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Protest TIME Magazine’s Father’s Day Hatchet Job on Dads!

June 12th, 2007 by Glenn Sacks, MA for Fathers & Families

TIME magazine’s new Father’s Day hatchet job on divorced and separated fathers–“Daddy Dearest: What Science Tells Us About Fatherhood”–questions whether fathers “have done a good enough job to deserve the honor” of having a Father’s Day. The contents page reads “Behavior: Why some animal fathers are more nurturing dads than many men are.”

In the article, which appears in the June 18 issue of TIME magazine, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Mary Batten write:

“In the U.S., more than half of divorced fathers lose contact with their kids within a few years. By the end of 10 years, as many as two-thirds of them have drifted out of their children’s lives. According to a 1994 study by the Children’s Defense Fund, men are more likely to default on a child-support payment (49%) than a used-car payment (3%). Even fathers in intact families spend a lot less time focused on their kids than they think: in the U.S. fathers average less than an hour a day (up from 20 minutes a few decades ago), usually squeezed in after the workday.”

The drumbeat continues–dads don’t care, dads walk out, dads are stingy. All of these canards have been debunked many times, but that doesn’t stop the mainstream media’s attacks on fathers and fatherhood.

To write a Letter to the Editor of TIME magazine, click here.

Let’s look at each of these accusations individually:

Criticism #1) “In the U.S., more than half of divorced fathers lose contact with their kids within a few years. By the end of 10 years, as many as two-thirds of them have drifted out of their children’s lives.”

In other words, dad’s a cad who walks out and doesn’t look back. The authors’ assertions are contradicted by a large body of research.

We’re not given a source for this information, but it is likely the highly-influential and highly-publicized study conducted by Frank Furstenburg, Ph.D. and his associates. Furstenburg used a large, representative national sample in his study, and he found that half of the children in his study had not seen their noncustodial parent–usually dad–during the previous year. Furstenburg labeled these men the “disappearing dad.”

Arizona State University researcher Sanford Braver, who conducted the largest federally-funded study of divorced dads ever done, points out that there are many problems with Furstenburg’s research:

1) Furstenberg’s research is based only on custodial mothers’ views–the fathers were never asked. I doubt many fathers would feel their angry ex-wives are a particularly accurate source of information about their bonds with their children.

2) Those who cited Furstenburg’s research widely presumed it applied only or primarily to divorced dads, as did the TIME magazine article’s authors. However, in his study Furstenburg did not distinguish between divorced dads and never married fathers. When Furstenburg’s colleague Judith Seltzer later separated the two groups, she found that divorced fathers were more than twice as likely to have retained contact with their children as never-married dads.

3) The survey, which is used to condemn American fathers in June of 2007, was based largely on divorces which occurred in the late 1960s! A tremendous amount has changed in the area of gender roles in the past 40 years.

Braver’s study found that–by either parent’s account–90% of fathers had contact with their kids in the past year. Of those who lived within 60 miles of each other, there was virtually universal contact.

Moreover, Braver’s research found that to the degree that divorced fathers’ contact with their children is infrequent, the cause is very often not the fathers’ lack of desire, but instead attempts by mothers to push their ex-husbands out of their children’s lives.

According to the Children’s Rights Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, more than five million American children each year have their access to their noncustodial parents interfered with or blocked by custodial parents. We get no sense of this enormous social problem from the TIME article.

Criticism #2) “According to a 1994 study by the Children’s Defense Fund, men are more likely to default on a child-support payment (49%) than a used-car payment (3%).”

Whereas TIME magazine assumes that dads don’t pay because they don’t care, Braver found in his research that “unemployment is the single most important factor relating to nonpayment.” Braver notes that his findings were “consistent with virtually all past studies on the topic” and that it “belies the image that divorced fathers don’t pay because they refuse to though they are truly able to pay.”

Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data shows that two-thirds of those behind on child support nationwide earned poverty-level wages; less than four percent of the national child support debt is owed by those earning $40,000 or more a year. According to an Urban Institute study, even among fathers who experience income drops of 15% or more, less than one in 20 are able to get courts to reduce their child support payments. In the interim, arrearages mount, along with interest (10% or more in many states) and penalties. This greatly contributes to child support noncompliance.

The “child support vs. used car” comparison is spurious. For one, divorced fathers don’t just pay child support–they sometimes also pay spousal support, and are frequently saddled with stiff and sometimes catastrophic divorce-related legal fees, often including those of their ex-wives. Also, child support alone often comprises a third or even half of a divorced fathers’ take-home pay.

In California, for example, a noncustodial father of two earning a modest $3,800 a month in net income pays $1,300 a month in child support–almost $300,000 over 18 years. For the financial burden to be equivalent, the father would have to buy a hell of a lot of used cars. 

One more point–since noncustodial mothers’ default rate on child support is higher than that of noncustodial dads, the “child support vs. car payment” statistic which is used to vilify fathers also applies to mothers.

Criticism #3) “Even fathers in intact families spend a lot less time focused on their kids than they think: in the U.S. fathers average less than an hour a day (up from 20 minutes a few decades ago), usually squeezed in after the workday.”

We’re not given a source for the assertion that “fathers in intact families spend a lot less time focused on their kids than they think,” but it may have been taken, to one degree or another, from Susan Faludi’s 1991 anti-male bestseller Backlash. In that book she contrasts what men and fathers do around the house with what Faludi says men “think” they do.

And who’s to tell them they’re wrong, that they don’t do much, they only “think” they do?

Their wives, of course.

It never seems to occur to Faludi or Hrdy/Batten that perhaps the fathers’ assertions of their roles are accurate, and that it’s mothers–who often pride themselves on being #1 with the kids–are disparaging or downplaying fathers’ role. It is likely that, to some degree, both fathers and mothers exaggerate their own roles, though we get no sense of that from the TIME magazine article.

The “lazy husband/uncaring father” stereotype is a myth. Census data shows that only 40% of married women with children under 18 work full-time, and over a quarter do not hold a job outside the home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2004 Time Use Survey, men spend one and a half times as many hours working as women do, and full-time employed men still work significantly more hours than full-time employed women.

When both work outside the home and inside the home are properly considered, it is clear that men do at least as much as women. A 2002 University of Michigan Institute for Social Research survey found that women do 11 more hours of housework a week than men but men work 14 hours a week more than women. According to the BLS, men’s total time at leisure, sleeping, doing personal care activities, or socializing is a statistically meaningless 1% higher than women’s.

Despite the fact that fathers bear the primary burden of supporting their families, the Families and Work Institute in New York City found that fathers now provide three-fourths as much child care as mothers do. This figure is also 50% higher than 30 years ago.

The “usually squeezed in after the workday” slap is also spurious. Between dads working all day and the kids being in school, it’s hard to see when a father would have much time to spend with his kids that isn’t “usually squeezed in after the workday.” The full TIME Magazine article can be seen here.

To write a Letter to the Editor of TIME magazine, click here.

Thanks to shared parenting activist Jane Spies, M.S. Ed., for pointing this article out to me. Jane is currently working with Aginelo Productions to promote the new documentary film “Support? System Down,” which criticizes abuses within the child support system.

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