The divorced father contributes to his children’s health and well being by maintaining a healthy relationship with his former partner and providing emotional and financial support, monitoring and disciplining his children and being a reliable and loving presence in their lives.
The divorced dad is one manifestation of the modern day father, who is no longer the traditional married breadwinner and authoritarian disciplinarian in the family. The modern dad comes in many shapes and sizes: single or married, employed or stay-at home, gay or straight, an adoptive or stepparent. Even as he may come in one of these manifestations, he may also be a divorced father who struggles to be a capable caregiver to his children when they face physical or psychological challenges of growing up.
A father’s relationship with his child’s mother serves an important influence on his involvement. Absent fathers frequently disconnect from their children. Lacking even a minimally close relationship, as is the case when couples become acquaintances, generally means lower levels of paternal engagement of children.
The modern dad is one of cultural changes of the 1960s. In tandem with the growing autonomy of women, related trends such as declining fertility, increasing rates of divorce and remarriage, and childbirth outside of marriage have occasioned a transition from traditional to multiple undefined roles for many fathers. Today’s fathers increasing assume roles vastly different from even their own fathers. No longer can a modern dad – divorced or married – boast that he never changed a dirty diaper.
Divorce often reduces dad to a visitor in the lives of his children. Divorce makes it more difficult if not impossible for fathers to maintain the same parenting roles they had with their own children when the family was intact. Most divorced fathers become non-custodial parents who enjoy visitation rights with their children. As a result, maintaining their roles as parents can be difficult due to the reduction in time spent with their children.
Moreover, even under the best conditions, children of divorce — and later, remarriage — are twice as likely to academically, behaviorally and socially struggle as children of intact first-marriages.
Visitation by fathers after divorce has increased over the past two decades, but what matters is the quality of the visits, not the frequency of contact between father and child.
The key factors that contribute to healthy adjustment for children post-divorce and the child’s well being include
> appropriate parenting, which means providing emotional support, monitoring children’s activities, disciplining authoritatively and maintaining age appropriate expectations);
> maintaining enough access to the non-residential parent, which means appropriate visitation;
> fashioning suitable custody arrangements, (joint legal custody often results in shared decision making, more father-child visits, regular child support payments and more satisfied and better adjusted children)
> reducing parental conflict, which makes for psychologically healthy caregivers.
Very often a divorce dad faces the added challenge of being a stepparent. One in three Americans is part of a stepfamily. Stepfathers must strike a balance between maintaining healthy relationships with their ex-spouses in order to benefit their biological children without alienating their new partners even as they struggle with the labors of parenting. In addition, it sometimes takes years before their stepchildren accept them as “real” parents. The type of stepfamily with best outcomes for children consists of parents form a solid, committed partnership so they can not only nurture their marriage, but also effectively raise their children. These parents don’t follow unrealistic expectations of what the family should be like.
The stay at home dad – be he divorce or married – is a new figure on the cultural landscape. While Mr. Dads are small in number (an estimated 159,000 out of the nation’s 64 million), he is a new type of patriarch who is primarily charged with care giving, and the number of stay-at-home dads is growing at a rapid pace, having increased by 50 percent between 2003 and 2006. A spouse’s stronger earning potential, the desire to serve as the primary caregiver; and a shared reluctance along with their spouse to allow someone else to the children — all may contribute to the decision to stay home with their children.
Stay-at-home fathers do not feel bound by the social conventions of masculine behavior. Most of these fathers are comfortable being affectionate and nurturing with their children, characteristics that are traditionally thought of as feminine. In addition, despite their increasing numbers their relative rarity can isolate them from other full-time parents. Some fathers report being shunned from playgroups and eyed suspiciously at the playground by stay-at-home mothers.
The divorced dad may also be gay, who, like a straight man, now lives his life openly and to establishes long-term, supportive and loving relationships. They are beginning to start families. With the growing numbers of gay fathers in our society, research suggests that they are likely to divide the work involved in child care relatively evenly and that they are happy with their couple relationships, and that gay men make perfectly fit parents. Research and empirical evidence suggests that gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive home environments for children. Research has found no evidence that gay men are mentally ill, that gay men’s relationships with sexual partners leave little time for ongoing parent-child interactions.
Extensive research over the last three decades shows that homosexuality is not a mental disorder; there is no reliable evidence that it impairs psychological functioning, although the discrimination and prejudice gay men face can often cause acute distress. Likewise, beliefs that gay men are not fit parents have no empirical foundation.
Straight, step or gay, the responsible father provides financial support, care and emotional support. And straight, step or gay, a divorced father’s affection and increased family involvement helps promote children’s social and emotional development. The influence of father’s love on children’s development is as great as the influence of a mother’s love. Fatherly love helps children develop a sense of their place in the world, which helps their social, emotional and cognitive development and functioning. Moreover, children who receive more love from their fathers are less likely to struggle with behavioral or substance abuse problems.