Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Custody is for Parents

It's always seemed ironic that people who support the death penalty are often those most adamantly opposed to government programs. They distrust government to provide health care, education, regulation of businesses, protection from hazardous waste and to set a fair level of taxation, but give a "thumbs-up" to political institutions picking which people will live or die in an official government killing program.

I firmly believe that government has its purpose, but killing isn't one of them.  I also question the level of government interference that divorcing couples invite into their lives, especially when it involves the heart-wrenching issue of child custody.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not equating divorce with the death penalty. In many cases, divorce is far worse – a sentence of seemingly unending turmoil, confusion, loss and sadness, a kind of living death for some people. With divorce, the imagined trajectory of marital bliss is brutally terminated.  Instead of an expected cocoon of protective love and support, the marriage becomes an arena of gladiatorial brutality. For couples with children, the situation often becomes tragic and self-defeating. And one of the great self-defeating tactics is when a couple invites government to get involved to determine who takes care of the children, where, for how long, how much each is to pay, etc.

Take the now-celebrated case of Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Erik Bedard. In the midst of a furious pennant race, Bedard's ex-girlfriend had him served with child support papers prior to a Major League game – by a Yankees fan!  The mother of Bedard’s daughter, Julie, was seeking to tear up their previous agreement on child support, which provides for Bedard to pay $80,000 in child support and another $80,000 for Julie's education.

The case has gotten more than a 1,000 news mentions, the couple is funneling money down the courthouse drain, and daughter Julie is being subjected to the specter of their parents fighting in public over her and her future. 

When a marriage breaks up, the temptation to retreat behind walls and lob bombs at your Ex is almost impossible to resist. Betrayal, heart-break, broken dreams all come with the territory. But so do your kids. Any kind of warfare between the separating couple is guaranteed to inflict collateral damage on innocent bystanders, especially your kids.

I have followed this issue for years and come across cases where men, women and most importantly children have lost big when the hand of government gets involved.  A hard-working New York lawyer whose stay-at-home husband challenged her claim for primary custody lost – and was handed that dreaded consolation prize, "visitation rights." A father I know who had  his wages and benefits at work reduced went to court to reduce his child care payments by a corresponding amount – and saw the court actually increase payments based on the inflation rate.

The question here is – who knows your children better than you and your Ex? Rather than "lawyering up" and heading for court, experts recommend that divorcing couples grow up and work out their custody issues together.  It helps to have a state law like California's presumption of "joint custody" to encourage divorcing parents to see themselves as equals in this process rather than Aggressor vs. Potentially Vanquished.  Going into a conflict knowing that the most you'll win is 50% of anything takes away the incentive to screw the other person.

My Ex and I, my partner and her Ex, and hundreds of thousands of divorced couples across the country have worked out joint custody arrangements that fully involve both parents in the emotional and financial care of their children. It wasn't easy, but well worth doing. 

There are a number of organizations working for joint custody laws and co-parenting across the country, including Fathers & Families, The American Coalition of Fathers and Children) and Kids' Turn.  Joint Custody/Co-parenting is a win-win-win situation. Divorcing couples saves tens of thousands in legal fees, children are spared the specter of their parents squabbling well past the final out of their marriage, and an example is set for a lifetime of cooperation to further your children's life. 

Of course if you need a lawyer to overcome an unyielding or abusive Ex, by all means get one. But first try to work it out together.  Keep the government out of your divorce.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Giant Fathers

Last week's entry about the drop in testosterone in men intimately involved with their children's upbringing presents an interesting challenge to a professional baseball playing dad.  A key to success in baseball is "explosiveness." Players, managers and students of the game constantly talk about a player's "explosive" fastball, "explosive" bat, "explosion of speed" needed to steal a base or catch up to a drive deep in the alleys.  The physics of baseball features explosiveness at its very core, with a hardball thrown 95 miles an hour towards conditioned athletes swinging seasoned bats with hitting  techniques perfected over a century-and-a-half by craftsmen such as Cobb, DiMaggio,  Kaline, Clemente and Bonds. 

But who wants a father to be explosive?  A General, a courtroom lawyer, a corporate CEO or a professional athlete has to learn to leave his – or her -- work at the office, or at least at the front door.  To be a tough hombre out in the world and a testosterone-receding dad at home requires a masterful balancing act of competing existential demands. 

It's not an easy task.  Check out this video from Showtime's unusual reality baseball show about the 2011 San Francisco Giants – The Franchise.  These are wonderful stories about character, ambition, love, family.  And here are some shorter clips from the same Showtime series, which focus on particular points of the season or key relationships in the

players' lives.

Check out Giants' pitcher Matt Cain, the 6 foot 4 "work horse" of the pitching staff with a 94 mile an hour fast ball, cooing like a kid when he's greeted after a game by his children. Once he walks in the door, Cain's concerns obviously shift from his ERA to his DPH – Diapers per Homestand, or BPF – Burps per Feeding.

These are fathers, sons, husbands, sons-in-law ... partners in life.  These are baseball players. Spring Training runs from mid-February to the first of April.  Half of a team's 162 games are in far flung cities, and even for most home games in the age of night baseball Dad doesn't click open the garage door until after midnight, long after the little folks have gone to bed. 

Yes, baseball takes a man away from his family for long periods of time, but not forever.  Several works have dealt with this challenge, most notably the film "The Rookie" with Dennis Quaid and my own novel Home, Away.  Besides regulating his testosterone, a baseball player must learn to segregate what fosters his success on the ball field – strength, speed, explosiveness – with the gentleness, patience and love needed by his kids.  Even when they're on the road, a lot of these guys try to "be present" in their children's lives in creative ways – by phone, Skype, YouTube, FedEx.  This is beautiful stuff when it's done right, as these videos show. 

Work and family – how does a father do it all? Thankfully, more fathers than ever are struggling with that question, which is half the battle.  Previous generations of dads simply ignored it, at great cost to their kids and themselves.  This generation, thankfully, is holding itself to a higher standard – a Giant one.

Note: Look for New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey's upcoming autobiography from Penguin Books.  As yet untitled, Dickey promises to recount "the simultaneous frustrations of a pitcher trying to carve out a career in baseball and a husband and father with a short fuse and difficulty in separating his marriage from bad pitching performances."  You can follow him on Twitter: @RADickey43.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Daddy, why's your testosterone falling?"

Fathers often struggle to describe how becoming a dad transforms them in profound and moving ways.  "I feel more connected ... more grounded ... more sensitive ... just different, you know?"  Changing diapers, pureeing carrots, backpacking the baby through local parks, reading The Little Engine that Could until he can't leads Dad to believe that his very essence has been altered.

Thanks to researchers at the National Academy of Sciences, now we know it has.  The results of a study following more than 400 fathers shows that testosterone, the King of male hormones, actually decreases after a man becomes a parent.  And the more involved he is as a parent, the steeper the decrease in testosterone.

The implications of these findings are enormous.  Contrary to those who deny any family role for men other than insemination, this report confirms a biological foundation for fathers-as-nurturers as well as a sociological imperative for society to radically alter its expectations of dads.

In the study, testosterone was measured when the men were 21 and single, and again nearly five years later. Although testosterone naturally decreases with age, men who became fathers showed much greater declines – more than double that of the childless men.

And men who spent more than three hours a day caring for children – playing, feeding, bathing, reading or dressing them – had the lowest testosterone.

It looks likes the Daddy Gene has been found.

"The real take-home message" of this study, said Peter Ellison, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University interviewed by the New York Times, "is that male parental care is important. It's important enough that it's actually shaped the physiology of men.

"My hope would be that this kind of research has an impact on the American male," Ellison concluded.  "It would make them realize that we're meant to be active fathers and participate in the care of our offspring."

Of course one worry is that men will see that active fathering lowers testosterone and head for the hills – or the nearest pick-up bar.  But have no fear – testosterone levels lowered by active fathering isn't irreversible. One study of Air Force veterans shows  that testosterone climbed back up after men were divorced.  Others show that an elevated testosterone level isn't a requirement for an active libido, welcome news to sexually active moms and dads alike.

So to those fathers pulling down major time with your kids: it's clear that's exactly what you're made for.  And to those not involved, and to divorce courts that customarily cut fathers out of their children's lives by limiting them to "visitation rights" – get with the plan and keep dad in the game.  It's good for everyone.

“Humans give birth to incredibly dependent infants," said Lee Gettler, an anthropologist at Northwestern University and co-author of the study.  "Historically, the idea that men were out clubbing large animals and women were staying behind with babies has been largely discredited. The only way mothers could have highly needy offspring every couple of years is if they were getting help.”

So do not ask for whom the testosterone lowers – it lowers for the kids.  And that's a good thing.