They enter quietly, arms crossed, scowls on their faces, it’s the last place they want to be. As they take their seats around the large conference table, insult is added to injury. They’re reminded to pay their $50. for the privilege of being somewhere they are sure will be a waste of time.
They are the men taking court mandated parent education classes in Massachusetts. They are there because they have to be. They have few expectations other than that they will collect their goldenrod certificates at the end of the second class and be able to proceed with their divorce. The class begins by recognizing that people are mandated to be there and may not be happy about it. As a co-teacher of the class I say that we believe that they are all good parents who want to help their children as much as possible get through with what can be a very difficult time and that we hope this class will help that along. I say that I wish a class such as this had been available when I was divorced many years ago. A few arms uncross, a few scowls soften.
We ask the class to share some of their feelings about the divorce. After a few seconds of silence, a woman usually begins, expressing sadness, fear, guilt or betrayal. The class takes off, the men listen with interest and awe as others talk about feelings and situations that replicate their own. As one man put it, “this isn’t the kind of thing guys usually talk about, especially with other guys. Whenever I want to talk about the divorce, I call up one of my buddies, talk for a few minutes about nothing and then ask to speak to his wife. The wives are better at talking about this stuff.” Nevertheless within a short time most of the men are expressing their feelings to the 20 or more other class members.
Men speak mostly about how they miss their children, how they don’t see them as often as they want to and how quickly time goes by when they do see them. Some men are fighting hard to convince their wives and the judge that joint physical custody should be awarded. They vent their frustration and anger at the prejudice in the court system in awarding physical custody to the women. Other men assume that the children will live primarily with their mother and they will spend every other weekend and one or two nights weekly with them. Some have been told by their lawyers that fighting for joint physical custody is a waste of time and money and they will still lose. Still others cite that restraining orders are against them and wives are not allowing children to meet with them in supervised visits Some struggle to hold back tears as they question how their children will turn out, deprived of necessary time with their fathers.
They express anger at their wives, the system, the class leaders and often other women in the class. The lack of control that is inherent in the divorce process comes up again and again. “I feel marginalized, ” states one man. “One day I’m an active part of my daughter’s life, the next I’m relegated to seeing her only when my wife allows it. And I have not control over it!” In the majority of cases, men must pay child support, sometimes alimony, and move from the ‘marital home’. A big, burly police officer attended the first class and didn’t speak at all. He returned the second week, sans uniform, and with donuts for the class! He spoke for the first time when the issue of dropping off and picking up the kids came up. With tears in his eyes he said, “it breaks my heart every week when I go to that house to get the kids. I built that house with my own blood, sweat and tears and now I’m not even allowed in the front door.”
In the short run there are no winners when couples with children divorce. The losses to men, women and children are enormous, children losing the most deprived of having both parents together. Women are left with a substantially reduced amount of money upon which to live, and more often than men, deal with the extremely hurtful feelings of having been betrayed. But men lose too. Much too often they lose the otherwise taken for granted right to spend time with and parent their kids.
The class ends but before receiving their certificates they must evaluate the class. 98% of the written evaluations are extremely positive with comments on how they have learned specific ways to help their children or how they feel reassured that they are doing the right thing. Regarding the question about what they didn’t like about the class, a large number responded that it was “too short”. The scowls have been replaced with smiles, arms are no longer crossed. The men approach us with arms extended to thank us and shake our hands. They leave with their goldenrod certificates and a lot more.