May 28, 2024
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A Facebook post on Mother’s Day complained that while pastors praise mothers in their sermons, fathers are more likely to be chastised on their special day. 

Whether this is true or not, it brings up the question of whether parents are valued equally by society. 

Popular perception is that in custody battles, mothers are more likely to be favored over fathers. In Colonial America, following English common law, fathers were granted full custody of children following divorce. (The History of Child Custody Laws in America, Shawn Garrison, dadsdivorce.com.) 

However, that began to change in 1839 when England enacted the Custody of Infants Act, which allowed the judges to use their own discretion in custody cases. The act permitted a mother to petition courts for custody of her children up to the age of 7. In 1873, Parliament extended the age to 16 under the “Tender Years Doctrine,” which presumed that in a child’s early years, they are best cared for by the mother. 

“This principle was adopted by the majority of U.S. states and the law reigned for the next century.” (Garrison) 

More recently, courts have begun to look at what’s in “the best interest of the child.” 

The movie “Kramer vs. Kramer,” released in 1979, gave rise to discussion as to which parent was the proper person to raise a child. After leaving a marriage in which she considered that her husband paid no attention to either her career or her emotional needs, Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) comes back 18 months later to fight for custody of their son. 

For fathers, Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) may serve as a stereotype of an incompetent father who doesn’t have the knowledge or emotional wherewithal to serve his son a proper breakfast. However, Ted is allowed to grow during the course of the movie, whereas Joanna, who deserts her son twice, doesn’t fare nearly as well in popular imagination. 

Hollywood tells the same tale in “Marriage Story,” released in 2019. This time, Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) takes the child with her, moving to Los Angeles to build her acting career and leaving husband Charlie (Adam Driver) behind in New York. 

Some critics say the film never shows Charlie as having any remorse for his part in the breakup. However, the film does show the parents making an attempt at co-parenting, rather than ending with the winner-take-all attitude of the Kramers. 

The Kramers and the Barbers are not the only portrayal of parents who divorce, but they are significant for their portrayal of the father’s point-of-view. 

Every human story begins with a parent. We explain and occasionally rationalize our own behavior beginning with the words, “My mother was …” “My father was …” “I never knew my mother …” “My dad was always there.” 

The responsibility of a parent goes beyond the day-to-day of feeding, dressing and transporting a child. It is no less than the creation of a fully formed human being. That task takes many years and more than one parent. 

In honor of Father’s Day, we salute the dads who are there from creation to fulfillment. 

Gail M. Williams

For The Journal

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