With International Women’s Day recently passing and Women’s History Month coming to a close, it’s important to remember all throughout the year that not only are women an important part of American society, but also, women and men together are indispensable to our country’s most valuable treasure: our children.
The International Women’s Day campaign theme this year included a “pledge for parity.” Thankfully, numerous states currently have the opportunity to honor that pledge by supporting gender equality as well as the best interests of children in the family courts. This opportunity exists in proposed legislation seeking to move shared parenting – when children spend as close to equal time as possible with each parent – from the exception to the norm when parents divorce or separate.
We should be championing gender issues, of which one of the most important is improving the well-being of our children when parents divorce or separate. And since the nation’s divorce rate unfortunately hovers around 50%, this is certainly a pressing, common and very real challenge for us to solve. Shared parenting gets at the heart of this challenge. It has been proven to actually decrease conflict, stress and the potential for domestic violence in separated or divorced families. Furthermore, shared parenting also decreases the possibility of things like high school dropouts, runaway children and teen suicides, while maximizing the presence of both, loving parents in the lives of their children. And finally, shared parenting is not a non-negotiable mandate. Judges would still have discretion in those extreme circumstances that warrant it to intervene and order an arrangement that protects those who need it most. Shared parenting makes sense for all the right reasons, and it allows parents to continue to be in their child’s life, as they were before divorce or separation; we only have to ask ourselves why we have not implemented it in all states yet.
In fact, in this age of gender role convergence, people are often surprised to learn just how often courts currently favor one parent over the other. Astonishingly, sole custody is awarded to one parent about 83 percent of the time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, thus creating a confrontational dynamic of winner and loser/visitor. Thrusting parents into a winner-take-all arena only funds bitter custody battles, which only benefits the legal community while creating traumatic, corrosive and long-lasting effects on children, parents and families.
Instead, shared parenting offers an achievable, viable and safe alternative that is actively supported by both women and men. We need to strengthen the modern, American family. We need to find ways to support children and encourage more parental engagement from both parents, regardless of marital status and gender. And we need to do so with an actual legal framework that facilitates this kind of equality, rather than having one or the other parent have to fight to be the parent they already were before the courts got involved. Together, we can build a supportive culture to stand for children and their best interests and eliminate bias throughout the family court system.
All across the country, especially during this season of Presidential Primaries, women’s issues are often at the center of discussions – and understandably so. However, these conversations are often missing the other important half of the picture. If men are not included in that dynamic, then society stands to see the pendulum swing too far to one side again, thus setting the stage for continued posturing with no progress made for families and children.
Clearly, the organizers of International Women’s Day want to avoid this pendulum swing. The group’s website states that there are three accelerators, working independently and together, that can change the trajectory of women’s advancement. 1) Illuminate the path to leadership by making career opportunities more visible to women. 2) Speed up culture change with progressive corporate policy, such as paternity leave and flexible working. 3) Build supportive environments and work to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias. In other words, these leaders already know what every reasonable, progressive and fair-minded American has known for a long time: Rather than being oppositional, the issues facing men and women are complimentary and by helping one, we help the other. If American society helps advance one gender, we can and should do it in such a way to help advance the other.
Part of the International Women’s Day pledge is to “value women and men’s contributions equally.” Amen to that. It is way past time for our nation’s family courts to enter the modern era and do exactly that: value women and men’s contributions (and their inherent abilities) as parents equally.
Christian Paasch chairs the National Parents Organization of Virginia and has been appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to Virginia’s Child Support Guidelines Review Panel. To learn more, go to nationalparentsorganization.org.