Children We Love
reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda
Warren Farrell, Father and Child Reunion: How to Bring the Dads We Need to the
Children We Love, New York, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam,
2001. www.penguinputnam.com 300 pages.
Warren Farrell is such a consistently fine writer, such a reliably beatific and wise presence in the gender transition movement whose very name he coined, that he is all too easy to take for granted. So strong and critical have his contributions been over the years that it is easy to forget that he has written “only” five books and yet has shown us how to make a living bucking established forces as perhaps the premier leader in the movement for genuine gender justice.
Father and Child Reunion continues Dr. Farrell’s unprecedented run of indispensable, meticulously footnoted, carefully reasoned men’s movement books. (Fair disclosure: I am named on the acknowledgements page for my comments on an early version of the work.) Every book the man writes becomes an instant classic, and as we usually realize much later, just the book we all needed at that time. Just when you are sure he can’t have anything much left to say, the next one shines at least as bright as the last.
What makes Farrell’s work so unique may be his almost unequalled level of compassion. For men, for women, for masculists and (yes) for feminists, for pro-choice and pro-life activists. And above all, for people, for the society that is, but even more, for the society we could have if only we would dare to cast aside our wrongheaded ideas and preconceived notions and pursue truth and fairness.
There are many truths which Dr. Farrell wants to tell us. Industrialization allowed women to become specialists in nurturing, while alienating fathers from their children (due to the requirement that they be working away from home) in rough proportion to the number of children they had fathered. Typical male parenting is different from female parenting, and the synergy richly benefits the child tenfold over just one or the other. Our laws exact punishment when the male role is taken to an extreme, as with sexual harassment or date rape, but not for the female role taken to an extreme, as with suffocating overprotection or emotional incest. This is related to society’s understanding of the value of mothering and its imperfect grasp of the different yet equal worth of fathering. This blindness has the gravest of results, making fathers’ natural style vulnerable to false accusations of child abuse, which in turn often separate children from the dads they desperately need. And this, he notes, is the real child abuse.
Farrell has a rare knack for analyzing even the most overly familiar facts with a fresh ear and a clear eye. He deftly demonstrates the unthinkability–if genders were reversed–of a prolonged suspicion of Elian Gonzalez’ father, keeping a child from his mother for many months, when at the same time the mother’s relatives who were Elian’s caretakers had recent histories of various crimes. Even more breathtaking in its bias is the special law passed by unanimous Congressional consent to release from prison Elizabeth Morgan, a compulsive liar who had proven her callous disregard for her child’s welfare while kidnapping her daughter.
Dr. Farrell has always had a particular talent for crystallizing inequities hidden in social patterns, and this has never been more in evidence than here. If it is true that the best interest of the children is the primary reason for overwhelmingly awarding custody to women, then such women ought to have the obligation (not merely the option) to be the primary parent after divorce. Moreover, feminists argue for women’s equal rights to jointly created career assets emanating from the male financial womb, but argue against men’s equal rights to jointly created children that came from the women’s childbearing womb. When fairness to dads is competing with the tradition of motherhood, “tradition runs thicker than equality.”
How absurd and sexist it is that the ACLU and others support the rights of a lesbian partner to parent a child which her female partner birthed but not the rights of a male partner. And yet, Farrell shows us how time and again a development in fathers’ rights is spearheaded by a rare woman who ends up in the typically male position.
Father and Child Reunion is strong on original thinking, as in the analysis of factors most major movements have in common–a large number of people experiencing economic hurt and emotional rejection at the same time. Yet fathers’ rights has all three of these and more and still has not transformed gender politics. Why? It confronts “major countervailing influences that no other movement has had to face”:–men’s propensity to protect women, feminism’s political power, men’s socialization and biology to fight to support a family economically but not to be involved emotionally, and men’s proclivity to fight to protect others but not themselves. Farrell formulates some of the common denominators among people who commit suicide: feeling unloved, feeling unneeded, feeling no hope of that changing, and feeling a lack of comfort expressing those feelings. All too often these factors converge on a father recovering from divorce and loss of his children.
Father and Child Reunion also impresses in what has in the past been one of Farrell’s vanishingly few weak points–his practical proposals to effect change. Here he suggests that the government must fund research into false accusations, violations of due process and the fourteenth amendment, and denial of fathering time, and should pay for introducing courses in “relationship language” in our schools. Farrell proposes a win-win requirement that women notify men regarding a pregnancy (and that they undergo a DNA test to prove the father’s identity) as soon as they become aware of it. (This facilitates the couple’s processing of the information and decisionmaking together.) Encouraging a daughter to ask out boys she likes even though her rejection rate will be higher may improve her own success at finding a favorable match, is likely to advance her skills at assertiveness and her self-confidence, and in the long run will help the salutary process of developing comfort with both sides of traditional gender roles.
The author renews, in its most forceful and convincing version yet, his relentless call for research to formulate a male birth control pill. (And he shows us why this is so critically important.) He’s not afraid to admit the gray areas that lurk in any discussion of abortion. While it took a Warren Farrell to wryly note, “Neither pro-life nor pro-choice advocates involve Dad in the discussion,” he is also comfortable proposing a sliding scale between freedom to abort and a certain restriction of that freedom depending on the number of months which have passed and perhaps other factors. We must, he believes, “replace our right-to-life versus pro-choice abortion monologues with dialogues about the overlapping rights of the mother, the father, and the fetus.” One thing is clear: “once a woman and a man have created a fetus, they have equal responsibilities and equal right to determine its destiny.”
As usual, Dr. Farrell unearths some priceless gems, such as the Census Bureau’s survey asking the main reason why regular child support payments were not received, and offering only two reasons, “the father [not “the custodial parent”] refused to pay” or “you were unable to locate the father.” His facility with the felicitous and revealing turn of phrase is again in evidence: “Women’s traditional support systems support women being vulnerable; men’s traditional support systems support men being invulnerable.” “[W]hen a man fails as a wallet, we put him in prison; when a woman fails as a mother, we offer her social services. We’re taking a criminal approach to men, a social-services approach to women.”
Farrell’s empathy skills are world class. He speaks to both men and women, addressing the concerns of each and offering paths to rapprochement. When a man fights his ex-wife over child custody, it feels to her like you’re fighting for her job, particularly if she had a traditional role and you are a successful man. He explains men’s usually unarticulated or even unconscious sense that divorce represents a sweeping away of his dream that if he produced money, he would receive love. The way out of this forest is provided by remembering that “a mother who denies a child its father is committing one of the most documentable forms of child abuse.”
Father and Child Reunion is a work of effortless brilliance, likely to prove one of the most important books on any topic to have been written in the early years of this new millennium. By focusing on the sole issue in which (as he shows us) the value and necessity of men’s contribution absolutely cannot be denied, Dr. Farrell has penned a work which should play to the masses even more smoothly than the relationship communication outlined in Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say. And, for a society whose gender malaise and confusion about parenting styles has nearly reached critical mass, it may be just in time.
J. Steven Svoboda is a performance artist, poet, and a human rights lawyer who is Executive Director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, which he founded in 1997.
Father and Child Reunion
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