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  • Taking Custody of Motherhood:Fathers' Rights Activists and the Politics of Parenting
  • Jocelyn Elise Crowley (bio)

What makes a good father in contemporary American society? And more important, can good fathers effectively "mother" their children? Without a doubt, over the past several decades, the cultural imagery surrounding what it means to be a fully participatory father has shifted dramatically (Burgess 1997; Coltrane 1989; Hobson and Morgan 2002; Ranson 2001). Instead of the ideal father being simply the breadwinner of the family, this "new father"—with commentators primarily spotlighting the desired behavior of the white male—combines both earning a living with the day-to-day care of his children (Pleck 1987). In other words, not only does he work full time, but he also is present at his children's birth, goes to school conferences, does their laundry, and prepares their meals. He is fully connected and essential to his children's well-being (Farrell 2001). This "new father" is, in fact, just like any other modern mother.

While this recent paternal imagery has been extremely powerful, scholars have also noted that fathers' actions have yet to meet this emerging ideal.1 While their contributions to child care have been increasing over time, particularly since the 1980s, fathers still lag behind mothers in the amount of parental work they perform on a regular basis (Ahmeduzzaman and Roopnarine 1992; Aldous, Mulligan, and Bjarnason 1998; Sandberg and Hofferth 2001; Sayer, Bianchi, and Robinson 2004). In fact, in one of the most recent and comprehensive studies that explored this division of responsibility issue, in 2000, Bianchi, Robinson, and Milkie (2006, 116) found enormous gaps in paid and unpaid work between the sexes, with women allocating 12.9 hours a week to child care, and men only completing 6.5 hours on this task.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that real world practices have yet to catch up to the new cultural ideal of fatherhood, fathers' rights groups have seized upon this compelling imagery in making their political claims. More specifically, these fathers' rights organizations, composed primarily of white, [End Page 223] middle-class men, have grown in number in recent years in order to challenge the legal system that they must confront when their families dissolve. One of their most prominent assertions is that the family law system, specifically through its child custody procedures that tend to physically place children with their mothers, denies them the opportunity to effectively personify their "new father" roles. In this essay I explore precisely how fathers' rights groups have tapped into the cultural symbolism of the "new father" in order to buttress their claims.

Research Context

The fathers' rights movement began to grow quite rapidly in the United States during the 1980s. With some estimates placing them at ten thousand members in total (Crowley 2008, 37), fathers' rights activists across the board charge that once their families break up, they lack certain parental rights (Clatterbaugh 2000; Coltrane and Hickman 1992; Fineman 1991; Williams and Williams 1995). Their grievances revolve around two critical areas: child support and child custody policy (Crowley 2003). For fathers' rights groups, these two issues are highly interlinked. Activists complain that policy makers force them to pay exorbitant amounts of child support to the mothers of their children, who typically receive primary physical custody. However, these payments would not be necessary at all, argue these men, if the child custody system were reformed in a way to automatically give fathers equal time with their children.

Across the United States, judges make custody determinations for dissolving families. There are two types of joint custody at stake. Joint legal custody refers to a partnership between parents over the major decisions that they must make regarding their children's well-being; joint physical custody refers to equally shared living arrangements for the involved children. Although joint legal custody is fairly common in the United States, joint physical custody is not and therefore is the focus of fathers' rights groups' concerns. According to the Current Population Survey, in 2005, approximately 84 percent of all custodial parents were mothers, while only 16 percent were fathers (Grall 2007, 3). When probed about their more formal custody arrangements, only about 28 percent...


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pp. 223-240
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