Kathleen, while support for active, engaged fatherhood is an important social goal, and having such a father should be a norm, let’s not go overboard on weeping for non-custodial fathers. Especially the ones who are far from their children today, and have not managed to establish regular communications and solid parental relationships, despite other family rifts.
If you are talking about illegitimacy, well, there aren’t so many good outcomes. It is very hard for me to feel a lot of pity for a man who gets a woman pregnant, then walks away from the baby — as is common. Despite the biological connections, those are not, in a meaningful way, “dads,” as we like to envision them. We can discuss what role these young men should play in the lives of their offspring. But it is far from clear that ongoing entanglement with the mother, after a casual liasion that happened to result in pregnancy, is the best course for all.
In the case of divorce, things have changed considerably over the past decade in many parts of the country. In New York State matrimonial law and practice joint custody is the iron-clad norm, regardless of the personal details — unless both parties voluntarily agree to something else. It has replaced the previous, highly subjective standard of “best interest of the child,” which had come to be too easily confused with which parent had/made more money. That had long since replaced the maternal presumption which was the standard for most of the 20th century. Mounting a custody challenge in New York at this moment will cost you a bare minimum of $250,000, (x2). That should discourage the frivolous, unless they are loaded, which is more frequently the case with fathers than mothers. It also creates problems for competent, loving mothers who have reason to believe that their husbands cannot be trusted with the children, for reasons of rage, violence, inappropriate sexual behavior, the usuals, not mention indifference and absence from the home. Absent a well-document failing, on the order of ongoing substance abuse with a failed treatment record, a conviction for violent crime, or the sort of mental illness which leads to violence in the home, judges are not likely to deprive fathers of equitable contact with their children these days. Indeed, the matrimonial bar is happy to enforce what seems to me like barbaric scheduling of alternating weeks, or worse still, the notorious 3-4-4-3 day split, causing children to shuttle haplessly back and forth between houses, and making it hard for them to solidify a real sense of home and belonging.
Undoubtedly some fathers are the victims of unfair judgements and vindictive ex-wives. (As are some mothers.) But the rates of fathers who, over time, abandon their children (and their financial obligations) in favor of a new family, or a new, distant life, remain high. If such men are understandably lonely today, in the midst of all this holiday sentiment, well, perhaps, as you suggest, it’s time for them to make the phone calls and forge a working relationship with both the child and the mother that might allow for a better relationship. It’s easy to feel sad on Father’s day. But what are they doing about ongoing, daily involvement that requires a lot of non-sentimental thought and effort, the other 364 days?