Unmarried Dads Have Rights Too


60Dear Mr. Dad: My girlfriend is pregnant and we’re having some major relationship problems. I don’t think we’re going to make it. I’ve been very open about wanting to be a big part of our child’s life no matter what, but she has already started excluding me. She doesn’t tell me when her doctor visits are and refuses to take a labor and delivery class with me. I’m worried that she’ll keep excluding me after the baby arrives. What can I do? Do I have any rights here?

A: Over the years, I’ve interviewed a number of attorneys about this exact subject and many of them have told me the same thing: that dads—even if they’re not married to their child’s mother—have almost as many rights as mothers. But they almost always add that courts are generally more likely to enforce mothers’ rights than dads’.

Before you do anything else, I suggest that you talk with a lawyer. If you’re worried about the money, there are a lot of organizations that offer free or low-cost advice, as well as help filling out all the papers and getting them to the right places at the right time. It’s essential that you do this now: mistakes made in the early stages of a custody issue can lead to all sorts of problems later. Be aware that many legal clinics are reluctant to help fathers.

Once you’ve got that process started, take a few minutes and think about what may be going on in your soon-to-be-ex’s mind. To start with, all those pregnancy-related hormonal ups and downs can affect her behavior. Besides that, being a single mother isn’t easy and she’s probably concerned about making ends meet, daycare, where she’s going to live, and how she’s going to be able to raise a child by herself.

You have three goals: first, to show her that you understand what she’s going through; second, to show her that you really want to be involved in your child’s life; and third, to make sure that involvement actually becomes a reality. Something as simple as telling her that you’ll be available to care for the baby when she goes back to work (assuming that’s true)—will help you achieve all of those goals.

There’s also a fourth goal, although this one’s harder to accomplish: to educate her about the many ways your involvement will benefit the baby and the mom (besides providing support, which, of course, you’re legally and ethically obligated to do). For example, your involvement during the pregnancy reduces the risk that the baby will be born prematurely and that the mom will suffer from post-partum depression.

If the two of you can’t have a civil discussion—or at least a rational one—see if you can find someone you both trust to make your case.

Hopefully, her current, unreasonable attitude will turn out to be temporary. Once the baby is born and she has the time to recover, her thinking might be less guided by emotions and more by the desire to raise the child in the best possible conditions, that is, with the presence of a loving and supportive father.

If she doesn’t reach that conclusion on her own, talk to your lawyer about what you need to do to ensure that your rights (and your child’s) are protected. And don’t forget about your responsibilities. Putting money aside for your child (starting now) and documenting everything you do to fight for your right to see him or her will show a judge that you’re committed to being an involved dad.

Struggling to Pay for College + Power Dads

Bobbi Dempsy, author of Degrees of Desperation.
Topic: The Working Class Struggle to Pay for College
Issues: Why some couples seeking financial aid might better off if one of the spouses quit working; how the cost of college has far outpaced inflation: the dangers of cashing in retirement accounts to pay for college; why some private colleges might actually be cheaper than public ones!

Wayne Parker, author of Power Dads.
Basic principles succssful fathers use to raise happy, responsible children
Issues:The 10 power principles included in PowerDads are all about learning what’s important in this role we call fatherhood and developing the skills to implement the power principles in every day parenting.

Dads and Pregnancy–Fatherhood Starts before Your Baby is Born

expectant dad listening to belly

expectant dad listening to bellyDear Mr. Dad: My girlfriend and I just found out that she’s pregnant. She wants me to go to all the doctor visits with her but I don’t see the point. I know that it’s important for me to be involved after the baby is born, and I intend to be. But aside from supporting my girlfriend, I don’t get how I can actually be involved during the pregnancy or what difference it could make to the baby. Am I missing something here?

A: Yep, you’re missing something, and it’s a biggie. Your involvement during and after the pregnancy affects not only your baby, but also your girlfriend and yourself—and this is especially true because you’re not married. Before we get into the during-the-pregnancy part, let’s talk about what happens after the baby is born.

For your girlfriend: A number of studies have shown that first-time single mothers are far more likely than married mothers to experience stress and suffer from depression. Your being there for her, emotionally supporting her, and taking on some of the childcare responsibilities reduces her stress levels and gives her a greater sense of well-being. It also improves mother-baby attachment and generally makes her a better parent.

For the baby: When mothers are depressed, babies get depressed too. They may become fussy, withdrawn, and sluggish. As they get older, they’re more likely to develop emotional and psychological problems. So when you help the mother, you’re also indirectly helping your baby. Your direct involvement with your baby has some major effects too. Children with actively involved dads have better problem-solving skills, are more social, do better on IQ tests and in school, and are less likely when they get older to abuse drugs or alcohol, do stupid things that could land them in jail, or become teen parents.

For you: Dads who are actively involved with their children are generally happier than absent of uninvolved dads. They take better physical care of themselves (quitting smoking, reducing risky behavior, etc.), and they do better in their careers.

Now, on to the pregnancy part. My research—and that of a number of academics and clinicians—has found that the earlier dads get involved, the more they’ll be involved. And there’s no time earlier than pregnancy. Let’s take a look at what that means.

For your girlfriend: If you’re not involved—for example, by not going to medical appointments with her—she’ll be less likely to go herself. Inadequate prenatal care is associated with premature birth and low birthweight. When you’re involved and supportive, you’re demonstrating your commitment to her and the baby. That reduces her stress levels along with her risk of developing pregnancy complications that could threaten her or the baby’s health or life. Your involvement also reduces the chance that she’ll smoke during the pregnancy and increases the chance that she’ll breastfeed the baby.

For the baby: Maternal smoking is associated with premature birth and low birthweight. Babies born that way are more likely to develop physical and cognitive problems that can last a lifetime. Worse yet, infant mortality rates are higher among women who don’t get adequate prenatal care. Breastfed babies have fewer allergies, better immune systems, and are less likely to develop ear infections or pneumonia. Some studies even show that breastfed babies have higher IQs.

For you: Getting involved during the pregnancy makes it more likely that you’ll stay involved after the birth. In the thousands of interviews I’ve done with dads, I’ve come across many who started off less-than-excited about becoming a dad but none who regretted it.

Do You Read Me, Baby?

reading to newborn

reading to newbornDear Mr. Dad: I have a two-month old baby and I love to read to him. My wife thinks I’m wasting my time and that there’s no sense reading before he starts learning words. Is it too soon to be reading to my son? If not, what should I read?

You’re definitely not wasting your time. In fact, reading to your child is one of the most important things you can do. Admittedly, for the first few months, your reading won’t seem to be having any effect. And it doesn’t really matter what you read: a Wall Street Journal article, the menu from that Chinese takeout place down the road, or your high school calculus textbook. It’s not about education. Besides being a wonderful opportunity for the two of you to snuggle together, the goal is simply to get him used to the sound of the language and to have him associate reading with comfort and fun.

“When children have been read to, they enter school with larger vocabularies, longer attention spans, greater understanding of books and print, and consequently have the fewest difficulties in learning to read,” writes Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook. If that doesn’t convince your wife, try this: 60 percent of prison inmates are illiterate and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have reading problems. I can’t guarantee that reading to your baby will keep him from getting arrested 13 years from now, but there’s no question that reading is an important habit to develop, and there’s no such thing as “too early” to start.
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Small Steps Make a Blended Family

potted plant-sm

potted plant-smDear Mr. Dad: I’m engaged to an amazing man with a 9-year old son who’s with him every other weekend. When I first started going out with his father, the boy and I got along great. But the closer we get to the marriage, the worse things get between us. I’ve tried to talk with him about it, but he just screams at me that, “you’re not my mother!” and runs to his dad, whose usual response us to take his son’s side and spend more time with him. That leaves me feeling completely left out and unheard. I’m not trying to replace my fiancé’s son’s mother or interfere with his relationship with his dad. At the same time, I need more attention and understanding from my fiancé. How do I have these conversations?

A: The dynamic you’re describing is incredibly common, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant for anyone involved. Think about this from your boyfriend’s point of view: He’s trying to balance being there for you and being a good dad. Because he sees his son only every other weekend, he wants those precious days to be as conflict-free as possible, which may explain why he seems to be taking his son’s side over yours (although there really are no “sides” here). He may also be feeling guilty about not being able to be more involved, which may explain why his response to conflict is to spend more time with his son. Unfortunately, that leaves you out in the cold.
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Motherhood, Fatherhood, and the Changing Landscape of Parenthood

Heather Flett, coauthor of The Rookie Mom’s Handbook.
Motherhood, fatherhood, the changing landscape of parenthood.
Issues: How motherhood has changed over the last 10 years; the mom blogging community; resources for new moms; the importance of letting the dad do things his way; the role of social media in creating communities of moms.