Monday, April 7, 2008

Another father looses it - and we all loose

I don’t know Mark Castillo. Never met him. Couldn’t tell you what his favorite food is. And I probably couldn’t pick him out of a crowd. That said, after Mr. Castillo allegedly killed his children in a Baltimore hotel the weekend of 29 March 2008, I am sure I won’t forget him.

You see, Mr. Castillo, if he is guilty, is yet another in along line of fathers who, mentally broken and emotionally exhausted, takes the lives of his children, and often his own life, as a last gasp of control in a world where everything he knows is being ripped from him.

The story is becoming all too familiar – man and woman meet, marry, and have children. Somewhere along the way, the marriage goes sour, a divorce begins, and the man finds himself stripped of at least two roles that he holds most sacred – father and husband. The statistics show that these days, slightly more women than men end these marriages, and the reasons are wide and varied. The reasons why the marriage is ending are also not important. What is important is the relationship the man has (or doesn’t have) with his kids, and how their mother views him in that light.

You see men, for all our chest beating, macho competition, and rampant stoicism; we undergo a profound emotional change when we become fathers. We run hard into a wall of feeling that is unlike anything we have ever experienced. It surpasses our loyalty to our football teams. It runs far past our feelings of accomplishment in our jobs. The joy, the new daily discoveries, and the worry that we’ll never be able to help this new young life flourish in the best possible way consume us.

Some men react to this by growing a stronger relationship with both their wives and their children. Some men react by becoming work-aholics, withdrawing from the thing that creates the strong emotions in the first place. Some men actually experience depression, and loose the ability to function. Until it happens, no man can predict which he will be. Astonishingly, even our day and age, few men can articulate any of this, so overwhelming is it. Their inability to put it all in words makes it hard to tell their wives about this enormous impact, so their wives have to sort out their man’s changed behavior based on her assumptions, which almost never match his. And no woman, married to a man, can predict how she’ll react.

When, in the midst of all this emotion, change, and stress, a marriage ends, the man is often completely lost emotionally and psychologically. He already has this huge emotional load he’s carrying by being a father, and then that central role is torn from him. Then he’s thrust into a system where he gets “visitation” instead of fathering, child support payments instead of tucking in at bedtime. Then he has to live that life, crushing as it is, until his kids grow up, and they can decide for themselves what kind of relationship they want to have with him.

And here is where men generally go one of three ways. First, they slog through it somehow, fighting the system and their ex-wives to remain a significant part of their kids’ life. These men somehow find a reserve of emotion to sustain them through it all, and they end up looking at each and every day them have with their kids as a gift. Others withdraw emotionally and financially, becoming the deadbeat dads that fill the news. In this scenario the kids loose, the fathers loose, and society looses. The final group, small in number as they may be, are the Mark Castillo’s’ of the world, who snap and decide that they will reassert control over the world by taking their kids and themselves out of it.

Since I am in the first camp, I condemn the choices of groups two and three. I could no more walk away from my kids then I could stop breathing. My kids deserve their father, and they deserve to grow up full and strong, learning from the mistakes their mother and I made, so they can become contributing, empowered citizens. Happily, they are wonderful kids, and I couldn’t be prouder. At the same time though, having spent eight years in the emotional blender of divorce, I can understand what makes other men snap.

So what do we do? How do we keep other men from going down this road? How do we help men in these situations survive the trials so they can become better fathers and so their kids can have full and fulfilling lives?

First, we have to stop telling fathers in divorce that they are ”visitors” in their kids’ lives. We need to change our laws so that each parent gets to parent, not visit. You see, for men, language and labels matter, so calling us visitors insults the relationship we want to have with our kids. The law also needs to be amended to make it explicit that men have as much right to equal time with their kids as women. Saying that each parent “should enjoy the benefits of a parental relationship” doesn’t go far enough. “Should” as a legal word is not enforceable, so when it is used, fathers tend to loose. Far better that each parent “shall be fully involved in their children’s lives, with equal parenting time.”

We also need to seriously reconsider whether no fault divorce is truly in the best interest of children. One of my therapists said once that no fault divorce give an easy way out to folks just having a bad day. While I think there will always be conditions that auger for divorce, most of the time the participants in the divorce haven’t really earned the right to walk away. If, as is so often suggested by conservatives in the US, the dissolution of marriage is the greatest threat to America, then we need to do all we can ensure that marriages and families have a fighting chance. In our modern divorce culture that won’t be easy. I’m convinced it’s worth it though, if it ends the story of men like Mark Castillo.

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