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Defeated dads

It hurts here, doc. Paul Dano in For Ellen.

It hurts here, doc. Paul Dano in For Ellen.

Watched a beautiful little film recently titled For Ellen that made me cry more than any movie has in 20 years.

It stars Paul Dano, who played that irritating preacher kid Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood and it's the kind of role that makes you want to hug the actor.

For Ellen is written and directed by Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim and she tells the story of deadbeat dad Joby Taylor (Dano) who basically blackmails his ex-wife into letting him see his daughter for the first time.

Nothing much happens in the film; it is glacially paced but the subject matter drew me in for obvious reasons.

Joby is not a particularly sympathetic character but he just broke my heart. What was left of it was then obliterated by first-time child actress Shaylena Mandigo, playing six-year-old Ellen.

I can't put it better than US film critic Roger Ebert who writes:

The centerpiece of the film is a simple and perfect scene in which [Joby is] allowed to spend two hours with Ellen. Played by non-professional Shaylena Mandigo, Ellen emerges as a clear-eyed, utterly serious, instinctively tactful little girl. Joby has given her a doll. She confides she already has it. They go to a mall to find a replacement, and then, in a food court, they have a conversation that is a model of perfection for such a scene.

A curious thing becomes clear. Ellen becomes aware that Joby is not a "father" or even really an "adult." He is like a child who is lost and sad. She says quiet and very understated words of comfort. How child actors do it, I cannot understand, but sometimes there is not an atom of falsity or self-consciousness in their performances.

For Ellen concludes in an unexpected way that seals Joby's fear that he has no idea who he is, or where he wants to go. It doesn't matter. He has been cut adrift from all roles and identities. He is a clueless void.

At one point Ellen asks Joby why he didn't come to see her before now and he waffles on about his heavy metal band and a record deal and his desire to succeed as a musician.

"I wanted to make it so bad," says Joby.

"Have you made it?" asks Ellen.

This interaction somewhat explains why Joby has not been present as a father, but it's the final third of the movie that articulates why so many men cut all contact with their kids: It hurts too much.

I'm in no way defending dads who refuse to support their children or disappear from their lives, because it's something I could or would never do.

But I understand the impulse. I know how lacerating a relationship measured in hours a week can be. It's a scab ripped open every time you drop them off.

I get why some men would chose not to go there. It's just easier. If you don't see them, there's nothing to miss, the memories will dull, they become an abstraction.

Interestingly, there's not been a whole lot of study done on this subject.

In his 2004 report for the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Parent–Child Contact and Post-Separation Parenting Arrangements Bruce Smyth notes: "Not a great deal is known about paternal disengagement and its correlates. Indeed only a handful of studies has directly examined why many fathers lose contact with their children after divorce. None of these has been conducted in Australia."

Smyth did however identify "nine key themes" for parents in the little or no contact groups:

(1) limited parenting skills;

(2) repartnering;

(3) relocation;

(4) fathers' perceptions of being cut out;

(5) the psychology of disengagement;

(6) "the system" as a barrier to contact;

(7) the "shallowness" of sporadic contact;

(8) other forms of contact; and

(9) children's adjustment.

Smyth quotes a 1994 study of British and Canadian "deadbeat dads" that found many men disengaged from their children for structural reasons as listed above (distance, repartnering) but also "psychological factors" including "grief, loss, role ambiguity, a sense of unfairness, concern about the potentially negative impact of divorce on children, the perception of becoming a 'visitor', and the 'pain of visits – their brevity, artificiality, and superficiality'."

"Unable to tolerate the idea of the loss of their children, but given little expectation for success and what many consider to be a highly adversarial means to try to prevent the loss (which they believe will seriously harm their children), they gradually disengage from their children's lives."

This research, notes Smyth, paints a picture of "Defeated Dads", as opposed to "Deadbeat Dads".

He goes on to quote a 1998 US study that concludes:

"Many of the fathers interviewed felt that everything about the divorce, especially anything concerning the way the children were raised, was completely out of their control ... they were on the outside looking in.

"Many were extremely embittered that society demanded that they still assume the responsibilities of parenthood. As they saw it, society, the legal system, and their ex-wives had conspired to rip asunder their connection to their children ... Overwhelmingly it was these disempowered, embittered, despairing fathers who were the ones who discontinued contact with and support of their children.

"In each case, something profound happened to them to make these formerly responsible fathers disengage. Their paternal urges were thwarted. They were somehow made to feel, either by the legal system or perhaps their ex-wives, that they had no real role to play in their children's lives.

"A better, more accurate label for them might be 'Driven Away Dads'."

Now, there's a headline you won't see on the front page of a newspaper.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

168 comments

  • I think fathers are often, and quite rightly in many cases, accused of contributing less to their child’s development. I think for this reason the courts tend to favour women in terms of custody after a divorce. Having said this I still think there needs to be a greater debate about custody after divorce. Too often it’s just assumed that that mother will continue to care for the children after a divorce. I’m not convinced that this is always the best outcome, if nothing else it is blatantly unfair to the father and possibly even a little sexist.

    Men are just as capable of raising a child as women are. They simply have to choose to raise the child. There is nothing stopping men from making this choice, except perhaps the fear of failure or perhaps unwarranted ridicule. I’m not convinced men are ‘driven away dads’. Equally I’m not convinced our society is very supportive of fathers who want to be equally involved, we simply don’t see it as an issue. Sadly – if we want to work towards a gender equal society - in my view it is THE issue.

    Commenter
    Nyd
    Date and time
    March 27, 2013, 6:34PM
    • Actually, I think the argument is that there are things stopping men from making this choice, including the courts and the behaviour and attitudes of the mother of the children.

      In terms of contribution I read a news report of a study several years ago (so take that as it is) that found that although - on average - children spent two thirds of their time with their mother, their development was affected equally by both parents.

      Commenter
      JEQP
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 4:11AM
    • Nyd,

      Actually, in custody disputes there is now an assumption of 50/50 parenting time. The former standard was "the best interests of the child", but that all changed in the last decade. I recall one academic commented that this overly-PC situation "formalised the commodification" of children by treating them as marital assets to be split equally after a divorce.

      What is important to remember is that children were more often placed with their mothers, not because fathers were seen to be incompetent, but because the mother was more likely to have provided the majority of primary care. Yes, dads could do this (of course, we need to help them out with structural benefits like better childcare and work flexibility). But most of the time, that job falls to mum. Court decisions reflected that fact. Leaving the kids with their usual primary caregiver provided them with better continuity and less stress following separation, and also acknowledged the fact that mothers had often made great career sacrifices in order to take on their new role ("career") caring for children.

      Also, please remember that most custody arrangements are sorted out between parents with no need to enter a court at all. They call it a "custody dispute" for a reason.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 9:47AM
    • From my observations, often the mother/ex-wife is just plain malicious and cruel towards the father. Once these women realise their white-picket-fence-dream has collapsed, they are out to make someone pay for their suffering big time. Many women are unneccessarily bitter and cruel and lacking in wisdom and compassion. The suffering of both partners is excruciating and ongoing. But in many cases, the man loses out much more than the woman. The law/system favours the female in family breakdowns. The woman may cause the man to become disenfranchised from the childrens lives in ways that the state can't control, in all the small, subtle day-to-day power plays. I don't blame the man for dropping out of this nightmare situation, it really is stacked against them. I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often.

      To all those who show kindness, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness and generosity towards the partner after break-up - I salute you.

      Commenter
      mary
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 10:17AM
    • Hi JEQP – There are always barriers stopping people from doing what they want. The only way the barriers preventing fathers from engaging with their kids after divorce will be broken down is if fathers choose to engage more with their kids at all times. That means engaging when they are married and when they are divorced. Men shouldn’t be happy with their wives spending twice as much time with the kids – Period. We should be demanding to spend equal time with our kids.

      Red Pony – I’m not sure what your point is? I agree that mothers are more likely to provide the majority of primary care. The central tenant of my post is that men should choose to be more engaged with our kids. I concede that perhaps society in general is not very supportive of this but in my view that’s a poor excuse for men not to provide an equal amount of primary care.

      Mary – I’m not convinced that many women are unnecessarily bitter, cruel, unwise or lacking in compassion during a relationship breakdown. I’m sorry that in your experience this has been the case.

      Commenter
      Nyd
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 11:59AM
    • @Red Pony. Fathers don't choose to go to work while the mother stays at home because it's "better" and they want to leave the wife to the rubbish job of spending time raising their child. They do so because they generally earn more and don't have breasts. It's a family decision in which both the mother and father make the best choice for the family as a unit; not an adversarial choice where each partner tries to get the "best deal" for themselves. As a recent father I'd argue that my wife got a better outcome in having the joy of looking after our daughter while I've had to work. But like most dads for the reasons above I was lumped with working. I don't think custody should be awarded to a mother as some kind of reward for the family decision for her to be the primary carer. How exactly is taking a year off and bringing up the love of your life a "sacrifice". Obviously you're not a parent and should probably leave commenting to parents who usefully contribute.

      Commenter
      JohnW
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 12:30PM
    • Nyd,

      My point was that your comments about divorce are rather outdated. There HAS been a greater debate about the role of fathers, and there have been significant changes to how custody disputes are treated in courts, as I described. Moreover, the changes have been problematic, as the old laws were not based on sexism but on the best interests of the children. The new assumption of 50/50 custody undermines the rights of children (and often, mothers who have been primary caregivers) for no other reason than to overturn the "sexism" that wasn't actually occurring. The assumption that divorce courts are "blatantly unfair" to fathers is unfounded, given the complexities of the situation. Children aren't assets to be split down the middle, but the new system treats them that way in a bid to appease fathers' rights groups.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 12:41PM
    • No room for excuses or a copout.
      Raising a child is not about the parent it is about the child and once a mother or a father has become a parent it is their responsibility to be and remain fully invested in their child. If this means going to court to ensure that this occurs that is what should happen.
      How much more valued does the child feel when both parents but the child's needs above their needs. How much more valued can a parent feel than when they have fully invested in their child.
      No change of circumstances should get in the way of this. Once you make the decision to have a child the child comes first until they have grown up.

      Commenter
      Seriously
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 12:46PM
    • @Nyd

      Agree.Sorry, Sam,but your story is the perfect example of a young man sad for himself,not his child. It hurts because he's being forced to look into the mirror and what he sees is a selfish narcissist. Painful. Now, I know there are times when ex-wives can be nasty, but the majority of cases don't end up in court. And there are plenty of nasty ex-husbands, too. Many fathers disappear or have a minimal presence in the children's lives because they never really wanted them in the first place, end of story. Then some later feel guilty, like in your story, as they should. Absent fathers scar their children. They aren't prepared to do what the mother has done, which is exactly what Nyd is pointing out: literally be there for the children and care for them. Why? Because it means sacrificing money, career, and a lot of adult company. So, until the fundamental structure that disadvantages mothers caring for their own children is fixed, and that means men willingly participating in fixing it so they can share equally in public and private responsibilities, please spare us the sob-story.

      Commenter
      Mythbuster
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 12:47PM
    • " that’s a poor excuse for men not to provide an equal amount of primary care."

      Well, when you find a time turner that allows them to both earn the money needed to support the family as well as be at home, you'll be a billionaire.

      Commenter
      Tim the Toolman
      Date and time
      March 28, 2013, 12:57PM

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