When my son was born, my father said, “You don’t really know what it means to be a human being until you’re a parent. Welcome to the human race, son!” It took me a few years of parenting, but I finally understood what he meant. Parenthood is such a transformative experience that it’s impossible to explain the significance of its personal impact to someone who has never had children. It’s like trying to explain color to a congenitally blind person.
Interestingly, whereas 80 percent of women throughout human history have had children, only 40 percent of men have parented offspring. The lopsided ratio could be evolution at work; sexual selection assures that each generation evolves by leaving 60 percent of the male DNA behind. So if you’re a father, you’ve beaten the odds already. Have a cigar and pat yourself on the back, man!
You know what else is hard to explain to someone who’s never been through it? Well, yes, lower back pain, which is another rite of manhood according to my father, but I’m thinking of something a little more serious: marital separation. We’re about to get serious for a few minutes here, because this is important.
Divorce is the second most stressful life event. It is more stressful than imprisonment and the death of a close family member. After all the paperwork is filed, and the years of emotional reaction are over, you’re lucky if you can achieve a cool, mindful approach to life again. And then, your married friends start to wonder if maybe they’d be better off, too, if they got divorced. But like parenthood, the personal impact of divorce is impossible to explain to someone who’s never gone through it. I still try to talk my married friends out of splitting, but, like talking to teens about not getting tattoos, my advice doesn’t seem to stick.
What many parents discover after a divorce is that with parenthood, the core of their identity had become invested in two family roles: the husband+father or wife+mother. After a split, he is no longer the husband. She is no longer the wife. The power of those roles is not to be taken lightly. And the loss of those roles shouldn’t be taken lightly either, as shown in a 2013 University of California, Riverside study.
Marital status and suicide in the National Longitudinal Mortality Study shows that suicide rates increase significantly after divorce, but only for a certain group. One group experiences a suicide rate of nearly five times normal. The other group sees no change in suicide rate.
So what is the difference between the two groups? Parents who retain custody of their children see no higher suicide risk than single or widowed people. Those who lose custody are the ones with the 5x suicide-risk increase.
Let that distinction sink in for a moment.
Losing the role of husband or wife is traumatic enough; an ideal society would not remove the other significant role, father or mother, from a person. That second role may be the only significant role that they have left to their identity.
Roles, identity, suicide. How can we explain or fix this complicated and dispiriting situation?
Math to the rescue!
Often the award of single custody comes down to the simple mathematical equation the states use to decide who gets child support. The state of Washington, where John Salt lives, uses a simple formula, which I’m making even simpler here for clarity’s sake:
Obligation = (income / 2) x (% Time with other Parent)
The amount of support that each parent “owes” the other is based on how much time the other parent has custody. Or to put it even more simply, custody translates directly to income.
The formula creates a perverse incentive where the lawyers maximize custody for their client in order to receive the most child support.
I know, I know; it’s too easy to blame the lawyers. But they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do—fight for their client. For the record, my last two girlfriends were lawyers, and I can attest they are people, too. Mostly.
“Divorce is a game played by lawyers.” – Cary Grant
A simple tweak to the formula could reduce the number of lopsided custody cases, and therefore vastly reduce the suicide risk for the losing parties. Just assume each parent gets equal shared parenting time – 50 percent, at least for the formula. This simple change would remove the incentive for lopsided custody cases, and couples could decide their parenting plan for the benefit of both them and the children, not just the child-support worksheet.
No-fault divorce is the law of the land in all 50 states today, and it allows couples to separate with, ideally, less acrimony than the conventional divorce where one party had to be the complainant and the other, presumably, the guilty. Divorce outcomes should therefore align with the no-fault spirit and allow a couple to share not only the responsibility of the dissolution of their union, but to share the children as well.
In light of the clear risk to parents who lose custody of their children, shouldn’t we as a society seek equal shared parenting as its ideal model for a split family?
And then we could all go about our business of raising children, celebrating Father’s Day, and belonging to humanity again.