To the Editor:
In her discussion of William J. Bennett’s The Broken Hearth [Books in Review, December 2001], Kay S. Hymowitz might have said more about the book’s claim, with respect to divorce, that many “young [married] mothers . . . often feel forced to work as a defense against potential future impoverishment.” In fact, if one takes into account the impact of relevant tax and Social-Security policies, those who experience the more serious drop in their living standard are quite often men who pay child support and incur other related expenses (housing, children’s visits) rather than women who receive child support and stay in the family home.
Financial considerations apart, many family courts in the U.S. utterly disregard the emotional interests of divorced fathers, especially where children are concerned. American men are understandably reluctant to enter into a contract that is so often turned against them. If joint-custody rulings were more common, men would be more inclined to marry in the first place. Perhaps even more important, wives would be less inclined to file for divorce.
Hungarian Academy of
Kay S. Hymowitz writes:
At the heart of Miklós Hernadi’s letter seems to be the recognition that, in pondering the ill effects of marital breakdown, Americans are likely to focus their attentions on children, and, to a lesser extent, on women, who generally remain the primary caretakers and who after separation usually become primary wage earners as well. But the emotional devastation of many men severed from their children and their homes—a devastation amply reported in support groups, on websites, and to their friends and family—is enough to wrest tears from a stone.
In many cases, no doubt, their despair is magnified by their helplessness. As William J. Bennett points out in The Broken Hearth, 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women, in part because they can be fairly certain they will keep custody of their children. To make matters worse, these fathers have to contend with a culture that has grown increasingly blasé about their importance in children’s lives, a trend that is discussed at length by Bennett.
Without wanting to minimize this larger issue, I nevertheless have to quibble with several of Mr. Hernadi’s specific assertions. First, though divorce can damage men’s financial status, the truth is it bodes worse for women. In fact, as Bennett shows, “over time the average divorced man experiences an increase in his standard of living.” For women, unless they remarry, this is hardly ever the case; indeed, many women suffer a “precipitous decline” in their financial situation, sometimes to the brink of poverty, which is why, as I pointed out, many young married mothers today are reluctant to cut back on work hours even when their husbands are making enough money to support them.
Second—and I can speak only for myself here since Bennett does not address the point—I sincerely doubt that men are reluctant to marry because of fears they will lose their children in the event of a divorce. Certainly they are no better off in this respect when they have children outside of marriage, as so many seem to be doing today. Although the courts have blurred the legal distinction between married and unmarried fathers over the past decades, it is reasonable to assume that official fatherhood still confers some measure of security—at the very least psychologically—to men.
Most importantly, Mr. Hernadi’s endorsement of joint custody, something that he wrongly implies is unusual in this country today, ignores the considerable problems this arrangement can cause for children, especially very young children, and unwittingly illustrates the fragmenting effects of divorce. Taking into account the emotional claims of fathers, judges sometimes even order that a six-month-old nursing infant divide his time equally between parents. The warring demands of pining fathers, infatuated mothers, and nursing infants says a good deal about the “radical individualistic ethos” that William J. Bennett describes as one of the causes of “the broken hearth.”