When the court decides custody and visitation, many men leave the court feeling cheated. In the vast majority of cases, when custody is contested, courts award physical (or primary) custody to the mother, who becomes the custodial parent, and visitation rights (“parenting time”) to the father, who is the noncustodial parent and who also pays child support.
This routine sets in motion what is called “parental drift,” whereby the father becomes less important in his child’s life. The drift becomes more pronounced if the man remarries and has a second family with his new wife.
For a father to be awarded physical custody is always unpleasant. The husband must prove that his wife is unfit. Demonstrating maternal incompetence is difficult and often nasty. Moreover, in many courts, judges remain in the sway of established ideas such as the “Maternal Preference” and the “Tender Years Doctrine”, both of which reinforce the idea that all other things being equal, a child’s “best interests” are served by living with his or her mother. In deciding contested child custody, support and visitation, courts navigate by what is called “the best interests of the child,” the “North Star”, so to speak, that gives judges a wide degree of latitude. Indeed, in truth, the phrase means what the judge says it means.
Divorced fathers very often slide into a vortex of despair about their children even when the husband agrees that the child is better off with the mother. Many noncustodial fathers soon come to believe that the court “sides” with the woman and that she uses visitation as a weapon against him. Very often noncustodial fathers resent, not supporting their children, but paying money without a say in how the money is spent. Some men come to believe that child support payments are not being used for their children.