bountyhunters who seek out these deadbeat dads are discussed". (emphases added). How the men came to be separated from their children was very systematically avoided.
There are only two main routes to the chronic separation of fathers from their children: single parent births and divorce. (1) Each of these two will be examined below.
Single parent births & the Deadbeat Dad. There are three steps involved in this route for a man to become a Deadbeat Dad.
First, the man is to become a biological father, then
Second, he does not enter into the role of social father, and then
Third, he fails to make court mandated payments to the mother. A note on these payments is useful here. The payments are entitled "child support"; however neither the father nor the child nor the governing unit, which mandates the payments, has any control or monitoring how the man's funds are actually spent. The term "child support" could represent a triumph of optimism, hope and naivete over rigorous accounting procedures.
The first step: Become a biological father. Let's look at the first point: "Become a biological father". The Roe v. Wade decision created a salient gender asymmetry. With abortion legal, a pregnant woman could and can choose to become a parent or not. The government cannot mandate that the woman must carry the "conceptus" to term, nor can the government mandate that the woman must abort the conceptus. The choice on the future of the pregnancy belongs to the woman, and only to the woman. The government cannot coerce parenthood upon the woman.
Once a conception has occurred, the man, as a matter of contrast, has zero choice concerning his potential parenthood, none whatsoever. If the woman decides to abort his child, his child is aborted. The man has no legal recourse.
If the woman does decide to carry the child to term and to give birth, the man cannot prevent her. He has no legal recourse. If the woman decides for herself to become a parent, she also decides that the man will become a parent. The government then determines that the genitor is a "parent", whether he wishes to be or not. The government can then dun him -- the genitor -- for "child support" for at least eighteen years. The government can coerce parenthood upon the man. What is an unacceptable act it directed toward the woman -- coerced parenthood -- happens to men everyday. The differential public response to female circumcision, invariably viewed as inappropriate, versus male circumcision, invariably not reported at all, represents an interesting analogue.
The second step: Avoid the role of social fatherIf the man offers marriage to the woman, she may accept or reject his proposal. If she rejects him, the man has no legal recourse. He cannot force marriage upon the woman. The government cannot force marriage upon the woman. Once his child is born to the single mother, the man has virtually no de facto rights toward his child. The unmarried father does have de jure rights vis-a-vis his child, and family law, in most states has articulated a gender-neutral position in terms of custody (Weyrauch & Katz 1983; Westfall 1994). However, in day-to-day realities, women dominate in receiving custody of the child (again, more children live with neither parent than with father-only). In effect, all of his "parenting" efforts must be funneled through the single mother. His level of parenting can be determined by the personal decisions of a particular woman. How the women fulfills her role of "gatekeeper" more depends upon her individual circumstances and her personality than upon legal edicts. The government is simply not in a structural position to influence effectively the level of parenting by unwed fathers.
The numbers here are not trivial. Approximately 1,529,000 abortions occur each year or 379 abortions per 1,000 live births. In addition, 31. 0% of all births, or 1,240,000 births (in 1993) were to single parent mothers (U. S. Bureau of the Census 1996). Of these 2,769,000 conceptions (1,529,000 + 1,240,000 = 2,769,000), the man has no legal recourse to influence any of them: zero.
Thus, women's choices are driving single parent births, not men's. Women's choices are creating these fatherless families. The Deadbeat Dads are lowering the resources available to the mother, but are not leaving the role of social father. They were never in the role of an on-going, social father, nor do they have any legal mechanism to adopt that role.
Divorce & the Deadbeat Dad.
The second main route for a fatherless family is through divorce. The steps in this route for a man would be:
First, the man would marry a woman, and then,
Second, he would become a biological & social father, and then
Third, a divorce would occur with the mother receiving custody of any children, then
Fourth, he would fail to make mandated payments to the mother.
Patterns in petitioning The key questions become: What are the central tendencies?Who is petitioning for divorce?An important point to note is that most petitioners are female. And here a caveat needs to be made. The micro-politics of divorce can be convoluted, and divorces are not always predicated on simple, straightforward truths. The legal system -- even in the simplified world of "no-fault" divorce -- plus deeply felt emotions, plus ambivalences of divided loyalties create a multi-dimensional human map with complex stratagems and motivations (see Chesler 1986; Luepnitz, 1982; Maccoby & Mnookin 1992; Wallerstein & Blakeslee 1989; Wallerstein & Kelly 1980). For example, a petition may occur more as a preemptive strike than as a marker for the more dissatisfied partner. In gist, however, although there is probably not a perfect consonance between marital reality and who petitions versus who responds, there is probably a substantial overlap between the stated, overt dissatisfaction and the actual, covert dissatisfaction of a marriage entering into the arena of dissolution. End of caveat.
Because all the states have some equivalent of "no-fault" divorce, if one spouse wishes to end the marriage, the divorce will occur. Legally, the wishes of the respondent are irrelevant. Custody of children and property can be contested, but the divorce, itself, cannot be contested.
In the interval for which data are available both by petitioner and by number of children, 1982-1986, the mean percentage of divorces petitioned by men was less than the mean percentage petitioned by women at all numbers of children (zero children to three-or-more). The low percentage for the wife was 55. 9% at zero children and the high was 65. 7% at three-or-more children. The low percentage for the husband occurred at three-or-more children (27. 4%) and the high was at 35. 5% when zero children were involved (National Center for Health Statistics 1989, 1996). In 1988, 32. 5% of all divorces were petitioned by the husband and 60. 7% of the divorces were petitioned by the wife (number of children were not available) (National Center for Health Statistics 1996). Again, women predominated as petitioner. See Buckle et al. [1996) for a similar pattern in England and Wales, and see the Beijing Review (1995) for a similar pattern in China. Here, too, the U. S. numbers are not trivial. For the U. S. , in 1990, 1,075,000 minor children were involved in a divorce situation (U. S. Bureau of the Census 1996).
Germane to this exercise is what happens when at least one child is involved in the divorce. When comparing childless divorces to the divorces with at least one child, the percentage of women petitioners increased when a minor child was involved and the percentage of men petitioners decreased when a minor child was involved. That is, when a child is added to marriage, mothers became more prone to petition for divorce and fathers became less prone to petition for divorce.
The following figures are of special interest. The percentages of husbands' petitions in marriages with no children were higher (35. 5%) than the percentages of husbands' petitions in marriages with one child (27. 8%), two children (27. 6%) and three or more children (27. 4%) (Z-scores of 49. 8, 46. 7 and 33. 7 respectively; p < . 001; 2-tailed). [Note that, after the first child, as additional children are involved in a divorce, the father's tendency to petition for divorce does not change. The figures are virtually identical (one child, 27. 8%, two children, 27. 6%, and three-or-more children, 27. 4%).
This pattern of the husbands contrasts sharply with that of the wives' pattern. For the wives, the percentages of petitions in marriages with no children (55. 7%) were lower than the percentages of petitions in marriages with one child (64. 8%), two children (64. 7%) and three-or-more children (65. 6%) (Z-scores of 55. 1, 50. 1, and 39. 1 respectively; p < . 001; 2-tailed). Again, after the first child is considered, additional children do not affect the tendency to petition. The figures are one-child (64. 8%), two children (64. 7%), and three-or-more children (65. 6%).
When considering all of the divorces petitioned by the husbands, 51. 3% of all of their petitions were from childless marriages. For wives, only 41. 8% of all of their petitions were from childless marriages. The percentage of husband's petitions (51. 3%) in childless marriages was significantly higher than that of the wives' (Z-score = 64. 7; p <. 001; 2-tailed). However, for divorces with one, two, and three-or more children, the percentage of wives who petitioned for divorces was higher than similar figures for husbands (Z-score of 35. 8, 30. 8, and 21. 0 respectively; p <. 001; 2tailed). It should be noted that once a divorce occurs, the tendency is that contact between the biological father and his child diminishes rapidly. See Dudley (1 991), Furstenberg et al. (1 983), Furstenberg et al. (1987), and Seltzer (1991) for examples and figures. See Braver et al. (1991) for a discussion on reasons for the lessened contact. Accordingly, the legalistic notion of "visitation rights" which is devised to maintain contact between the father and his children is usually supplanted by the behavioral pattern of an ever lessening father-child contact.
Let's return to those fathers who were separated from their children via divorce. Almost two-thirds (65. 1%) of the divorces involving children were petitioned by the mother, not the father. With the earlier caveat of the intricacies and machinations of divorce strategies and counter-strategies still in effect, it is clear that it is the mother who is mainly responsible for the legal separation of the father from his children. To investigate the magnitude of, the gender asymmetry, let's follow a normative cohort of 100 married men (from Mackey 1996).
U. S. Divorce Data and married men.
Sixty to eighty men will marry, but not divorce.
Twenty to forty men will divorce: two-thirds of the divorces involve 0 or 1 child (13 to 27 men) :one-third of the divorces involve two-or-more children (7 to 13 men).
Thus, most men who become biological & social fathers have entered fatherhood for the long haul, at least until their children reach adulthood. They marry, become a parent, and stay in that role. Those fathers that do separate (or are separated) from their children represent a small minority of fathers as a class.
Parenthetically, although indelicate to present, the idea of cuckoldry is quite relevant. It is clear that men do initiate some divorce proceedings. If a husband becomes aware that the child whom his wife has delivered was not his child, but another man's biological child, then the husband has a choice to make. He can decide to be a social father to another man's lineage, or, on the other hand, he may have no intention of raising another man's child. At that moment, were the husband to petition for a divorce, from his perspective, he has terminated a childless marriage. And, again from his vantage point, his divorce involved zero children. Husbands generally take a very dim view of being cuckolded (Shapiro 1987; Sullivan & Allen 1996; see Ellis & Walsh  for estimates of percentages of children born into such circumstances). Jealousy cum cuckoldry have resulted in many a violent denouement (see Daly & Wilson [1987, 19881 and Blankenhorn,  for discussions on family violence).
Of the 7 to 13 men who marry and divorce with 2-or-more children, only 2 to 4 of the men would have initiated the divorce proceedings. How were the figures of 2 to 4 men generated?From Table 1, about 27. 5% of the divorces involving two-or-more children were petitioned by the father; thus (7 men x 27. 5% =1. 925 or 2 men), and (13 men x 27. 5% = 3. 575 or 4 men). Thus, for a cohort of 100 married men, only 2%-4% of the men petition for a divorce involving 2-or-more children. If a non-zero percentage of the men also gain custody of their children, then the figures for fathers who deliberately desert their children are even less.
Perceptions of motivations to divorce. The National Survey of Families and Households (1987) (from Chadwick & Heaton 1992) asked men and women who had divorced: Who wanted the divorce?Both the former husbands and the former wives indicated that it was the wives who more wanted the divorce. The former wives, compared to the former husbands, were more salient in the female bias. That is, the women's estimation of their own wishes to terminate the marriage was higher than the men's estimation of the women's wishes to terminate the marriage. Thus, the "court" data -- quantitative in character -- on a female bias to petition for divorce is consonant with the "perception" data -- qualitative in character -- from the surveyed participants.
Reasons to divorce It should be noted that, when surveyed, women strongly indicate that they want to divorce for reasons of removing psychological constraints or of removing levels of psychological unhappiness, i. e. lack of sufficient happiness (Burns 1984; Cleek & Pearson 1985; Gigy & Kelly 1992; Greif & Pabst 1988; Thurnher, Fenn, Melichar, & Chiribota 1983). Note also in Table 4 (not re-printed here, but available from the author), that, across the six surveys, reasons for divorce which would probably impact directly and negatively upon the children of the family were not ranked very high by the women. These reasons are highlighted in the Table. For example, "financial problems" ranked 5(th), 5(th), 8(th), 9(th), 3(rd) and unranked. "Spouses' drinking" ranked 7(th), 6(th), unranked, lst, unranked and unranked. "Spouse is violent"/Physical abuse" ranked 9(th), unranked, unranked, 3(rd), 8(th), and 5(th). "Disagreement over children" was ranked in only one survey (Burns 1984 [an Australian study]) and that was a rank of 1 0. Of course, an unhappy mother may not create an optimum environment for her child; however, the relative (dis)advantage of such an environment for the child compared to a fatherless environment remains unknown.
Women's choices Again, the thesis being offered here is that the separation of fathers from their children, via divorce, is primarily driven by women's choices, by mothers' choices. It is at this juncture, that our, perhaps any, culture may have lurched into a difficult quandary. Mothers, in large numbers, are choosing either to preclude men from their role of social father, hence from their own children, or to peel away fathers from their children through "no-fault" divorce. A reasonable interpretation is that, in the mother's hierarchy of priorities, her own independence often has greater potency than the needs of her child(ren) for a father. To the extent this reasonable interpretation is accurate for a non-trivial number of mothers. , a structural problem would assuredly arise in the relevant commonweal.
The image of mothers. In societies across the world's community of cultures, the image of "mother" is a very positive one indeed. To wit:
"God could not everywhere, and therefore He made mothers". Jewish proverb
"It is safer to be in a mother's lap than in a lord's bed". Estonian proverb
"He's bare of news who speaks ill of his mother. " Irish proverb
"No bones are ever broken by a mother's beating. " Russian proverb
"An ounce of mother is worth a ton of priest". Spanish proverb
"An ounce of motherwit is worth a pound of clergy". Scottish proverb
"In the eyes of its mother, every beetle is a gazelle". Moroccan proverb
Certainly Western literature is replete with a positive imagery of the Mother-figure or Madonna. For example,
If I were hanged on the highest hill, Mother o'mine, 0 mother o'mine I know whose love would follow me still Mother o'mine, 0 mother o'mine -- Rudyard Kipling
Who ran to help me when I fell, and would some pretty story tell, Or kiss the place to make it well? My mother -- Ann Taylor
Womanliness means only motherhood. All love begins and ends there -- Robert Browning
Jung's (1968) archetype of "mother" reflects the universally positive image of the mother figure (cf Margolis 1984; Rohner 1975). On the other hand, the image of the U. S. father has been batted around like a shuttlecock, from the bumbling Dagwood (Day & Mackey 1986, LaRossa & Reitzes 1993) to the aloof patriarch (Biller 1974; Biller & Meredith 1975; Coolsen 1993; cf Smuts 1995), to the egalitarian mother surrogate (Clary 1982; Greenberg 1985; Greene 1984; Levine 1976), to the sub-par domestic (Coltrane 1996; Coverman & Sheley 1986; Hochschild 1989; Nakhaie 1995; Shelton 1992; Shelton & John 1993). Aside from a few Freudian sorties, the American mother has been virtually taboo to challenge. There have been critics of different types or emphases of mothering, but the value of a mother, per se, has remained largely unchallenged. Clearly, as a matter of contrast, the value of a father in the current U. S. is quite problematic for large segments of our society.
CONCLUSION The above data do suggest that a core to the nuclear family has been fragmented, and it is the mother who is driving the fragmentation. The question becomes: Why is the mother not the focus of any analysis of family fragmentation? The following is an attempt at a partial answer.
Just as "witches" served as scapegoats or vents for Medieval peasants when forces over which they had no control were vexing them, e. g. plagues, crop failures, drought, storms (Harris 1974), the Deadbeat Dad, rather than the mother, is much the more palatable target for our citizens to focus upon and to deride and to vilify. In the instances of both the "witch" and the "Deadbeat Dad", the populace can feel like it is doing something in response to a problem that is otherwise unmanageable. A psychological poultice is applied which is soothing, but does not address the cause of the distress.
Castigating "motherhood" itself may create a good deal of social turbulence. Kuhn's (1962) idea of a paradigm is relevant here. Virtually all societal baselines or frames of reference include the mother-child dyad which acts as a spine of the society (Barry & Paxson 1971; Hewlett 1992; Mackey 1996; Weisner & Gailimore 1977; cf Schlegel 1972). Attached to this spine is a consistent on-going man, a social father. The man is usually the biological father, but occasionally the mother's brother (avunculus) fulfills the role. This triad of man-woman-child is an epicenter around which all other societal institutions must seamlessly mesh. If the woman herself perturbates the triadic core, then it is argued here that the society really has no perspective on how to deal with the perturbation. There is no precedent, hence no paradigm, available to guide societal responses. Thereby, rather than challenge the core beliefs or assumptions in a commonweal, scapegoats are a much more inviting, and much less threatening, target. Furthermore, the end-game for the problem with Deadbeat Dads is easy to imagine. The men are merely to pay out more dollars. The concept is simple and concrete. The solution is manageable. Everyone can understand the dynamics of writing a check. The mechanisms or dynamics by which women are pressured to forego single parent births or to stay in a non-ecstatic, non-fulfilling marriage are much harder to envision, which less execute. Nonetheless, it is argued here that our mega-tribe has a priority to resolve. Either women's independence is to be evaluated by the commonweal to be more important than a child's need for a father or the reverse.
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