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Fighting For Fatherhood
A Custody Battle, No Matter How Bloody, Can Yield An Unexpected Prize

By Brian Muldoon

Forget Kosovo and Rwanda. If you have a taste for ruthless combat, go no further than the nearest domestic relations courtroom. Despite the cessation of hostilities with our Cold War adversaries, we are still a nation at war. With ourselves.

You may think the comparison to war is extreme, but the impact is much the same. The primary difference is that it happens to one family at a time. Whether inflicted by military campaign or court order, the result is that each year, hundreds of thousands of households are destroyed, possessions scattered, families dispersed. Children often become hostages, watching as their parents are reduced to bitterness and hatred, intent on psychological and financial annihilation of the other. There is no Red Cross to aid the wounded, no Amnesty International to monitor for violations of human dignity. We simply pay the lawyers and the therapists and try to act as if things are perfectly normal. And learn to live with the post-traumatic stress, like victims of war around the world.

Why do so many divorces turn into nightmares? How can we avoid making a catastrophe from what once was a loving union of hopeful romantics? What should men know about the rules of engagement in the theater of gender warfare? And what does it mean to be a father in the heat of a custody struggle?

The Roots of Conflict.

There are several powerful forces that can turn a tragedy into a disaster. The first is passion, which can be either a negative force or an ecstatic one. When we are dependent on someone else, or deeply entangled with them, we can find ourselves swept away by feeling of betrayal, abandonment and rejection. If we lack the ability to process these feelings (that is, to express, digest and then eliminate them), or to put them in a larger philosophical or spiritual context, then they can take over our lives and run us into a brick wall. When you add a good dose of deception (present in so many failing relationships), then the "injured party" feels himself or herself to be morally superior and thus is able to justify even the most extreme form of revenge.

It takes a great deal of courage to deal honestly with the emotional truths that underlie the failure of a marriage. But doing so, and facing these realities together, is the only sure way I know to navigate the dangerous waters that begin to roil when love fades. One couple I know had a conversation that began with a fearless statement by the wife: "Ted, I have to accept responsibility for the fact that several years ago, when I decided to embark on my own career, I changed. I was no longer the woman you once loved and were so completely committed to. It's not you--it's me. So we need to find a way to bring things to an end, and work together to make sure the kids get what they need from us both. We both deserve to be happy."

When we don't face the difficult facts of life squarely, then our passions make us "passive"--we become pawns in a power struggle that we no longer can easily control. Even perfectly civilized people will find themselves on a quest to injure, disable or annihilate the other person (at least metaphorically, but often physically), whom we now think has transformed into the very embodiment of "evil." A follower of the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung would say that we are in the grip of our "shadows"--the parts of ourselves we like to think don't exist, or hope that no one can detect. But when we encounter the crisis of divorce, we may stop caring about keeping the shadow in the closet. Not if it will help us "win."

Divorcing couples often believe that an all-out battle will be cathartic, that it will clear the air and help us reach "closure." Perhaps. But it always inflicts a deep wound on the children, no matter who is right or emerges victorious. Why are children the target? Because, if you really want to devastate an enemy, take away the future. Attack the reproductive system. Hit 'em where it hurts. Accuse them of incompetence or even abuse. And then take away their children.

The Wisdom of Fatherhood.

Men and women can both be at fault when things go too far. But there is something about being a father, if we can operate from that place, that has the strength to pull us out of the nose dive. Even if the husband in us wants to go to war, the father in us knows better. The father is the one who can keep things in perspective, who rises above the fray when it matters, who is able to sacrifice the momentary spoils of war in favor of establishing peace in the realm. If the archetype (or ideal) of Mother is nurturing and loving, then the ideal of Father is wise and empowering.

We can lose track of these ideals when our survival seems at stake. So, even before fighting for our children, we may first have to fight for our fatherhood. Once we have our footing as fathers, then it may become clearer what road to take and how to get where you're going without becoming completely unglued.

Commitment, Competence and Contribution.

1. Commitment.
One of the real gifts of divorce is that it forces us to decide our priorities. Maybe the marriage suffered because we worked long hours or didn't help out enough, but that doesn't mean that we don't love our children passionately. And the decision to leave a relationship with our children's mother doesn't have anything to do with leaving our children. In fact, divorce for many men opens a direct channel to their children that may never have existed before. For the first time, the father may be making plans and choices that the mother may have made in the past.

So, let it flow. Enjoy the privilege and pleasure of nurturing your children into their own fullness. No matter what the decree says, no one can take your children away from you. Be there for them, and show them how much they mean to you every chance you get. It's okay if you feel selfish in loving them that much. Love doesn't always have to be a sacrifice.

But being involved doesn't have to mean they sleep over at your house three or four times a week. It doesn't even necessarily mean that you have joint custody. Being a father may mean loving from a distance, with telephone calls a few times a week, special trips, constant prayers, and openly empowering your ex-wife to carry the torch for now. When a man's heart is open to his children, there is nothing he won't do to help them through life's puddles and pains. A loving heart is a wise heart. It will know what to do.

2. Competence.
In the world of lawyers and judges and professionals (such as testifying psychologists and children's court-appointed advocates) who deal with child custody disputes on a daily basis, the unspoken (and untrue) conventional wisdom often is that men are less well-suited to parenting than are women. Perhaps in the same way that women have to go the extra distance to prove themselves in the working world, when it comes to parenting, men have to establish that they are both as committed and competent as the children's mother. So be prepared to demonstrate that you are something special, and not just a casual presence in your children's lives. Be impeccable: never violate any court order, never even touch your wife (or ex-wife) in an unfriendly way, always show up on time and bring them back as agreed. Know your children--the names of their teachers and friends, what they do in school, their favorite games, their dreams and fears. Be generous with their mother's requests and accountable for your own screw-ups. Be there for the kids. Leave work early, get to all the games, help with homework, dress them in clean clothes, let them know how much you love them. And don't tell them what you really think of their mother when she loses it.

In other words, be a great parent.

3. Contribution.
One of the most common complaints about men is that, "He only wants custody to avoid having to pay me child support." It's true that many divorced dads feel that, not only do their kids get taken away from them, but they have to pay ten or more years of penalty payments to their gloating ex-wives for the privilege. But the solution may be to negotiate an agreement that both provides enough time with your children (whatever the custody arrangement) and also makes financial sense for everyone involved. Don't demand unrealistic or artificial parenting schedules as a way to circumvent child support. Make sure the schedule is practical for everyone involved, and then address the monetary issues without tying them together. Perhaps (if the two of you get along well) you can create a joint bank account to be used for agreed expenses, to which both contribute. Maybe there are certain expenses for which each of you will be responsible. Get creative. But resist the pressure to entangle parenting questions with money issues. That way, if your spouse starts to use one as leverage for the other, you can remind her that you will always carry your share of the kids' expenses no matter what the arrangement.

Making Peace with Fatherhood.

Divorce shapes us, challenges us, pushes us to the edge. It forces us to learn the real meaning of fatherhood, and over that the courts have no jurisdiction. It doesn't depend on judgments or decrees. When we win the fight for fatherhood, we lose our fear of losing our children. And, perhaps, that's the gift that even the worst divorce can bring: that in forcing us to fight, it forces us to remember what matters most.

Brian Muldoon, the father of three, is a mediator in Evanston, Illinois, and the author of The Heart of Conflict (Penguin/Putnam,1996)

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