Many people would like to believe the custody laws in the United States are gender neutral, meaning no preferential treatment is given to either parent based on sex. While many early custody cases within the country had seen a preference for giving mothers custody of young children – called the “tender years’ doctrine” – the laws in many states have since been rewritten to be more gender-neutral and to clearly indicate that the best interests of the child are what is truly important.
While this may seem like a progressive move on behalf of state governments, the reality is that the majority of judges dealing with child custody cases still prefer to award primary custody of children to a primary caregiver, usually the “stay-at-home” parent, which in more cases than not tends to be a child’s mother. While this is most often the case, it does beg the question as to how child custody cases are handled when the father is the stay-at-home parent.
Gender Neutral Child Custody Laws
In cases where a father has been an available, present, and competent parent, the “gender-neutral” rewriting of custody laws would suggest that the father should be awarded primary custody if joint custody is not an option. However, there is a question as to whether a lingering sense that mothers make better caregivers is causing more family court judges to award mothers primary custody. While many experts would agree to this statement, it is also important to note that this sense is not as strong as it was 20 to 30 years ago.
In addition to the notion that mothers still make better caregivers than their male counterparts, there is also a cultural pressure that women feel to fight for their maternal rights and petition the court for primary custody even if they have not been their children’s primary caregiver. In many cases where a father is awarded primary custody, it is hard for a woman to explain to her family, friends, and acquaintances why her ex-partner was awarded custody of the child or children and she was not.
While child custody outcomes for stay-at-home fathers may seem bleak, there are some things that fathers can do to help increase their chances of being awarded primary custody. First, it is important for fathers to be involved in all aspects of their child’s life including doctor’s appointments, school functions, social activities, sports, and the like as well as knowing the child’s schedule and attending as many events as possible including parent-teacher conferences and sporting games.