As a father divorced after 22 years of marriage, sudden separation from his four children brought Gerald A. Silver months of heartbreak.
"I had an office a half-mile from my former home. My son Larry was in the fifth grade. I used to pass his school when I drove from my apartment to the office. Occasionally, I would see my son going to school.
"Can you imagine...?" begins Silver, and then shakes his head. Each time his and Larry's paths crossed was "like a stab."
Six years later, he still gets disturbed when he picks up a book he used to read aloud to his family. Says present wife Myrna Silver, a divorced mother herself: "You can't tell me men don't love children as much as women."
Nevertheless, in an overwhelming majority of divorces in this country, it is the mother who gains sole custody of the children while the father is left, at best, with only visiting rights. As a result of the trauma he felt over his loss, Silver, 49, a Los Angeles City College business administration professor, has become a national leader in the fight for joint custody laws.
America's "woefully outdated" divorce laws, he says, discriminate against the male. With his wife, a 51-year-old free-lance writer, he describes the plight of the suddenly single father in a new book, Weekend Fathers (Stratford Press, 236 pages, $13.95). "Nothing short of a massive transformation in attitudes on the part of judges, attorneys and the public," they write, "is needed to bring about a significant change."
In their book, the Silvers look at the break-up of a marriage -- and a family -- from "the male point of view." Very often, they say, "the person who suffers the most pain and deprivation in the divorce process is the man. He not only experiences the trauma and heartache of losing his mate, he almost always loses his home and his children as well."
In the divorce action which his wife initiated, says Silver, "I had 48 hours to leave the house" where he had lived for 15 years. As in many cases, his former wife retained the "china, the Sears refrigerator, the piano" and other household goods "worth thousands and thousands of dollars." Replacement can be difficult for any divorced male setting up a new home, particularly if he must pay alimony and child support.
A widely held belief, say the couple, is that most fathers do not want to be burdened with children after divorce. But as president and cofounder of the Los Angeles-based Fathers' Rights of America, Inc., Gerald Silver has counseled hundreds of men seeking sole or joint custody of their children. As a result, he contends:
"The reality is that fatherhood is as natural to men as motherhood is to women. Men have the same need to share love with an offspring, to teach, guide, cuddle and hold their children as women."
The public sympathizes with the mother trying to collect childsupport payments from the father. But, counter the Silvers, "It has always amazed us how many men continue to pay child support and even alimony in the face of abuse and consistent disregard for their rights and feelings."
For example, they claim, the law vigorously pursues the delinquent father who has abandoned his family financially. But when the mother violates a father's visitation rights -- a not-infrequent occurrence -- her failure to meet her side of the obligation "goes virtually unpunished by district attorneys and the courts."
Often in a divorce proceeding, fathers will accept a judge's determination that they be granted "reasonable" visiting rights while the mother gets physical custody because "it seems fair to them." But in practice, the arrangement may break down rapidly. (Silver himself did not seek custody. "I would have had to prove my wife unfit. I didn't feel she was unfit.")
When the mother gets physical custody, say the Silvers, the father winds up seeing his children "in an unnatural environment. He usually has a small apartment where there are no other kids for them to play with." So he takes them to "the park, to the bowling alley, to the movies, to a baseball game and to Disneyland. It costs him a fortune, and the kids become restless and irritable." They call these fathers "Disneyland Dads."
As the children grow into their teens, they tend to spend more time with their peers. "Since they live at home, this is not a problem for Mother. But Dad is cut out of their lives."
Before his divorce, says Silver, "I had an excellent relationship with my children." But when the split came, one daughter felt he had "abandoned" her. As the separation lengthened, "I lost all discipline, all control. I couldn't set standards. I had no influence. They saw me every couple of weeks. They were too busy going with their friends."
While a number of joint-custody arrangements have been tried, the Silvers advocate "joint physical and legal custody" -- or "co-parenting" -- as a solution that is most beneficial to mother, father, offspring and grandparents. The basis of this plan "is that there will be a relatively equal sharing of the child's time and financial needs" between the father and the mother.
Both parents share equally in legal decisions and responsibilities. This, however, requires that they "must work together to arrive at mutually acceptable decisions concerning educational, medical, legal and religious matters."
The specifics are up to the parents. "A child may spend part of the week with one parent and part with the other. Or one semester may be spent with a parent, with the child moving to the other one at the end of the period. The child is made to feel there are two homes and two caring parents.
"And, yes, there are two teddy bears and two ragged blue blankets, one in each home."
California took a big step in the direction of such an option when the state enacted in 1980 a new jointcustody law, which the Silvers consider "one of the most far-reaching and progressive" in the country -- though still far short of what they hope will be attained eventually. Men's rights groups such as Silver's were active in pushing for the change.
The new law "puts both parents on an equal footing," say the Silvers, by giving preference to joint-custody arrangements. "It is in the best interests of minor children," states the law, "to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents."
"The problem is, "says Gerald Silver, "that judges are still granting sole custody. So we are working to redraft the law so that physical and legal custody is assumed unless it is proved a parent is unfit." (Last June, representatives from dozens of father's rights groups across the country met in Houston to form the National Congress for Men with the aim of coordinating efforts for divorce reform and joint-custody laws. Silver was elected to the executive commitee.)
A bright note: "Judges who have granted joint custody," says Silver, "are finding that fewer of these parents are coming back to the courtroom to settle disputes. There is a greater reliance on the conciliation process."
In the Washington area, fathers appear increasingly to have a better chance at winning sole custody of their children. In District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland courts, the once-customary standard of "maternal preference for children of tender years" has been dropped in recent years. And judges here tend to be granting joint custody when both parents agree.
Since 1975, when Virginia altered its custody laws, "you can see a definite pattern of change toward more equality," says lawyer Val Hall, whose Fairfax practice is primarily in domestic relations. In Northern Virginia, men "are getting close" to winning 50 percent of contested custody cases.
Hall, however, sees "co-parenting" as an option in only about 20 percent of divorces because it requires of parents "a higher degree of cooperation. And ideally, they should not live too far apart. I've seen it work very, very well, providing the parents are not trying to fight between themselves through their children." Sole custody, he says, can provide "more stability for the child," particularly if the courts enforce the other parent's visiting rights.
Lawyer John V. Hunt of Bethesda, who is writing a book on divorce and custody problems, is seeing an increasing number of joint-custody rulings in the District and Maryland suburbs where he practices -- "a lot more than ever before." But they tend to be "cosmetic" arrangements in which both parents may share legal custody, but the principal residence will be with the mother.
In American society, "For whatever reasons," says Hunt, "it is still overwhelmingly men who leave women, and leave them with the children. Most of the time when a man comes to you and wants custody, he left home a long time ago. He created a status quo." The legal significance is that "the real prejudice is the prejudice of judges and psychiatrists for the status quo. The court is generally going to be sympathetic" to the parent "who has assumed responsibility."
In his experience as an "oldtimer," says Hunt, who has addressed local fathers' rights groups, coparenting "only works for a while, and then one of them [the parents] wants custody."
He cites the example of a Washington family, where the mother left her husband and young child for another man. Eventually, she asked for joint custody, and the husband agreed "in the kid's best interest." The arrangement continued for two years, "and it really worked" -- until the mother's new husband was transferred to a distant state.
At that point, the mother sued for sole custody, and -- in a decision Hunt says was a "tough" one for the judge -- the mother won.
Nevertheless, the Silvers are convinced that "co-parenting" is the option of the future for divorcing couples. "I think it is going to come eventually," says Myrna Silver. "It has to."
In younger two-career families, the father quite often "is a fully nurturing parent from the beginning. You see a father carrying his baby in a knapsack on his back.
"That generation of men is not going to stand still for having their children taken away."